Catherine Evans Davies

The University of Alabama

Genre, the Individual Voice, and Alabama Storytelling

"Storytelling" in the form of traditional narrative is a genre of oral discourse that has received considerable scholarly attention by sociolinguists, drawing on data in the form of personal-experience narratives from different sociocultural contexts in the United States. Apart from Heath (1983) which examines stories by black and white speakers in the rural Carolinas, the other studies have considered data collected from non-Southern speakers (Labov (1972) and Polanyi (1985) from New Yorkers, Schiffrin (1981) from Philadelphians, Johnstone (1990) from Midwesterners, and Norrick (2000) from a wider sampling of white, non-Southern speakers. Most of these narratives conform to the classic oral narrative structure as identified in Labov and Waletsky (1967 ) and Labov (1972). Another sort of discourse defined by its practitioners as “storytelling” does not conform to a classic narrative structure, but can easily be imagined as a component of multi-generational conversations on Alabama front porches during long summer evenings. Falling under the general heading of “first-person reminiscences” and “family stories,” it has long created categorization problems for folklorists (Brunvand 1978, Dorson 1983). Such discourse is captured and represented in short pieces heard as “commentary” on local public radio and then collected on tapes/cds and sold under the title of “Recollections.” The data under analysis here is a group of about 40 of these “recollections” from the pre-eminent storyteller from Alabama, Kathryn Tucker Windham (1987, 1988, 1989, 1997). Whereas Windham’s repertoire also includes more traditional narratives (in the form of recordings of ghost stories and of Alabama folktales), most of her “recollections” have another form of coherence more akin to an “essay” as a written genre, organized around topics (Chevalier 1997). They may also represent a cultural reflex of a form of oral discourse in conversation which is named in Irish tradition (Lambert 1985), and culturally recognizable but unnamed within the American folk inventory. As such they would represent cultural influences from earlier immigration patterns in Alabama (McWhiney 1988, Fischer 1989, Montgomery 2001). This analysis explores how coherence is created within the “recollections,” examining both cognitive (Chafe 1980, 2001) and structural dimensions (Halliday & Hasan 1976, Tannen 1989), in an attempt to identify the prototype of a genre which in this case is highlighted by commodification. Moving from the identification of potential convention in the form of genre to the recognition of the particular, the analysis then takes up the question of the individual voice (Johnstone 1996, 1997, 2003), analyzing how Windham’s accent and dialect locate the discourse both within social and historical space and also in terms of “place” in Alabama. Finally, the paper links this genre to the socialization function of discourse (Heath 1983, Flynt 1993) through an exploration of “evaluation” (Labov 1972, Bamberg 1997). As a form of nostalgia (Frow 1997, Dika 2003, Davis 1979), the recollections fit within a Southern cultural orientation to the value of tradition (Wyatt-Brown 1982, Reed 1974) and as a commodified genre become available to a wider audience.

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