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Voices Fall–Winter 2017:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents.

Read “‘The Golden Arm’: Collecting and Performing the Folktale” by Timothy Jennings.
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[Editor’s Note: Tim Jennings, a storyteller of folktales, is back with another story of a tale and how he presents it. In his previous article, in the Spring-Summer 2014 issue of Voices, Jennings wrote of performing “Dead Man’s Liver,” and introduced the storyteller’s concept of the “jump tale,” in which the storyteller builds suspense, then jumps and shouts loudly to elicit similarly jumps, shouts—and laughter— from the audience. In this new piece, he explores his collection and retelling of Mark Twain’s “The Golden Arm,” again sharing his storyteller’s technique.]

Introduction

Like many people, I read Mark Twain’s “The Golden Arm” when I was a child. My buddy Stevie and I had been swapping scary stories on the school bus ride home. I told him stuff out of Poe— “Tell Tale Heart” was my best— and he told me elements of Lugosi’s Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and most memorably something about “The Mad Axman,” who comes into rooms out of any corner that’s too dark to see into. (That’s one that’ll come back to you after bedtime.)

Naturally, I was on the lookout for something new. And here was this compelling, traditional oral tale, transcribed by an author I loved, with instructions for performance. Around 1850, little Sammy Clemens heard it just before bedtime; much later, as the legendarily effective public speaker Mark Twain, he performed it in front of large audiences all around the world and wrote it down in an essay “How to Tell a Story.”

His words are fun to read; you can see how they work. Best of all—and rare to this day—in addition to the words of the story, Twain gave tips on how to tell it. Most emphatically, Twain told me (he said “you,” so he was definitely talking to me) that the story would create a big effect. But, he said, that would only happen if I could manage the timing on a particular pause just before the final line. He said, “you must get the pause right; and you will find it the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever undertook.”

Yes, it was.

Instinctively, I dropped the dialect. (Twain assumed the persona of the black man who had told it to him as a boy.) After the usual early stumblings, I got control of the narrative, so the story would reliably take hold and ratchet up tension all the way to the climax. I shed a lot of sweat over the ending, and by the time I was an adult, I was able to spring what Twain calls “the snapper” without telegraphing its approach.

Twain wasn’t lying about that pause. It— or something—was aggravating. Somewhere in my twenties, I began to suspect that the promised final effect never was going to pay off the way Twain said it should.

Nobody gave out a “dear little yelp.” I never made anybody “spring right out of her shoes.” Sometimes nothing happened. Sometimes something did—maybe their stomachs sank—but it wasn’t enjoyable. I might see them shrink a little, or look stunned, or cringe. To tell the truth, they often looked abused. The slow-winding energy of the build never got released, there was no laugh (which you expect from a “snapper”), no sense of fun.

At its most effective, the story left us all feeling stupid and a little sore; it was like being on a roller coaster that goes up and up and up, then at the top somebody slaps you and you have to get out.

Maybe I just didn’t have the chops? Then I saw Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight”— lots of chops there—tackle the same story, with similar results to mine.

For a modern teller, it doesn’t help that, thanks to Twain’s essay, the story is so well known. Much of an audience’s enjoyment from this kind of tale comes from the sudden final surprise. As Twain points out, if a listener can figure out the surprise is coming, the whole set-up “fails of its purpose and makes trouble.”

It’s a problem with all jump tales. As listeners figure out what kind of story they’re hearing, they begin to brace themselves, and it’s hard to get under their guard. I gave up on “The Golden Arm” a few years into my professional career. I had taken to telling “Dead Man’s Liver,” a different jump tale I’d collected myself, with my own timing and my own balance of humor and scares. It worked. The roller coaster went up and up and up, teetered on the brink, then plunged, reliably delivering its brief payoff rush of primal fear. I watched my audience jump, recoil (in a visible wave sometimes), squeal, then after the briefest catch-your-breath silence, explode into ten to thirty seconds of laughter and loud talk. That’s what you want, it turns out—that’s the sign the thing has landed right, and you’ve given your crowd a good time.

Nobody wants my second-best jump tale, I decided. It was useful. I’d learned from it, now let it go.

Then one day during a course of elementary school workshops in Chester, Vermont, a girl in the fifth grade told a story she got from her auntie. It was “The Golden Arm” all right, but miles away from Twain’s version, clearly coming from no book. And it was great!

Best of all, the ending was different from anything I was familiar with. Actually, I realized later, I had come across that ending in the text of an English dialect tale, but had turned my nose up at it. I had to hear it performed to know it was perfect.

I tell the story that way, now using that little girl’s ending and structure, mixing in some of Twain’s set-up and flourishes, a few things I’ve learned from performing the “Liver” story, and a lot of stuff—maybe too much—that just comes up on its own. It’s one of my wife’s favorites, and it always works.

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