Song and story man leaves them laughing

BILL HARLEY is singing about a sandwich made of spaghetti, pickles, and doughnuts, and if it's been a while since you've seen a third-grader convulsed off his assembly chair onto the knees of his Oshkosh coveralls, you've come to the right place. Mr. Harley is a singer and children's storyteller who has just arrived at the local elementary school carrying a guitar case that reads ``kill your television.''

After holding scores of elementary schoolers in rapt attention for three hours of one-man-theater, story, riddle, and song, he will explain the statement to one inquiring toddler:

``I think that TV robs you of the ability to see pictures in your head -- to make your own pictures. That's one reason I tell stories because if we all drew pictures right now of what I've said, they would all be different.''

He raises his voice for the rest of the gathering, teachers and principal included. ``You have all done a lot of work in seeing those pictures, those stories in your head. I think that TV robs that. It steals it from you. I think we watch too much.''

Not just another doomsayer about the invidious tools of the video era, Mr. Harley has devoted his life to becoming a living, breathing alternative. He is carrying on the oral tradition of storytelling as folk art.

As such, he is a symbol and a model for something children know nothing about. But you get the feeling they are as taken with the utter otherworldliness of such an idea as was the first family to gather in awe around a portable Zenith back in the '50s.

Harley makes up his own stories, draws them from folk literature, Indian legend, books, and other storytellers. When his talent as a part-time storyteller to special-education students started leading to constant bookings five years ago, he gave up his regular job and devoted full time to the enterprise.

Since 1980, he's toured schools, libraries, museums, and parks to hone content and technique -- repetition, timing, plot, and characterization. Now, his stories of ``Freedom Birds,'' giants, and princesses who can't laugh -- fanciful, true, funny, and touching -- are told with professional aplomb. And he is getting rave reviews.

``Young faces accustomed to blankly absorbing the television's glow took on the shape of amusement, suspense, surprise, and delight,'' said the Providence Bulletin Journal. ``There's something more to Harley's success than content and technique. You might call it creative empathy. He asks questions, he makes faces, he leans close to the audience at suspenseful moments. He remembers what it's like to be a child.''

``He makes the story not only come alive,'' wrote the Blackstone Valley (Mass.) Tribune, ``he practically makes it run around on four legs right in front of you.''

With his wife as booking agent and promoter, Harley now makes his living from storytelling. ``Not a fortune,'' he says, ``but a living.'' The couple lives in Seekonk, Mass.

This day's presentation begins onstage with him singing ``We're all a family under one sky.'' He asks the children to join in the chorus when he gives the nod. Then he begins: ``Oh, we're Italian, and we're Irish, and we're English, and we're Germans, too. Oh, we're Africans, and we're Asians, and we're Russians, and Americans, too.'' When he nods, the children chime in, ``We're all a family under one sky, a family under one sky.''

For the second verse, Mr. Harley has them add appropriate animal sounds at the proper time. ``Oh, we're lions, and we're lambs, and we're cows, and we're turtles, too. Oh, we're dogs, and we're cats, some of us are kings and kangaroos.'' The response is a veritable concatenation of ``baahs,'' and ``moos'' and ``meows.'' The children are on the edges of their seats waiting to metamorphose into animals.

Harley also tells his stories in such a way that the audience is inclined to participate by sheer repetition of key phrases. He tells a story about Jack (of Beanstalk fame) who sets out to stop the North Wind and along the way acquires and loses a series of magical gifts. ``And his eyes got . . .'' leads Harley. ``AS BIG AS SAUCERS'' chimes the audience without the slightest prodding.

Harley considers his mission more than just a one-way entertainment enterprise. By engaging these youngsters in sing-alongs, fill-in-the blank, question and answer, Harley has modeled his presentations to evoke images so that the listening, as much as the telling, can be a creative act.

``Bill skillfully captures his audience and holds it tight with his dramatic tellings and warm sense of humor,'' says Melody Brown, director of Young Readers' Services at the Rhode Island Department of Library Services. ``He's a sure-fire hit with children.'' Teachers enjoy the performances from the wings, many perhaps wishing they could hold the children's attention as well.

``Thanks for the great performance. You really had us all laughing and listening for a change,'' writes Wendy Thompson, 6th grader. ``I thought a storyteller would be boring but it was the greatest.''

``Thanks for coming to our class. I'm really glad you let us write our own stories. I love to write. Maybe I'll be a storyteller someday. Come back,'' writes Alicia Mathewson, 7th grader.

Harley got his start in his native Providence, R.I., and now performs mostly in New England coffeehouses, schools, fairs, and festivals. He has toured the South -- performed as far away as the United States Virgin Islands -- and is getting letters that his original material is being picked up by others as far away as England and Montana. His career has also been nudged forward by the support of fellow New England-based storytellers and friends Jay O'Callahan and Len Cabral.

In 1984, Harley recorded 10 songs and stories, including five of his own composition for an album entitled ``Monsters in the Bathroom,'' which was nominated for Best Children's Record by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. The title song is about childhood fears resulting from noises heard in the night. A new album, entitled ``50 Ways to Fool Your Mother,'' is due out this spring.

``The work I do is a very intimate form of communication that is dying out,'' says Harley, estimating the number of full-time storytellers in the country at about 200. ``The experience of one person sharing and performing in such a way is a very powerful thing. There's a real need for that.''

He also feels strongly that the content of his stories be entertaining but not frivolous or pointless. ``A good story has something to say about the way people are,'' says Harley. One he wrote recently tells of a girl sent to her room while her parents had a party.

``I ask how many kids have ever been in this situation, and all the kids raise their hands and say, `Yeah, that happened to me.' At least recognizing that that happens to others helps them cope on another level,'' he explains.

He adds that when parents attend his performances with their children there is a mutual recognition of uniquely childlike experiences that often leads to dialogue.

``I think I'm aware of what kids go through by their sheer lack of options -- things many adults aren't tuned into,'' says Harley. ``And I think that understanding is why kids go away satisfied rather than just having been entertained.''

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