Which stories are worth repeating? This question has driven storyteller, narrator, and longtime Philadelphia Orchestra collaborator Charlotte Blake Alston throughout her more than 30-year career.
On this episode of the HearTOGETHER Podcast, American griot Charlotte Blake Alston joins host Tori Marchiony for a candid conversation about her transition from being a teacher to a full-time creative, the pillars of her craft, and her responsibility to honesty as a steward of both African-American and African folktales and lived histories.
DVORAK, Symphony No.9
The Philadelphia Orchestra
BERNSTEIN, Symphony No.3 (Kaddish)
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conductor
Charlotte Blake Alston Speaker
BARBER, Adagio for Strings
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conductor
Charlotte Blake Alston Speaker
[TORI MARCHIONY VOICEOVER] Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m your host, Tori Marchiony. And this is a space to hear from the artists and activists working to create a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
Our guest today is Charlotte Blake Alston, a Philly-raised, internationally renowned master storyteller, librettist, singer, narrator, and multi-instrumentalist, celebrated for her ability to breathe life into any text she approaches. Her specialty is adapting traditional and contemporary stories from African and African American traditions for audiences of all ages, often accompanied by her own thumb piano, djembe, or 21-string kora playing. Music has always had a place in Charlotte’s creative arsenal.
Her choral director mother made sure Charlotte and all four of her siblings were in music lessons by the time they reached first grade. But the young Charlotte forged a special bond with her father, who was more of a literary type. He would read the words of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, aloud to her nightly. And when she was only six, he started writing monologs for her to perform. All this laid a strong foundation for Charlotte’s eventual career as a storyteller, but as a teenager, she had her eyes on another path. Her dream was to dance with Alvin Ailey.
CHARLOTTE BLAKE ALSTON: And my mother told me no young girl in her right mind would go to the city of sin, you know, and pursue something as frivolous as dance. So I watched people like Judith Jamison not be in her right mind travel all over the world. I mean, that's what I wanted to do. I, that my body to me was the instrument. And, and, and I have to tell you, I can't sit in an Alvin Ailey concert or many dance concerts without still having the… I'm, I'll be 73 at the end of this week. I still get those pangs in my heart, you know, when I look on that stage.
[TORI MARCHIONY VOICEOVER] Instead, Charlotte got a degree in elementary education, and taught for more than 20 years. It was a stable and fulfilling career in many ways, and she gave her all to her students. Until one day, a kindergartener in her class at Friends Select cracked open a new possibility.
CHARLOTTE BLAKE ALSTON: It was a, a little girl who just liked the same story read over and over and over again. And so one day I said, “I think we know this story. So let's put the book down and let's tell it together”. So it just became really animated and all that. We acted out all the parts and I thought, “oh, okay, well this is something different.” And they leaned into the story in a very different way and had excited conversations about the story and its characters and its setting and, and the problem that the character had in a very different way. And so I started thinking about storytelling in a different way.
And then every lower school classroom had to sign up or be responsible for two assembly programs a year. This is the storyteller's answer to your question by the way. I put my name down beside a winter date and a spring date, and it turned out the spring date was the first assembly upon our return from the two-week-long spring break. So you can't put kindergarten kids on stage without extensive consecutive rehearsals. So I got up on stage and I, I called it dramatizing. I dramatized the folk tale. My kids were preparing to do as a skit, so they could visualize the, their characters and, you know, remind themselves of the story. And the audience reaction surprised me, not just the kids, but colleagues as well, who kept coming up to me and making comments. And I thought, “well, what is the big deal?”
And then, uh, I went to, uh, a performance sponsored by Patchwork, which is the oldest storytelling Guild in, uh, Philadelphia founded somewhere in the seventies. And, um, boy, it was Robin Moore. Who's a small frame guy, but, um, just with his voice, he just sits on a stool and just tells just with his voice. He just transported us out of the space. We were into the Western Plains and I understood its power. And that's when I really began to look at it in earnest. Um, and then what happened? I probably shouldn't tell on her, uh, uh, but my, the head of my lower school started telling other heads that she had a teacher that did storytelling. And I had an assistant in my classroom at the time. And she would, she would give me release time maybe once a month or something to go run to a nearby friend in school, do a quick assembly program first thing in the morning and run back. What happened was there was word of mouth that started to spread. And then I began to get invitations to do programs in communities. So this was the ‘89-’90 school year. And by midyear, there was just this restlessness and, and having had that taste of going out and sharing stories and growing as a storyteller… the best way to learn how to do this is to do it…um, I just, you know, I, it was so strong and, and I think the other part of it was I was 41 at the time and it hit me that I had probably lived over half my life. I, and what did I wanna do with the rest of it? You know, tomorrow is not guaranteed. And I thought, you know, the worst that can possibly happen is it won't work. And I think we often think of risk in this country as a negative. So I just prayed there'd be a net if I fell.
I, I gave myself two years. So I'm just gonna try this for two years and see what happens. And every time I, you know, I cut that last paycheck in August of 1990. I thought, “now what am I gonna do?” You know, I still needed to, you know, pay a, I had a mortgage and car payments and I needed to give my kid a P you know, a sandwich every now and then, but, um, and my godson had come to live with me also at that time too, no pressure. not at all. I remember his mom is my college roommate. I'm like, “you sure you wanna do this?” But, um, but as, as I don't know, hokey or corny, as it might sound, every time I needed a door to open for me financially, it did. And I did not seek it out. It came to me. Um, so after a while, I just took that as a sign.
And then I had this incredible, crazy serendipitous meeting with a woman who was a harpist on a fundraiser and, uh, a series of just wacky things happened that evening. And the very next day I was downtown when I bumped into someone and I turned around and she said, “aren't you?” And I said, “aren't you?” And she was the harpist. And we had a laugh about what had happened. And she was in her second year as education director of The Philadelphia Orchestra. And she said at that time, I think in her words, she was “working to get the Orchestra to rethink how it presented its family and children's concerts”. And she said, “I love what you did. And I'd like to talk to you”. So I met with her and, uh, the first thing I did was a story. The, the theme was the elements. I believe she wanted a story about the sky and the heavens. And I, I had, at that time you had a, you had a sticker on your library card, that was your state access sticker. So I could use my library card in any library, state of Pennsylvania. So I'm driving all over town, trying to find, you know, uh, stories that fit that. And I ended up crafting, uh, a version of, uh, an Iroquois tale. I took elements from the versions that I found and, uh, did it with the percussionist. So I crafted the story, sent it to Phyllis, Phyllis Susan was her name, uh, she then dispersed it among the percussionists. They brainstormed how they could enhance it musically. It was not part of the rehearsal. You know, family concerts, you get that one rehearsal in the morning and you do the concert. We went into the percussion room and walked through it one time and then went out on stage and did it, and people loved it. And so, um, I came back and did another story the following year. And then she asked if I could narrate. I think it was Carnival of The Animals was the first narration that I did. Uh, and then, then, and, and , that was 30 years ago, almost almost 31.
[TORI MARCHIONY VOICEOVER] This past summer, Charlotte was named an official artistic partner of The Philadelphia Orchestra. She’s a long-time host and narrator of school and family concerts and the popular interactive preschool concert series Sound All Around, now in its 27th season. Since 2003, she’s appeared on the Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr.Tribute Concerts, reciting King’s I Have A Dream Speech over Barber’s Adagio For Strings. And in 2019, Charlotte lent her voice to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”) to great acclaim. The piece, dedicated to the memory of President John F Kennedy, is named for the Jewish prayer recited by mourners to demonstrate that despite the death of their loved one, they still praise God.
TORI MARCHIONY: When it comes to narration, how do you decide what you’re going to lend your voice to? And how much will you fiddle with a text to make it work for you, or for the stage, or the audience?
CHARLOTTE BLAKE ALSTON: The most part, I try to take it as given because it is that composer or that authors work, and that offers language. Now I will change some things likeIf you say penny to a seven year old or even a grownup, um, nobody knows. So I I'll change that kind of language so that it, it makes sense to an American audience into a contemporary, uh, audience. But other than that, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna fiddle, uh, with the text, um, too much. It's more about really, uh, understanding what the composer's intent was. What is the story that they're trying to tell? What is it that they want the audience to, um, to come away with and understand where, where are we transporting our audience to?
I think of narration the same way I, I approach narration the same way I approach stories. And sometimes I use the analogy of, uh, an amusement park ride. So you get on the ride, somebody pulls the switch, you go, wherever the ride takes you. And with a story, a good story that's told, well, you draw that audience into the story. You can take them wherever you want to take them. So, which always makes me also mindful of ensuring that we bring our particularly children's audiences back to a safe place at the end, even if the character gets into trouble. So yeah, I do think about that. There's some instances where, um, I might even get a narration that I'm not particularly fond of. Um, and I don't think maybe works well, but my job, my responsibility, and this is something I, you know, was drummed in our heads at Freedom Theater, by John Allen. Your job is to bring it to life. Your job is to figure out a way to bring it to life. So, you know, thinking about what, and, and particularly if it's with music, a lot of times in music will give you cues, uh, about how something, uh, should be spoken. So, um, I, you know, I, again, I just go over it and go over it. Ioften strip it down, um, to the story down to its skeletal form. What's the basic framework of the story. What's the beginning, the middle, the end, who are the characters? What are the character relationships? What's the conflict, what's the takeaway from that? And then I can, you know, make sense of this story. And, and it gives me cues about, you know, how, what to emphasize as I'm speaking something. So, and I've had people say too, you know, I've heard that narration, you know, X number of times, it's the first time I really, really heard it and really understood it.
TORI MARCHIONY: Am I correct that dignity has been a really central theme for you, throughout your life? Because one thing that struck me in you story about when you were a kid, your dad giving you a copy of the complete works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who writes in African American dialect, you said you admired how DIGNIFIED of a representation of the language it was.
CHARLOTTE BLAKE ALSTON: No, I think that was just, just, you know, a huge part of the sensibility of in, in African American homes, that when you stepped out the front door, you didn't just represent your little self, you represented your family, you represented, you know, every Black person that ever had been born on the face of the earth, whoever would be born, he forth now and forever more cause any little thing that you did reflected on the entire, uh, race of people. So you were taught to carry yourself a certain way to speak a certain way to honor your, um, your, your family history and your lineage and your legacy. We have land and our family that's been in the family since pre emancipation. So, um, you know, honoring all of that. Um, when I first looked at the, the written words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the spellings he chose to represent the way in which people spoke, um, which was this meeting of the articulation patterns, uh, of African languages with English. It sounded like, you know, the melody and the rhythm of my great aunts and uncles from Virginia. And I never had difficulty reading Dunbar's dialect, but I was not taught to be ashamed of it. I, you know, I never, we didn't hide my relatives in a closet because they spoke a little bit of dialect. So all of that language, food, uh, you know, all of those cultural things are just, just a story of our history, but we tend to align one group over, uh, another group because of that, there is no, we don't have a singular type of tree. We don't have a singular type of landscape. We don't have a singular type of flower or, you know, only one color, all colors must be what the, the by design, the universe is diverse. That includes humankind. That is purposeful. That is by design and some group, you know, people came along and said, no, we are the default human beings and everyone else, their language, their culture, their everything is, you know, also ran or other. That is not, not the case that we are by design diverse. And we often focus on the negative or the extremes, um, which in most places in the world, that's not where people live. People don't live in the extremes. The extremes are the extremes. It's not the norm. So, um, yeah, we are by design diverse.
[TORI MARCHIONY VOICEOVER] Charlotte is a remarkably compelling speaker. No wonder every year, her performance of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, set to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, is a crowd favorite of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Tribute Concert… Here’s some of it now.
[TORI MARCHIONY VOICEOVER] Charlotte has traveled widely- Senegal, Japan, Ghana, Israel, Mali- honing her craft as a storyteller. Along the way, she’s made peace with the fact that while some narratives are timeless, stories will always change.
CHARLOTTE BLAKE ALSTON: A lot of these stories were created in a different time. Uh, they don't carry always a 21st century sensibility. Um, some, I got a call recently from a choir that I wrote a, a work for a youth choir and was asking about revisiting the text and the opening of the piece. They're actually singing the language of a historical document. So do we change the document? Do we now start to change historical documents to fit a 21st century sensibility, a document that was written in the 17th century? Do we now say, when we, when I give the Martin Luther King Dream Speech, uh, Black men, women trans, um, non-binary Black men, women, you know, the word “men” was used to connote humankind and, and, you know,
One thing I realized when we were in the Ashanti village, listening to stories is they, you know, the stories are not written in stone. They're changed and adapted all the time. The core essential elements and components of the story may remain the same. But the way they're told, um, is, is adapted for the time in which people are living. So I realized after, because I was trying to stay true to what, you know, the way I found the story. And then I realized, you know, if it's written on paper, it was spoken aloud first. So this is also someone else's translation out of its language. Often the stories are written down by a colonial, old European, you know, missionaries. So they're coming with their Western sensibilities on the stories, and they've already changed them a little bit.
Uh, I remember there's a story that I, I asked someone about on an Anansi story that I had done when I was in the village. And I said, “it says, sky God”. And he laughed. This was the way it was written in the book, the sky God. And he said, “this is no, says this word just mean, God, just like you say, dios, uh, it dei”. It's, it's just that the word for God in that language. So yame was the, the word for God in that language. So, uh, but the missionary who wrote it down put sky, God, it couldn’t be the real God it's it's. Uh, so, so anyway, so, so overall I still believe that those traditional folk tales contain and embody the collective wisdom of mankind. You know, over the course of the ages, not much has changed.
Um, I did a, when I did a keynote for national conference, I did a whole focus on the, the trick to characters that you find in just about every culture in the world. And I believe it was Aztec that had a trick to character and the word Huehuecóyotl translates to old, old. So in ancient, a civilization, we refer to as ancient a, had a trickster character that had old, old in its name, trickster have always been among us. Tricksters always will be among us. And it's important for us to acknowledge that, to know it, to recognize it. So, you know, those lessons still resonate. We don't have, you know, the, the, the Wolf is not, you know, break in your house and putting on grandma's clothes and getting in a bed, but they lurk online now. So, so anyway, so, so you do have to think about what are the stories you're going to tell, what are the stories that I think will, will work okay. And not turn my audience off storytellers have to think about that all the time, because we are in front of so many different kinds of audiences. We are in many different places of the country where not everybody shares your political sensibility or even understands your unique American experience.
I have to think about how I'm gonna frame a story in such a way that I'm not, first of all, beating people over the head that I'm not locking us into victim oppressor, your ancestors, press my, you know, my ancestors, um, and sharing a human story. How do I humanize this story? But also in the seventh decade of my life, I'm finally reach the place where I, I really don't want to continue to contort myself to, um, you know, offer my testimony in ways that are nice and gentle and make, make white people feel comfortable. You know, you know, the, the aspect of my life experience in America that makes you feel uncomfortable is the aspect that makes us dead. Um, I've gone places where somebody will say, well, you know, I don't think you should do the such and such story. You know, I don't know if that, which drives me nuts. And I say, “okay, I'm gonna do one that’s even more intense than that”. Um, which is often what I do, but I also believe these are all adults. These are all grownups. These are all intelligent thinking people, and they can hear a history that they are unfamiliar with.
I had several letters after I did. We premiered the Children's March, which was, uh, libretto that I wrote for Singing City, which retells the story of the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, uh, which really was the catalyst for the March on Washington in 1963. And it came after just a culmination of events, uh, of, of violence. You know, Birmingham got the nickname bomb Bombingham because there were so many, not just unsolved, but uninvestigated bombings of black homes and Black businesses and Black churches. Um, so I got several letters after the premier of that, uh, from white friends or people, I didn't know, in my same peer age group, um, I was in high school when that happened, uh, who had never heard of that event. Those images went all around the world. There was a, the full page of the newspaper, the Russian newspaper PRAVDA had a full front page cartoon of this huge oversized policeman is the way they did it to scale. And this teeny tiny little black child and him, I don't remember if he was holding a gun on her or he had her in a chain. So even Russia was saying, you know, “here's the big, bad United States calling us out on our human rights issues and look at you.” So these are images that went all around the world and people who lived in this country in 2013 had never heard of that event in this country.
So we have a responsibility to tell these stories. You know, many stories are just coming to light that have been suppressed, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Uh, I had a commission from, uh, University of North Carolina and crafted the story of, of the six triple eight, the 6888th, uh, w central postal directory battalion, the first WAC unit of all Black women ever allowed to set foot on European soil during World War II and what they accomplished that no one thought that they would, but also all that they had to fight when they chose to serve their country in the army. So that is just coming to light. And December, 2019, there was bipartisan legislation passed to award the women, the congressional gold medal, the ones who are, you know, the survivors or either centenarians or in their late nineties. So it comes 70, you know, 75 years later that their accomplishments are that their story is even told. So all of these stories get relegated to the dust bins in the corners of American history. You will not find them in any textbook in any American classroom, uh, so that we continue to perpetuate the notion that we have. We have not contributed anything to this country. We keep those stories under wraps.
TORI MARCHIONY: How does all of this relate to your role or title, as a griot? I know in many West African traditions, the griot is an oral historian, storyteller, musician, royal, poet, praise singer rolled into one. What does the title mean for your practice?
CHARLOTTE BLAKE ALSTON: It's funny in, in the African American storytelling community it's like that kind of gets conferred upon you, uh, because the tradition, the real traditional Jali, um, is passed down through families, you're born into a Jali family. So we can't say that we were born into the family, but we embrace that tradition that kept us connected that keeps us connected to our history in our culture. Cause it's not all, I don't do all folk tales. Uh, the primary role of the grill was, was the, the perpetuation and preservation of history. So the history was passed down orally. So a lot of what I'm telling too are historical tales that come out of my tradition and my heritage. But, um, it, it, it get, it's a sense of responsibility, um, to speak truth, to counter, uh, the constant barrage of stereotypes and misinformation, and now cancel culture. Um, I just saw a recent article where, um, I forget where Tennessee somewhere where the, uh, we don't wanna teach Martin Luther King because it might be traumatizing, to students. So we're gonna cancel Easter too, cuz price was on and across and nails. Uh, you know, we, we're gonna eliminate the, the, the term middle passage. Uh, it's always been equal here and, and we're gonna, we need to be real about our history or we will never, ever be the country that, that we envision ever. So, um, you know, we, we, we really have to be real about, um, our history about who we are, and I will be the better for it. If we do that, we'll be the better for it.
[TORI MARCHIONY VOICEOVER] Cheers to a better future. And thanks to Charlotte Blake Alston for sharing some of her time and wisdom with us today. U.S. listeners eager for more can catch Charlotte this spring as she tours her show, Stories and Songs in the Oral Tradition. Check out her website linked in the description for details.
Thanks for tuning in to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. If you enjoyed this episode, please remember to subscribe, rate, review, comment, and SHARE with your friends! I’m Tori Marchiony, and we’ll be back next month with more stories about music, social justice, and all the life in between. As we depart, I hope you’ll enjoy a bit more from Bernstein’s Symphony No.3, Kaddish, performed by Charlotte Blake Alston and The Philadelphia Orchestra…