A storyteller tells on herself

JACKIE Torrence says her hometown is so small that both city-limit signs fit on the same pole. If that sounds like a tall tale, it just might be. After all, the ''Story Lady'' of Granite Quarry, N.C., has been known to tell some big ones.

''I'd never kept track of how many stories I know until recently, when two friends traveled with me for a month,'' she says, with only a hint of mischief in her big, expressive eyes. ''Whenever I looked up and saw them in the audience , I knew I'd better come up with a new story. Now I know that I can work for at least 29 days, three hours per day, averaging three stories per hour, and not tell the same one twice.''

Jackie Torrence couldn't be busier - or happier - these days. As the revival of interest in storytelling continues to grow faster than Jack's beanstalk, she is one of a handful of nationally known ''tellers'' who travel year-round, stopping at one storytelling festival after another, visiting schools, and working as artists-in-residence for universities and even for cities.

''Jackie's the tops,'' says Jane Martin of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling. ''Whenever she starts telling, everyone stops to listen. Her Uncle Remus stories are real favorites because there are so many characters and she brings each one of them to life.''

For reasons she can't explain to herself today, Ms. Torrence says that for many years she had wiped out all memory of the Uncle Remus tales of her childhood.

''Then one day I was in a friend's apartment and bread was baking,'' she recalls. ''That started me thinking about my grandmother's wood stove, and how she looked kneading bread and telling me stories. All of a sudden, those old stories started coming back to me.''

Although many of her friends and relatives think that the tales Joel Chandler Harris wrote down years ago are demeaning to blacks today, Jackie Torrence is doing all she can to preserve them. A ''great chunk'' of American heritage will be lost, she says, if children stop hearing about the antics of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and especially Brer Rabbit. Perhaps because her own grandfather was a slave, she argues that the tales also have a lot to say about the courage and resourcefulness of Southern blacks.

''The bit of research I've done on those stories shows that they were used as messages,'' she explains. ''Slaves couldn't go to the windows of their huts and say, 'Listen, the underground railroad's coming by tomorrow at 12 - be down by the well.' But they could get together and tell stories about Brer Rabbit's laughing place. And everybody listening knew that it was down by the well, and that Brer Rabbit went there every day at 12.''

Still, when Jackie Torrence puts on her great striped robe and spangly gold earrings and takes a giant step into her make-believe listening circle, the lesson is often hard to hear for all the laughing. She can flash her eyes open and shut faster than a spooked owl, jiggle all over like a bashful bear, and weave a gossamer web of breath-holding suspense.

''I'm a performer, and my primary interest is making the audience happy,'' she says. ''A lot of storytellers feel that the message is important, and that's fine. But if the audience doesn't like the story, the message can go kaflooey.''

It was only 12 years ago that Ms. Torrence faced her first audience in the small-town library where she worked as a reference librarian. When she was asked to fill in for the children's librarian one day, she looked at the books that were scheduled to be read for story hour and realized that she didn't have time to prepare.

''Sometimes kids memorize books, and I figured that would be the bunch that would know the words by heart, and that I'd miss a word and they'd keep making me go back to the beginning.''

Instead, she told a story she remembered hearing as a child from another librarian, a tale about a bear who ate everybody up and then split apart laughing about his tasty, tickly meal.

''There was something about the reaction of those children - something in their eyes - that told me that was the thing I wanted to do. They gave me the name 'Story Lady' because they couldn't remember my other name.''

Since then, Jackie Torrence has been chauffeured to storytelling concerts in hay wagons and on Honda motorcycles. She's recorded seven albums of stories and appeared on cable TV. Although she once received $1,000 for telling stories to a wealthy recluse, her big tales usually draw big crowds, like the 5,000 fans who turned up at last year's Corn Island Storytelling Festival in Louisville, Ky.

Her storytelling concerts usually are equal parts Uncle Remus stories, ghost stories, and ''Jack'' tales - Appalachian folk tales that had their origins in such old English favorites as ''Jack and the Beanstalk.'' As she transports her listeners from the doorsteps of black slave huts to the mountain hollows where Jack and his lazy brothers try the patience of kinfolk and neighbors alike, Ms. Torrence stirs their imaginations as well as their memories.

''You remember all those hours you spent as a child, listening to stories,'' she says. ''I like to think of storytelling as something that fills our need for intimacy today.''

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