Columbia storytellers carry on tradition

Sunday, October 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

As technology continues to replace the need, and in some cases the desire, for face-to-face communication, the future of the oral tradition may appear to be in jeopardy.

But Columbia resident Beth Horner, a nationally recognized storyteller with more than 18 years of experience, has no doubt that the oral tradition will continue to flourish in modern society.

“The oral tradition never stops as long as people keep telling stories,” Horner says. “The stories continue to change as people change — that’s why they are such an important part of the fabric of our life. If stories weren’t so important to us, they wouldn’t still be told.”

Horner performs and records a variety of stories, from Midwest folktales and Civil War storiesall the way back to Ancient Greek myths. As a medium, storytelling is not just for kids, Horner says; it also speaks to adults on a variety of topics and themes.

One of her stories has particular significance for Columbia. “The Pipeline Blues,” which has been performed at colleges and universities nationwide since 2001, recounts one man’s fight to block a proposed plan to use a pipeline to dump raw sewage into the Missouri River. It’s a story with a happy ending: The plan was scrapped and replaced with the creation of the Columbia wetlands and an environmentally friendly sewage treatment solution.

Columbia resident Milbre Burch, a storyteller for 25 years, has performed for many different types of audiences. She has performed Judaic folklore, as well as stories about conflict resolution for prison inmates.

Burch says stories have provided answers to life’s questions, especially when trying to better understand the mysteries of God.

“In every religion, stories are told repeatedly — they are wound very tightly into our spiritual fabric and religious beliefs,” Burch said.

Burch says stories develop in response to our experiences and we make sense of those experiences by talking about them.

“If we need more security, then we have an even more heightened need for storytelling,” Burch said. “We can’t explain everything that is happening, and we cling to one another through sharing of our stories.”

Burch and Horner are both familiar with John Foley’s theory about the oral tradition and the Internet. Burch says she loves the concept of pathways and words as triggers.

However, Horner says, there is something very important to oral tradition that technology can’t provide — intimacy.

“We are dependent on storytelling because we do need the personal intimate conversation with people,” Horner said. “We aren’t getting that with the Internet and books.”

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