By Nicola Ryan
Karen Carroll is a storyteller, writer and recitationist living in Logy Bay, NL. Originally from Carbonear, she writes stories with local flair based on her family, her personal experiences and tales shared by friends. Recently, with the generous help of some local musicians, she recorded and released an e-album of original recitations titled Molasses and Homemade Bread.
Recitations are rhyming, rhythmic, funny stories told from memory in front of a crowd. Downhome readers may remember listening to Ted Russell perform the Chronicles of Uncle Mose on the radio or learning the lines to The Smokeroom on the Kyle at school. Spinning yarns is popular here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and our distinct oral tradition is so deeply woven into our culture it can be traced back to the first European settlers who arrived here.
“Every culture has its stories,” Karen says. “But for us, for some reason, we’ve become exceptional storytellers. Its something we’ve done here for years.” She adds, “I think storytelling is in the water and the air here, really. It’s here everywhere.”
She traces her gift of the gab all the way back to her earliest days growing up in Carbonear. “I started from a very young age listening to stories. I’m number six of eight children, so there were always stories around our kitchen table and our house. My mother always had these little rhymes she would do. My maternal grandmother was a storyteller, so it just came to me organically I suppose.”
With the help of dedicated teachers, Karen honed her performance skills at school concerts and the Kiwanis music festival. “It’s been kind of a process that’s evolved for me over a long period of time,” she explains. In recent years, she’s been an active member of the Concert Crowd in Outer Cove and the St. John’s Storytelling Festival. Her recitations generate lots of positive reception. “People started giving me stories,” she laughs. “It’s like I’m a magnet for it - which is great because it gives you so much material.”
The current COVID-19 crisis also gave Karen material. “During the pandemic, I took the opportunity and wrote a rhyming fable about my three grandchildren. I [wanted to] link it back to my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1900. She was alive for the Spanish flu, First World War, Great Depression, tuberculosis, polio - and she survived all that. So she had a lot of knowledge.” Storytelling has long been an essential way of sharing this kind of traditional knowledge. “Everything my grandmother knew - how to bake bread, how to birth a baby and cure an infection, and herbs and plants, and how to make a poultice - that was all passed down verbally. That’s how things were done,” Karen says. “A lot has been lost to time. Lots of times, when people died, unless they passed [that information] on, it died with them and was gone. So any of these stories, even pieces of stories, that we can take and preserve and write down and record, they can now be passed on.” A friend with a little recording studio recorded the family fable, Karen’s husband Jim Carroll added some instrumental music, and they shared their work with family and friends that Christmas.
At the same time, the pandemic also compelled the St. John’s Storytelling Festival to go virtual - a move that expanded their audience tremendously. “We moved to the virtual format and we started doing our storytelling circles and events online for free. We had people attend from the entire world - from Australia to California to Scotland, Wales - you wouldn’t believe the audience.” Seeing folks online being enchanted by recitations and storytelling from Newfoundland and Labrador really inspired Karen. “I thought, you know what, I’ve got all these recitations, I’ve got to put them down, I’ve got to preserve them, I want them out there,” she says.
While storytelling might come naturally to Karen, creating an album still seemed daunting. “I started getting advice from people. The first thing [fellow recitationist] Dave Padden said to me was ‘don’t print CDs,’” Karen laughs. “He said, ‘I have 800 of them in my basement, they’re expensive to make and (you’ll) end up just giving them away.’” Creating a virtual album - an e-album - that could easily be shared online was the way to go. “I worked with Brad Tuck, who’s an amazing recording artist. He said we’re going to put it on these (streaming) platforms and it doesn’t matter where people are in the world, if they’re interested they can access it electronically.”
The album, titled Molasses and Homemade Bread, is comprised of 12 original recitations written and performed by Karen, accompanied by instrumental music from a variety of local musicians including Siochana, Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellas, the Dardanelles, and Sherry Ryan who all lent their talents freely. “I was so fortunate to have all those musicians from here agree to let me use their music. There’s such a wonderful community of artists here,” Karen says. Launched in October on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon Music, the album release was live streamed on YouTube. So far, the reception and support have been phenomenal. “I’ve had people say ‘I’m going to give this to so and so for Christmas,’ ‘I’m going to send this to my niece in London because she would love this and I can gift it so easily.’ It’s a really nice thing because it’s gone so many places,” says Karen.
“Dave Padden said to me, ‘Now you don’t think you’re going to make any money, do ya?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not doing it for that reason,’” says Karen. “I say, just send it out to the world. Where it’ll land, I don’t know. I hope it lands with people who enjoy the stories. I just want people to enjoy it.”
For a free preview and to stream Molasses and Homemade Bread, visit https://tinyurl.com/KarenCarrollStoryteller, or follow “KarenCarrollStoryteller” on Facebook.