Columbus resident Lyn Ford has captivated audiences with her potent mix of history, humor, drama and mythology. See video in Best Bets on home page.
Lyn Ford tells a story for children at the Columbus Metropolitan Library's South High branch. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
They say a good storyteller has a rhythm that acts as a fulcrum upon which the tales rest. If so, Lyn Ford has multiple rhythms.
First, there’s her rhythmic voice, insistent and lilting, and her unerring instinct for knowing when to be silent and when to speak. But on an early spring afternoon at the South High branch of the Columbus public library, Ford also taps on two small African drums—a djembe and a bamileke—and rattles a beaded shekere to give an undercurrent of urgency to the stories of slavery she tells to a roomful of 80 or so third-graders.
You almost can see the children enter the stories through whatever detail speaks most strongly to their imaginations. And between the ingenious escapes and the howling fear, the hunger for freedom and the constant threat of death, there are plenty of details to choose from.
Among the Underground Railroad tales Ford shares this morning is the true story of a slave named Josephus, from Marietta, who is sold as a boy to a ferryman working the Ohio River. One day, an abolitionist tries to persuade Josephus to steal the ferry and cross the river. Josephus tells him that the white ferryman, who is taking a nap on shore, thinks he is just too stupid to steal the boat.
“But Josephus says, ‘But you know what? At night, when it’s dark, I must get smarter, because I’ve been helping runaways cross this part of the river to freedom since I was a boy,’ ” says Ford.
The tales of slave resistance are a part of a collection called “Now Let Me Fly,” which Ford plans to make into a CD soon. All told, Ford tells four tales of resistance to slavery at the library. In each, she grippingly manages to meld history, drama, humor and folklore. Taken together, the tales recall a time when astonishing courage, danger and luck determined the fate of slaves and abolitionists alike.
After the show, when asked how she herself feels performing the stories, she smiles. “When I tell stories about the times of the Underground Railroad, I hear the voice of my father and feel a direct connection to unknown ancestors from the coast of West Africa. I don’t know my exact ancestry, but I feel I’m a descendant of griots—storytellers from ancient times who passed down their knowledge orally,” she says. “I don’t call these stories ‘slave tales,’ because I have learned to think of them as stories and legends of freethinking people. As I was told by a fellow storyteller named Tejumola Ologboni, someone with much more experience than I, ‘Your body may be pushed to the limit, but no one can make a slave of your mind and your soul unless you give up and let them. My ancestors were never slaves. No matter what happened, they never gave up.’ That’s the spirit I try to nurture in young minds.”
Ford, who is 58, has had ample time to plant the seeds of imagination in the young people who hear her stories. For the past 15 years, she’s been an artist in the schools, migrating between Bexley and Dublin, going from Worthington to Reynoldsburg, telling stories on a myriad of subjects. She performs trickster tales and creation myths, animal tales and end-time stories, as well as true-life narratives, weaving a spell in whatever class, theater or library she finds herself in.
A hybrid of African, Choctaw, Cherokee and Scotch-Irish, she calls herself Afrilachian. Not surprisingly, she tells many multicultural stories, particularly from Native American and African-American folklore and mythology.
She lives in Eastmoor and has been a storyteller-in-residence at Herbert Mills Elementary School for more than a decade. But Ford has attracted a national and international following that stretches from Hawaii, where she’s performed on numerous islands, to Ireland, where she’s told stories at the Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival. In any given week, when she’s not out of state—she’s performed in 26 of them so far—she could be telling tales at Mills or any of dozens of public schools in the Columbus area. And then there are occasional performances and workshops for adults geared toward teaching the art of storytelling.
“I’m blessed to be able to tell stories and have a diverse following,” Ford says. “People of all ages are drawn to stories. Stories are in our cellular composition.”
Ford also has immersed herself in the folklore and mythology behind the stories she tells, and she weaves that knowledge into performances. Yet, she tends to be humble about her contribution and her work in general.
“Lyn undersells herself, but she’s an exceptional artist,” says Jim Arter, an associate artist for the Greater Columbus Arts Council who’s known her for many years. “Her number-one strength is her passion for storytelling. She believes and realizes the significance of storytelling for all cultures and all times. I can’t think of a country or culture for which she doesn’t have a story. She’s a walking encyclopedia of storytelling and folklore. And she has a tremendous connection to the students she performs for.”
For Craig Seckel, the principal at Herbert Mills Elementary School, that connection was all important. “Through storytelling, Lyn helps our students to learn the craft of writing,” says Seckel. “She helps them develop a purpose to their writing as well as an organization. She’s such a gifted storyteller that the students are always engaged with every word she says. She has great imagination, and she allows students to use their imaginations to write stories. We’ve seen her success.”
Ford is vocal about the importance of storytelling in the curriculum and worried that most schools across the country are giving folklore and mythology short shrift as educators pay blind obeisance to endless standardized test scores. “I don’t understand why storytellers and other artists aren’t a part of the routine curriculum,” says Ford, who, like other artists, has lost work because of recent funding cuts and failed levies. “Because what children gain from the arts has an impact on all of their learning. Children lose out when they don’t have stories, music, visual art. There should be an artist in residence, if not a storyteller, at every elementary school in the country.”
The irony, of course, is that stories form the central core of human consciousness. Together with nature they define the world we inhabit. Folk tales evoke memories of ancestors. Science and history represent an infinite reel of tales. And Hollywood is nothing if not a story factory. Yet, stories also nourish the roots of community and stress our shared humanity.
“When community started it was when humans found a way to speak with one another,” says Ford. “We told stories, and stories connect to our inner spirituality. When I hear someone’s story, I empathize with them and connect cross-culturally.”
Ford is drawn to stories in many cultures. But she has a special fondness for tales that portray primal situations and impart universal wisdom. “Until I was an adult, I didn’t realize how much folk tales taught, especially the ones about Anansi the spider and rabbit. Those stories are about greed, cruelty, imagination, facing fear, the work ethic, common sense and the beginning of the world. They’re about becoming the one we’re meant to be.”
Ford grew up in Sharon, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a steelworker and a nurse. “There was so much love in our family—we never wanted for anything,” she recalls. “And, of course, there were all the stories.”
Her father was the neighborhood griot, regularly telling African-American folktales and spinning whoppers made up on the spot. Ford’s grandfather, a wily moonshiner, added more tall tales to the bubbling cauldron, stimulating Ford’s young imagination. Still, she dates her awakening to her calling to an event that happened in fifth grade: The time she scared the wits out of her sister.
“I’d been telling stories for a while by then. But one night my sister Kim was bugging me to tell her a story and I was trying to concentrate on my math homework. So I told her the Three Bears story, but with a twist. In my story, the three bears ate Goldilocks and now they roamed the street at night looking for littler girls my sister’s size—but wouldn’t eat them if they were asleep. Well, I saw the effect the story had on my sister. I didn’t realize I was a storyteller at that moment, but I could see the power of the tale.”
In junior high and high school, Ford wrote poetry and short stories. But when it came to college at Penn State, she studied something practical: business. She ended up teaching preschool in her hometown. And there, whenever she could, she wedged stories into the curriculum and saw the faces of her young listeners light up.
Ford and her family (four children) moved to Reynoldsburg in 1985 when her second husband, a supermarket co-manager, was transferred to Columbus. For the next eight years, she worked as a preschool teacher and language arts tutor. But she never stopped telling stories.
In 1989, Ford’s children, wanting to see their mother’s talents put to good use, recommended her as a storyteller to their teachers at Herbert Mills. Soon she was telling stories at other Reynoldsburg schools. A few years later, she was credentialed as a teaching artist.
“My kids are kind of responsible for my career as a performing storyteller,” says Ford. “And it was because of them that I realized that the gifts of the oral tradition weren’t being shared in every child’s household. What had been routine for me and my children was not for the kids I taught.”
Ford has tried to use her gift in socially conscious ways. She’s told stories in prisons and performed at juvenile detention centers and homeless shelters. She’s appeared at family shelters for victims of domestic abuse and adult literacy events. She’s also told stories all across the country that speak to an inner courage necessary to change.
“I try to tell stories that make the spirit soar,” she says. “Life doesn’t guarantee us happily ever after. But the stories, the myths and legends of our elders’ elders, the fables and folk tales of tricksters and heroes, help us safely journey through the darkness and imagine a better world. What we can imagine, we can create.”
Jory Farr is an author, freelance writer and Columbus Monthly columnist.