HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the Yes Man who spent his vacation saying "No! No!"? Or, how about the yarn about the guy who caused the town's water treatment plant to explode? Surely you (or at least the kids) know the folk tale about Mkuvu the tortoise? Perhaps the story about the teacher -- college professor, he was, and a tall one, too -- who thought he could stretch himself even taller -- so tall that the Army would reject him?

True, mostly true, or just simple fantasy, these tales are part of the rich collection of folk stories now being told by area storytellers.

"Storytelling is a way of understanding the past," explains Dr. Alan Jabbour, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. "Our stories reflect our contemporary interests, concerns, anxieties and preoccupations. It's basically human. Other species communicate, but only humans tell stories."

Storytelling also knows no national boundaries. Over the next two weeks, starting Wednesday, storytellers from Senegal and the U.S. Virgin Islands will tell tales from their cultures at the Festival of American Folklife on the Mall.

The stories told by Washington-area storytellers are often well-rooted in reality. Stephen Wade mines the archives of the nation's folk culture for the stories and songs he uses in his stage show. Jon Spelman recounts stories from Vietnam, and Paul van Gulick draws on his travels to spin some tall tales that are, in his words, "mostly true." Children's fairytales and fantasties remain popular, too; Sharon Butler's updated folktales often involve animals and flawed heroes and heroines.

Here are their stories: STEPHEN WADE Stories From America's Past

"America is a nation of talkers," says Stephen Wade. "Everyone has a joke, and everyone has a story. It seems to be a natural impulse."

Wade, 37, is a storyteller and banjo player, who took stories and songs from America's past to create two hit shows -- "Banjo Dancing" (1,973 performances at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room) and its successor, "On the Way Home" (now in its 50th week).

Wade's current show is a celebration of all that is American. The stories he tells range from the one about the Yes Man to tales of the wily haggling between two men over the sale of a hound dog, or a body that wouldn't stay buried.

One of Wade's favorite stories is from a New England collection of Cape Cod pilot tales. Wade tells it this way:

"By constant soundings with a lead line an expert captain gets to know the realm beneath the water very thoroughly. The story is told of a certain savvy old Nantucket skipper who could invariably tell just where the vessel was by tasting the soil his lead line retrieved. In order to perplex him his crew once put garden loam from the home island in the cup of the lead and made a pretense of sounding and then asked the skipper to name the position of the schooner.

"The old fisherman tasted the dirt on the lead, his favorite method of determining its individuality. Then he suddenly exclaimed: 'Nantucket's sunk and here we are right over Mrs. Hackett's garden!' "

Not all the stories he tells are as humorous. Some are very sobering.

"In doing the research for 'On the Way Home,' " he explains, "I was in the manuscript reading room at the Library of Congress and I was reading the actual words of a man who in the '30s as he was 97 told this story to federal writers. Arnold Gragston told this story from his own life as a slave. They had a project -- part of the New Deal -- one where the Federal Writers Project was collecting first-person experience from ex-slaves. Several thousand slave narratives were amassed, and Arnold Gragston starts his story this way: 'I didn't have no idea of ever gettin' mixed up in any sort of business like that until one special night.'

"Then Gragston told how by day he worked as a slave and by night he helped ferry escaping slaves across the Ohio River to freedom."

Gragston, says Wade, never saw the people he helped escape, for the river crossings always took place on the darkest nights.

Gragston's story, as related by Wade, concludes with these eloquent words by the ex-slave: " 'I went on to Detroit with most of my 10 children and 31 grandchildren. The bigger ones don't care so much hearing it now but the little ones never get tired of hearin' how their grandpa brought emancipation to loads of slaves he could touch and feel but never could see.'

"I do the story on a Civil War-era banjo. In the story, I tell about Arnold Gragston talking about rowing these slaves across the river to Rev. Rankin, a white abolitionist in Ripley, Ohio.

". . . Well one night during Christmas time the Rankins were awakened during the night by a black man and woman -- escaped slaves -- a man and wife.

"The man was numb from cold. He had fallen into the icy waters while crossing the Ohio in a boat. The woman, Eliza by name, left her husband in the care of the Rankins to be sent on to Canada while she recrossed the river that same night after making arrangements to return later."

Wade says the woman came back to the farm several times, returning to the Rankins' home with one of her children each time. On the final trip, Eliza and her last five children were delayed and caught by daylight, pursued by bloodhounds and 31 men on horseback.

"Rev. Rankin disguised himself as a woman, and with several young men drew the men and dogs away from Eliza, so they could escape across the river," Wade says.

Eliza and her escape apparently inspired another storyteller: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a friend of Rankin's. Hearing the tale, she went to Ripley and gleaned material for her classic novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

After one performance of "On the Way Home," Wade recalls, "I was walking around the audience in my theater and some fellow and his daughter motioned me over and he said, 'This has a special interest to me.'

" 'Yes?' I said.

" 'Rev. Rankin was my great-great grandfather,' the man told me.

"It meant so much to me. He's been to the house and known about this part of the family all his life. In that house were a couple of chairs, one of which he's going to be giving to us for use on the set -- the very chair the Rev. Rankin sat in while helping over 200 slaves escape to freedom while working as a stop on the underground railroad.

"I feel so fortunate to be part of this," Wade says. PAUL VAN GULICK News That's Mostly True

Two years ago, Paul van Gulick was a 33-year-old aerospace engineeer working on the design of a manned space station. Then he quit his job and began traveling the country by bicycle, collecting stories and telling a few along the way. His accounts of his journeys -- labeled the Sojourner News (All the News That's Mostly True) -- were called in to an answering service here and made available to those who cared to phone for an update.

"Why did I become a storyteller?" he asks. "The real story? I started working as a mechanical engineer {and} for six years had worked with a lot of companies, last with Grumman. I worked on the space station. I enjoyed engineering but never liked any of the jobs, so I quit. So storytelling just popped into my mind. It had been in the back of my mind, but it seemed to me to be a wonderful thing to do . . . .

"I tell tall tales, American-style rambling tall tales. Usually, they have a heart -- something the story is about. The kind I tell don't have a moral but they do have a point.

"One of my favorite stories is about a desperado from Missouri. It has a grain of truth in it. I was traveling up from Louisiana to Missouri last summer. The people in Louisiana are quite talkative and inquisitive, but as you get a bit farther up north they show their politeness by not asking questions.

"Up in Missouri you'll find people around talking and one thing that comes around in conversation sooner or later is the phrase 'I didn't say nothin'.' 'There he was standing at the bus station in just socks, garters and boxer shorts -- no pants. Course I didn't say nothin'.' "

At a campground in Missouri, van Gulick met John Mahoney, a man who moved from campground to campground. "He was a tall man, John Mahoney was. He had a sprout of black curly hair, gun-metal blue eyes deep-set under his brows, a chin with stubble -- looked like someone had taken iron filings and pounded them in. His neck was like a stick, with a knot for an Adam's apple. And he lived, like I say, from camp to camp. I had been doing it myself for a month. It's a hard life. So one day I asked him if he grew up anywhere in particular.

" 'Yeah, I was born in Galveston and grew up there -- lived in the same house all that time too; my parents, you see, were more inclined to stay put. Well, I always wanted to leave, specially after high school but you get kinda dug in, you know? I had me a steady girl, and a night job managering a truck stop.

" 'Well, one evening at work this man pulled his Winnebagey up to where I was standing and asked where he could dump his holding tank -- his toilet water, you know. I said it was around back, we got a ree-ceptacle for it. He drove around back, and I didn't think any more about it, just tended to business, and pumped gas and diesel, and by and by he drove off and waved. It wasn't long after that, I noticed after pumping some regular that there was this tissue paper hanging off the nozzle-like. I thought, "Oh my Lord, that Winnebagey's done got the wrong ree-ceptacle and went and polluted the regular gas.

" 'Well, fortunately, the car I was filling didn't die right there, and of course I didn't say nothin'. After it drove off, I put up a sign on the regular pump saying, 'Out of Gas.' Then I started running that pump into the sewer drain to empty it -- all one thousand gallon of it.

" 'Well, six o'clock next morning the owner, Mr. Wiley, come in and asked, "How's things?"

" 'Well, o' course, I didn't say nothin' about that Winnebagey. I just said, 'We did some good business -- regular's all pumped dry,' and then I left there, fast.

" 'I was driving home thinking about how it was maybe a good time to change jobs when I heard on the radio how the water treatment plant just blew up, "like a big ol' can of gas," the newsman said. That was 20 years ago, and I ain't been back since -- and I ain't told no one about it and don't you neither!'

"Well, of course I wouldn't say nothin'," van Gulick says.

Now working full time as a storyteller, van Gulick says he wouldn't consider going back to his old career. He explains: "Will Rogers said that the way to be happy is to 'Do what you love, and love what you do.' I'm happy." SHARON BUTLER Fairy Tales for All Ages

Sharon Butler, 38, got into storytelling when she discovered that her chosen career as an actress was not for her. Uncomfortable with "theater-type" people, she became a flute player and flute teacher, then began working as puppeteer for Blue Sky Puppet Theatre.

"In 1980 I met some storytellers from the Washington Folklore Society and started going to monthly meetings -- story-sharing meetings -- and from the first, I knew it was something I was good at and I wanted to learn to do better, and that I loved it," she says.

"I like to tell my own versions of folk tales. And the reason I tell those is principally because the folk tales have layers of meaning. As I tell them I discover more of those meanings -- and sometimes feedback from the audience tells me more about those stories.

"My favorite stories involve a very imperfect heroine or hero. The hero or heroine is strong and innocent, but not necessarily very bright."

One of Butler's favorite stories is from the Congo:

"Once there was a python who had a beautiful daughter named Buya. All the animals loved her so much they wanted to marry her but they were afraid to approach her father. Until one day when the elephant said, 'I am not afraid of the python. I have long, sharp tusks and huge feet with which I can stomp. I will go to the python's house and ask whether I can marry Buya, his beautiful daughter.'

"So the elephant went to the python's house and coughed outside the door, 'Ahem! Is anyone home?'

"Out came the snake. 'Hisss . . . Whooo arrrre youuuuu?'

"You should have seen his huge glaring eyes! The elephant was so afraid he went trumpeting away into the jungle. And when the animals came out to play in the village streets that night, there was the elephant shambling along looking very embarrassed. Then the lion said, 'You are a coward. But I am not afraid of the python. I have long sharp claws and long sharp teeth, so I will go to the python's house and ask if I can marry Buya.'

"So the lion went and coughed outside the python's door. 'Ahem. Anybody home?'

"Out came the snake. 'Hisssss. Whooooo aaarrrre youuu?'

"You should have seen his long sharp fangs and his tongue darting in and out! The lion was so afraid he went roaring away into the jungle.

"When the animals came out to talk in the village streets that night, there was the lion with his tail between his legs, looking like a frightened puppy dog.

"Well the crocodile tried, the leopard tried, the buffalo tried -- they all tried but they were all afraid of the python. Until one day when little Mkuvu the tortoise came out to the middle of the village square and said in his innocent, childlike voice: 'You know, I think today I will go to the python's house and marry Buya, his beautiful daughter.'

" 'What,' roared the lion, 'all the biggest, strongest animals have tried and failed. What makes you think a little creature like you could succeed?'

" 'Well,' said Mkuvu, 'I could try.'

So very slowly, the way he always moved, Mkuvu walked to the python's house and coughed outside the door just as the others had done.

" 'Ahem! Anybody home?'

"Out came the snake. 'Hissssss! Whooooo arrrrre youuuuuu?'

"You should have seen his huge mouth! It was bigger than Mkuvu's whole house.

" 'Hi,' said Mkuvu. 'I am Mkuvu the tortoise and I came to ask if I could marry Buya, your beautiful daughter.'

" 'What!' said the snake. 'How dare you? Why, I will crush you for that.'

"The python came out of his house and began to coil his huge body up on top of little Mkuvu's back. Mkuvu opened his front door. He pulled in his head. He pulled in his legs. He closed his front door and down he sank under the great weight of the snake. Down, down into the soft earth . . . .

" 'Aahhhh,' said the python, 'now he's dead.' He climbed off Mkuvu's back and Mkuvu opened his front door and put out his head and put out his legs. He dug his way to the top of the soft earth, walked up to the python and said, 'Ohhh, it was really sweet of you to give me a hug like that. I can see you're going to be a most affectionate father-in-law.'

" 'What!' cried the snake, who proceeded to toss Mkuvu into the air, trying to crack his shell. When that failed, the python then tried to drown him and swallow little Mkuvu. Each time, though, little Mkuvu came out unscathed, smiling, and saying how he was very pleased with his prospective father-in-law.

"At last the python gave up and that night when the animals came out to talk in the village streets, along came Mkuvu the tortoise, walking arm and arm with Buya the python's beautiful daughter."JON SPELMAN Tales About Vietnam

Jon Spelman is a 47-year-old former actor, director and teacher of acting who has been a full-time storyteller since 1980. "Storytelling is the form of theater I was looking for for 12 years but didn't find," he continued on next page from previous page explains. "I had always been interested in narratives. I tried to create plays from narratives. I wanted something really portable -- something direct and accessible but something that could deal with serious subject matters.

"I started telling Vietnam stories in 1984. The response is extraordinary. The demand has been such that it started with 20 minutes and now the 'War Stories: Nam' evening is about an hour and 40 minutes long."

Why Vietnam stories? "There are a number of unresolved issues about the war and the stories get at the individual's emotional reaction to the situation. The emotional stuff has been buried."

Most of the Vietnam stories Spelman tells are quite graphic, and aren't the type to retell here. One Vietnam story he does is about himself, his reaction to his draft physical, and how he has come to terms with the war and its aftershocks.

"When I graduated from high school in 1960, Vietnam was a word you heard in a geography class. When I left college in 1964, Vietnam was getting pretty hot. When I left graduate school in '66, Vietnam was a rumble. I had just gotten a master's degree in theater and I was under some pressure from my parents to get a real job and {from} my wife to get a safe job. So I got a real job that was safe: teaching theater at a college in Tennessee in the fall of '66. I didn't particularly like teaching, but I decided to take one more year to make sure I was safe with the draft. In the fall of '67 I got a notice from the draft board to report.

"I told them I was 25, a college teacher and had a dependent. They told me they needed bodies and to report for a physical.

"I didn't know what to do. Finally, at a party I met a guy and he asked how tall I was. I said 6-5, and he said 'Too bad, if you were 6-6 they wouldn't take you'; there was a height restriction.

"I thought this was my chance: I had to get taller. I lived across the street from a gym and I would go over and jump up and put my ankles in the rings and hang upside down as long as I could, thinking about getting tall. Then I would walk very carefully downstairs to the locker room where they had a big scale and several times I was over 6 feet, 6 inches tall.

"The day of the physical I canceled classes, slept a long time and very slowly drove downtown for the physical. It turned out it was a two-hour ride into the country on an old, beat-up bus. I was in the back, in a thinly padded seat, and every time that old bus hit a bump I was getting a millimeter closer to Vietnam. When we arrived I got in line behind this guy -- he would have been 5-3 but was so bowlegged he was only about 4-11. He was in line all day and I started to get really nervous. I thought if they were going to take this guy they might take me. Later in the afternoon I was walking along the corridor taking tests, testing my eyes by looking into a machine. I took off my glasses and looked into this machine and the guy asked, 'What do you see?'

"I said, 'I don't think your machine is on.'

"The guy got angry and asked, 'Are these your glasses?' He took them down to a doctor, who called over another guy. That guy put them into a machine, and wrote something on paper. He came back to me and gave me the paper (it said only 'Room 54A') and said, 'Go to this room.'

"There I sat down next to this guy 4-foot-11. After a while he went in and came out and gave me this significant look. I had no idea what it meant. I opened the door and this officer yelled, 'Did I tell you to come in here?'

" 'No.'

" 'Spelman,' he said. 'It says here you got 18 years of education. Would you sit down and talk to me for a few minutes. I've been talking to idiots all day.'

"After we talked a bit he signed the piece of paper and pushed it over.

" 'Sign it,' he said.

" 'What's that?'

" 'It's a release form. You agree to release the U.S. government from emotional or financial damages from being rejected from the U.S. armed forces. It's your eyes. You lose your glasses and you couldn't tell the difference between Caucasians and Asians at 20 paces.'

"I sailed outta there and went back to the bus. When the other suckers came by I was rolling on the ground." Spelman pauses, seemingly lost in the memory. "A lot of them went to Vietnam. I went back to my teaching job, told the dean I would finish out the year but would leave then to start my career in theater.

"When the Wall {the Vietnam Memorial} was finished I came down to see it. And things changed. I like ran right into that Wall. It's the public place I go most often in Washington. I go at night, daytime; sometimes I cry, sometimes I just sit and look at people leaving things.

"Sometimes I get really angry. Very often I am just very sad, very sad for all the boys and girls who died there, and sad for their families, but also sad for myself, 'cause sometimes it seems to me that Vietnam was the central masculine event of my generation and I wasn't there. And then I get angry that I feel sad about that.

"Then one day when I was walking down into that big open grave and reading all those American names, I started thinking about all those stories. People love to hear genuine war stories. And then I started telling them."

SHARON BUTLER tells her stories at 7 on July 18 in Mason District Park, 6621 Columbia Pike, Annandale. Free; call 941-1730. She also performs for private parties and groups; call 652-7835.


tells his stories at 16 libraries in Fairfax County through June 30; call 246-2741. He hosts the children's program,"Three Stories Tall," which will appear at 7:30 Saturday mornings in July and August on WRC-Channel 4. The next show is July 7. He appears at 6:30 at the Burgundy Farm Picnic Concert on July 1, 3700 Burgundy Rd., Alexandria. Admission to the bring-your-own picnic is $5 adults, $3 children 3 through 16; free for those 2 and younger; call 768-4284. Spelman will be telling excerpts from "Frankenstein" on July 8 at 8 at the Astraea Gallery, 1725 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free; call 393-3060. Spelman also performs for private groups; call 291-1605.


tells his stories at a workshop/performance for children at 1:30, 2:30 and 3 Saturday at the Chautauqua Day at Glen Echo Park, Goldsboro Road and MacArthur Boulevard in Glen Echo. The children's festival is from 11 to 5. Admission is free; call 462-0679.


tells his "On The Way Home" stories in Arena Stage's Old Vat Room at 8 Thursdays and Fridays, at 6 and 9:30 Saturdays and 7:30 Sundays. Wade is on vacation this weekend; his performances resume Thursday. Tickets are $12.75 to $14.75. The theater is at Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW; call 488-3300.


Storytellers from Senegal and the Virgin Islands will be at the festival on the Mall from Wednesday through July 1, and from July 4 to 8. Hours are 11 to 5:30 daily. A daily schedule of festival events will be printed in The Washington Post Style section; call 357-2700. ONCE UPON A TIME . . .

Storytelling is kept alive in the Washington area with the help of these groups:


A nonprofit group of 2,800 members, the society's goal is to promote folklore in all its forms. It offers a number of events each month. For the schedule, call 281-2228.


This guild of area storytellers has 33 members and holds festivals in the spring and around Halloween. Only performing storytellers can be members, but non-storytellers can be associate members. The next monthly meeting is Saturday night; call 462-0679 for more information.


This Library of Congress archive has 30,000 hours of recordings -- music, songs, interviews -- covering all aspects of American folk culture. It also has more than 250,000 pages of manuscript and thousands of photographs, films, videos and other media on folk culture and stories. The material is available to anyone over high school age. The reading room is in Room G152 in the Jefferson Building, First Street and Independence Avenue SE (Metro: Capitol South). Hours are 8:30 to 5 weekdays; closed weekends; Call 707-5510.