Sam Payne, hailing from right here in Utah, is a stellar teller of stories and songs. Each time I hear him I am impressed with his skill and abilities. A writer, teller, teacher, and radio personality we are happy to have him with us at the festival again this year to share his unique performances with us.
1. What is the first story you remember hearing and/or the first story you remember telling?
The first story I remember hearing was Danny Kaye’s musical version of “The Ugly Duckling” from the soundtrack to the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. I must have listened to it a thousand times. When I was six, in the middle of a bout of stage fright over serving as the ring bearer at my aunt’s wedding, my mom put her hands on my shoulders in the church cloakroom and said I’d be fine as long as I remembered to walk down the aisle like the swan at the end of the Ugly Duckling story I loved, “…with his head so noble and high.” I survived my gig as the ring bearer. That may be when I learned what good medicine stories can be.
The first story I remember telling was an original crime noir piece about a big-city gumshoe on the trail of an international criminal named Bordeaux. I wrote it when I was eight or nine. My mom brought home an old thrift-store typewriter for us bored kids to take apart one summer afternoon. Instead I began a novel. I got through two-and-a-half typewritten pages before I conked out. Some people carry good-luck charms of one kind or another. I carry those two-and-a-half typewritten pages. If you see me with my shoulder bag, ask me. They’re in there.
2. How was the seed of storytelling planted in your life?
My folks shipped my brother and me off to my grandparents’ house in the Bay Area for three weeks one summer when we were small. Every night of that visit, after my grandmother tucked us into bed, my grandfather sat in a chair and read to us from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I love my grandfather, but he’s a crotchety, disapproving, dictatorial old Greek, and there was an enormous gulf between him and us kids. The nightly reading of Huckleberry Finn drew us out in love for one another. Later, when I was in high school, he mailed me a VHS copy of Igor Stravinski’s strange and wonderful work “The Soldier’s Tale,” animated by R. O. Blechman, and it happened again. I think it was through those rare exchanges with my grandfather that I learned how stories can help people find their way to each other.
3. Where does storytelling grow from here? How do you want to see storytelling influencing society?
Fueled by the incredible experiences that people continue to have at festivals like Timpanogos, people are going home and inviting loved ones together to share stories in smaller, more intimate spaces. It’s the era of coffee house storytelling shows and living-room storytelling parties. It’s an era in which prisons and hospitals and churches and at-risk youth programs are trusting storytelling to do the heavy lifting in their incredibly important work. There’s a phrase I like to use: “Never be afraid to think small.” It comes from observing the career of my father, a folksinger who, in the early 1970’s, made record albums of his own music and sold them from door to door. While other artists were working on opportunities to play stadiums, my dad hung on for years to an artistic lifestyle that allowed him to look into the eyes of just about everyone who heard a song or bought an album. What a wonderful thing it is that the storytelling revival of the last half-century has built the kind of bonfire from which people are carrying away embers and lighting fires of their own, across which they can look into the very eyes of the people who are listening.
4. If you needed to start a dance party, what song would you lead with?
Oh my. Much to my chagrin I’m the guy who, just when people are hankering for “Dancing Queen,” suggests “Grapefruit Moon” by Tom Waits. I don’t get invited to a lot of dance parties. Maybe “Magdalena” by Brandon Flowers. I’m listening to it right now. That song just kills me.
Don’t miss out on seeing Sam at this year’s Festival. For more information about Sam’s schedule and the Festival, visit: https://timpfest.org/events/28th-annual-timpanogos-storytelling-festival.