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Storytelling – J. Frank says ‘Get it right.’

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"If you can’t tell a story right, don’t tell it."
– Texas Folklorist J. Frank Dobie

When I talk about this topic in public, I call it “Southern theology and the narrative arts.”  Makes no difference, really, what I call it, Lucille Hatley, Momma, will flip in her grave.

Several years ago, I was shocked down to my sneakers by a lovely prim and proper Victorian lady by the name of Martha Emmons, the first lady of the Texas Folklore Society for well over 30 years.

Miss Martha never married and quoted one of her lady relatives who also was unmarried, “A woman shouldn’t get married just to have a man around the house.”

Miss Emmons was the granddaughter of Charles Goodnight of the Goodnight Trail fame. Miz Martha was Irish and Baptist down to her toenails.  In fact, Martha was a member of TWO Baptist Churches in Waco, First Baptist in the white community and, also, a black Baptist church on the other side of town.

Anyway, at a meeting of the Texas Folklore Society back in the early1970s in the capitol of Texas Aggiedom, College Station, the planners of the event had organized a tour of the first Anglo Capitol of Texas at Washington-on-the-Brazos.

On the bus trip to the historic site, the older members got into a fairly intense storytelling session or, as friends in the Smoky Mountains call it, “Pulling the Long Bow.”

When Martha’s time came to tell a story, here is what she said, “Back in the 1920s when the Chautauqua Circuit was going strong, the Chautauqua folks organized a ‘mellerdrama’ for the good folks of Waxahachie.”

According to Martha, Waxahachie was the most religiously conservative of Texas towns. People in Waxahachie did not drink, smoke or cuss, and did not fiddle with folks who did.

Miss Martha said when the Chautauqua got to Waxahachie, they had perfected a “mellerdrama” to focus on the sins of man. In this mellerdrama, at the end, an evil man murders a pure, unblemished lady.

However, on the day of the play, the heroine came down with laryngitis and a replacement was found from the local talent, a lady of passable theatrical talents.

The play unfolded, and during a scene that had everybody tight as Uncle Pen’s violin string, the villain pulled from his coat a long knife and stabbed the heroine. Ketchup flew covering the heroine and folks on the front row.

Staring at the knife and the bloodied lady, the villain moans, “What have I done, what have I done?”

In the sublime intensity of the moment, a tall cowboy from the back yells, “You’ve killed the only whore in Waxahachie, that’s what you’ve done.”

Martha’s audience had spells.

Later, I commented to the prim and proper First Lady of the Texas Folklore Society and member of two Baptist Churches in Waco that her language surprised me.

She answered, “Donald,” she said, “Mr. Dobie told me, ‘Martha, if you can’t tell a story right, don’t tell it.’”


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