Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder are considered to be two of New England’s finest interpreters of the traditional oral tale. Their latest program is a funny and thought-provoking exploration on the timeless (yet timely) theme of goodness vs. greed. How can such ancient stories comment so clearly upon contemporary issues? The stories are from Scandinavia, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and India, with brief interludes of traditional Celtic music played on harp and concertina.
While this is a good children's recording, you can hear in the audience's laughter and responses that the performance appeals to the widest possible age-range: adults, teens, and children 6-12. Anybody who likes folktales and good storytelling will enjoy this material.
SEVEN DAYS REVIEW
Pamela Polston, Burlington Vermont
Vermont Master Storytellers Spin Out a New Collection of Tales
After sex, storytelling is probably the oldest form of entertainment known to humankind. We seem to be hardwired to enjoy a good yarn well told. It might take a neurobiologist to explain why the brain finds this so satisfying, but we don’t need science to tell us that children are soothed by bedtime stories, that grownups are captivated by books on tape or podcasts … or that Vermonters Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder can transfix listeners of all ages. They certainly do that in person, but the magic persists on disc, as evidenced by their new recording, The King & the Thrush. More on that in a moment.
Jennings and Ponder are master storytellers and musicians — on concertina and harp, respectively — who live in East Montpelier and make a living from their considerable talents. It’s a modest living, to be sure, though why great storytellers are not paid handsomely is a mystery. The pair sometimes performs in a musical duo called Sheefra, but telling stories has been their main gig for more than two decades at festivals, schools, theaters, libraries and other venues across the country.
“Telling” is too neutral a word, however, to convey how Jennings and Ponder deliver a tale. Jennings, an impish fellow with long blond hair and a full beard, has a commanding roar and growl. Ponder, a graceful woman with a braided mane and a penchant for long skirts, offers a feminine counterpoint in an expressive and comforting alto. When Jennings’ voice leaps out to startle you, Ponder’s reassures. Along with this dramatic emotional counterpoint, Jennings and Ponder have perfected a rhythm of alternating and sometimes overlapping voices that is hypnotic and utterly captivating.
They also choose their material well: folk tales whose themes are universal. While old, these stories never go out of style. On The King & the Thrush, which was recorded before a live audience, Jennings and Ponder offer four “tales of goodness and greed” interwoven with Celtic music. The title story in particular serves their theme well, and I’m not going to give away the reason here. Suffice it to say that adults will filter the conclusion through the lens of modern global tensions — speaking of universal — while even small children can grasp the “moral of the story.”
If that sounds heavy, it’s not. Jennings and Ponder are frequently funny, and seem to regard their stories’ characters with bemused compassion — even the foolish, crass and mean ones. It’s no surprise the couple’s previous recordings have garnered awards from the American Library Association and the Parents’ Choice Foundation, or that they won a competitive Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant to make The King & the Thrush possible. Jennings and Ponder are promoting it with nine live shows around Vermont, this week through January.
Tim and Leanne perform their tales together, voices intertwining and overlapping in a kind of narrative counterpoint, a compelling alloy of technique and soul. Harp and concertina weave music into the tale-spinning. Humor, suspense, pathos and exhilaration all come into play, with elements of chataqua, lyceum, and vaudeville.
Tim and Leanne have performed in major venues across North America, including appearances at the National Storytelling Festival and International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough TN, Hudson Clearwater Revival Festival, and the Toronto Storytelling Festival, Their favorite audiences continue to be the ones that shaped them over the last thirty years of profesional performance, in the theaters, coffee houses, schools, colleges, resorts, festivals and libraries around Vermont.