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Wolf Tales

Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder spin ageless yarns for new audiences

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Once there was a wolf - a hungry wolf - who lived alone. It had always been that way. Now, when he'd been a young wolf, that had been OK, but now he was an old wolf . . .

So begins "Hungry Wolf's Lucky Day" on the aptly titled CD Wolves! Just released by the central Vermont-based duo Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder, the disc is subtitled Folk Stories Featuring Our Best Friend's Wild Cousin and presents three traditional tales with musical accompaniment.

"Hungry Wolf" is based on a story from Georgia (the country). Jennings and Ponder have given the tale a new and delightfully silly ending. "St. Ailbe's Wolf Mother" is about an abandoned boy in Ireland who was, yes, raised by a wolf, then recaptured by humans. He grew up to become a wise bishop who was eventually sainted. "Some people think this really happened," reports Jennings. "We like to think it could have happened." The final story, "The Dog and the Wolf," is from Ukraine; it depicts the believable heroism of a domestic dog and a more fanciful companionship with his "wild cousin." Jennings and Ponder learned the story to welcome a friend's Ukrainian adopted son to America. Audiences will hear at least one of these stories at the couple's upcoming shows, including at First Night St. Johnsbury this Sunday.

While the tales are foreign in origin and seem to take place in the misty past, in their telling they are universal and timeless. Jennings and Ponder, partners in life and on stage, have mastered a brilliantly overlapping delivery - "I call it 'narrative counterpoint,'" Jennings says - that enhances the stories' drama, suspense and humor. They also punctuate the performance with concertina and harp, respectively, and vocalize auxiliary sounds such as a wolf's growling stomach and the threatening snorts of an angry mama pig.

The pair is also visually arresting: Jennings, with chest-length blond hair and a beard, is elfin and animated; Ponder, also long-haired and usually long-skirted, is Earth-mother calm and graceful. His voice can boom and growl; hers is mellifluous and soothing. Together, they're captivating.

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How is it that the words "Once upon a time" can instantly focus the attention-deficient and charm the cynical? Even without visuals - that is, live performance - Wolves! is thoroughly engaging. Whether tots, teens or senior citizens, audiences are held rapt by a good yarn, especially when the teller is equally transported. As Jennings and Ponder explain this phenomenon, folk tales "are rooted in antiquity, reborn with each retelling; they appeal to that part of us which does not change as we move through our lives. We listen, time changes, and we become ageless, too."

Maybe humans are hardwired for listening to stories. Nonetheless, Jennings suggests in a recent interview that "the telling of tales" is an "endangered, important activity." These days, people of any age are more likely to be found clustered around a television - or absorbed, solo, in the Internet or electronic games - than to be passing on ancient stories filled with symbolism and primal longings. Tech phenoms such as MySpace, YouTube and instant messaging suggest that people may still have a deep-seated need to tell one another about themselves. But one would be hard pressed to find a folk tale in the new-media mix.

All the same, young students who are given the opportunity to learn folk tales can prove surprisingly adept, says Jennings. He has conducted numerous storytelling workshops and held teaching residencies over the past few decades. One memory that stands out is his nine-year stint with seventh-graders at Oxbow Union in Bradford: "Every kid learned two stories and learned to tell them in their own classes, then in other classes," he says. "Some of them would go to other schools and tell younger kids . . . so they not only had a repertoire, they had aesthetic opinions.

"It's almost a cliché," Jennings adds, "but there were kids I never thought would do well who did very well."

"I was raised in a way where I had to give these two-minute speeches a lot - church things," interjects Ponder. "I was and still am basically shy, but having that experience early on was extraordinarily good."

"That's true of poetry as well as storytelling," Jennings says, continuing her thought - the two practice "counterpoint" even in conversation. He adds as an aside: "This is largely lost sight of: that one of the advantages of getting a working artist into the schools is to give kids a close encounter with someone who has a close relationship with the art. It's different from teaching. The teacher's primary interest is the student; the poet's prime interest is the poem."

"It's the poetry, but also the poetry as it comes out of the children," says Ponder.

"I never gave grades or anything, but I tried to make sure everyone participated," Jennings says. "I really care passionately about this thing."

Tracing the roots of that passion, Jennings recalls the first time he ever heard someone tell a folk tale. "It was like there was this hole in me and this filled it up," he says. "It's . . . kind of like this trance state. If you get a taste for it, on either side, it's like you're part of something really old."

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In fact, opportunities to perform came early and often to Jennings. The Philadelphia native was a teen folksinger and acted in a political street-theater group. He ran the children's section of a bookstore, then worked in a mental hospital and with "poor problem city kids," he says. In 1974, Jennings came to Vermont to work with "problem rural kids" in Jeffersonville; here, he continued playing music and putting on original theater productions for children and adults. In 1980, Jennings earned a B.A. in writing and storytelling from Goddard College and became a touring solo storyteller for the Vermont Council on the Arts (now the Vermont Arts Council). He first met Ponder at a VAC meeting. "She saw me in my tux and that was pretty much it," Jennings quips. Now married, the two have been together for 21 years.

Born in New Mexico, Ponder is a former fiction writer and poet with a Master's degree from West Michigan University. Her literary leanings brought her to Vermont with a grant for study at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in 1971. "Then along came the Vermont Council on the Arts' Poets in the Schools," she says.

Once a published and highly regarded poet, Ponder also did readings around the state with the Writers on Tour Program in the 1980s. But she hasn't "written a word," she says, since she took up the harp - and Jennings. "I wrote my best poetry when I wasn't happy," Ponder explains. "I'm really happy now." Between storytelling and making music, "My artistic interests are taken care of," she says with a smile. She and Jennings also perform Celtic music as a duo called Sheefra.

Though they came to spoken-word performance separately, Jennings and Ponder have been doing it together since about 1986. Their calendar is packed with year-round storytelling and music shows, though summer is especially busy, with festivals, camps, weddings and resort gigs. At the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, for instance, Jennings and Ponder have been summer weekend regulars for 14 years.

Their art form may be ancient, but as contemporary performers they need to network, promote themselves, locate stories and communicate with a fan base. In short, Jennings and Ponder have a website - www.folk talk.net - and it's an interesting one. Along with the usual bios and info about recordings, the site offers loads of resources for storytellers, including tips for keeping the voice healthy, advice on how to use storytelling with "tough adolescents in a group home," and alternatives to "once upon a time" and "happily ever after."

Speaking of ever after, Jennings and Ponder, both late fiftysomething, are happy to note that the job of storytelling doesn't have a retirement date. Of course, it doesn't come with health insurance or a 401(k), either. "We have a wonderful life," Jennings says. "I wish we could make more money, but it's a trade-off.

"I've been aware of wanting to choose an occupation I could do forever since I was young," he muses. "The first storyteller I heard, not counting my grandmother, was an old lady. I remember going to Ireland and watching the elderly people being treated so gently. Maybe there's just this sense of not wanting to disappear . . ."

"One thing that's good," offers Ponder: "One of us might be feeling a little achy, and we'll go out and do a show and we just feel so much better."

Adds Jennings: "There's something about it that does move the chi."

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