Upstate Liars, Part II

Growing up, I was surrounded by my father's stories, which were almost always set in our home during his childhood years (I have had the privilege of growing up in the same house that my father did on what used to be our family farm for many generations). These tales, about old men with trick knees, bear hunts gone awry, frozen worms being used as nails and branches that magically swelled up into logs when bit by snakes, made the hills, cricksides and old barns of my youth come alive and turn into places of magic and legend. In fact, it was through these tales that I learned much of my family history, for while the end of a tall tale always flies into the world of fantasy, the best storytellers (or "liars" as I call them now) always begin rooted firmly in the real world.

It was only recently, after I began to tell "my father's" stories to others, that I realized that he, and I, are the next step in an ancient tradition of storytellers and that there are Liars, like my father, telling the "God's honest truth" across York State and beyond. I slowly began to appreciate the art form, which is not creative, in that most storytellers (or "raconteurs" to folklorists) do not invent whole-cloth their tales, but instead use motifs and ideas that go back centuries and trace their roots into Europe. The art instead is to use this basic framework and build upon it, adding your life and your experience into the tale-telling. The good liar doesn't memorize anything word-for-word, but instead allows the story to flow from his or her own experience and the reaction of the crowd. According to folklorist Vaughn Ward:
"Folk tales are formulaic oral literature, told among men who share a common work and community history... The narratives are not memorized ver batim; rather, a store of motifs, fragments and anecdotes are combined, recombined, localized and embellished according to the skill of the raconteur. The art is learned by imitation and assimilation. Gifted youngsters, attracted to elders and to their yarns, spend a long time listening and taking in without joining in. They absorb, unconsciously, the structure of the tales the pacing, and the techniques of embellishment. More deliberately, they learn the formulas they will later use in their tellings. [They] add to their repertoires, not by memorizing texts, but by practicing until they can compose and recompose stories.

The best raconteurs, the ones most respected and enjoyed in their communities, usually begin their tales with factual anecdotes full of specific details. Imperceptibly, they improve on the truth, building to an explosion of crazy exaggerations: an eruption into the magical-and sometimes grotesque- illogic of ancient fairy tales. Trickster and numskull motifs become attached to stores about local characters."
That quote is from the work I Always Tell the Truth (Even if I have to Lie to Do It!): Stories from the Adirondack Liar's Club, an excellent work that I highly suggest to anyone interested in learning more about the art. Lying, as Ward's compilation suggests, is alive and well in the Adirondacks and anyone who spends nights in Boy Scout Camps and with similar organizations finds liars are to be found across the grand state of New York. I myself have a wonderful memory of what we called a "B.S. Contest" in Boy Scout camp as a young boy, each of us taking turns to try to outdo the tall tale of the teller before us. In an environment without television or X-Box 360, we naturally turned to storytelling as a form of entertainment.

Many find lying to be something of an amusing holdover, a quaint relic with no practical purpose or future beyond the entertainment of tourists and the employment of folklorists; they seem to believe that when the old men all die, so will lying with them. Is there truth to this belief? Will lying die out, swallowed up by modernity as inevitably as the condos and strip malls migrate north from NYC? I suppose that this is an open question and I can tell you, that as a proud member of the next generation of liars, it is not all old men who tell stories (though they may as a group be better at it). However, an oral art form like this one will live only as long as there are liars and audiences. Lying doesn't seem to appeal to as many young people as video games (now I sound old and crotchety) or Hollywood movies and there isn't any money to be made by big corporations when people sit around and just talk, so large-scale promotion doesn't seem immediately forthcoming. Is the art of lying worth saving? If so, how can we do it and what role does storytelling have in a modern age? In the meantime while we think about these questions, has anyone heard the story of the Sooner Hound? What, you've never heard of the Sooner Hound? Well, he'd sooner hunt than do anything else. My uncle first acquired the Sooner Hound in...

-Posted by Jesse

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