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SOS: Searching Out Stories/Info about Freedom
Advice, Comments and References from Storytellers,
Teachers and Librarians

Advice, Comments and References from Storytellers, Teachers and Librarians
(excerpts from Storytell posts plus original research)

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Story titles are in quotation marks.
To retell any stories, get permission from the copyright holder if the material is not in the public domain.
Storytell posts are added as they are received by Story Lovers World.

What I need is a folktale on the theme of freedom. I found "Freedom Bird" on the web, and I might use that, but I would rather have an African or African-American folktale. Tomorrow I'll be checking on The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Treasured Gifts for the Holidays) by Virginia Hamilton which came up in my web search. What I'd really like to find, though, is the story about the captive bird who receives a cryptic message from his friend and pretends to die so that his owner removes him from his cage. Does anybody have a reference for that story or for a story that epitomizes freedom?

2) You'll find that as The Indian Bird in Tales of the Dervishes by Indries Shah.

3) I heard it told recently as "The Caged Bird," a Sufi story retold by Tom McDermott.
Comment: I'm flattered to know someone else finds my version of the tale meaningful enough to tell. In fact, it was the first story I ever told publicly. I rewrote it lyrically (from the Shah text, Tales of the Dervishes), adapted it with guitar music and told it at the National Storytelling Festival Exchange Place, 1987. My version is also in the August House Collection, Best Stories from the Texas Storytelling Festival (American Storytelling), and in several other printed collections. I also have it recorded on cassette if anyone's interested.
Tom McDermott
Storyeller, Singer, Author
P.O. Box 470593
Ft. Worth, Texas 76147

4) The story "Indian Bird" is on Internet at the site below. Printed there with a few other stories, by permission of Idries Shah.

5) According to Ruth Stotter's 1993 calendar, the story you are referring to is a Sufi story. Her version (somewhat rephrased):
A man kept a bird in a beautiful cage. He was going to visit the bird's homeland and asked, "do you want me to bring you anything?" The bird replied, "If you see any of my relatives, please tell them that I live with you in a beautiful cage." While traveling, the man saw a bird like his own. "I was asked to tell you that one of your birds lives with me in a beautiful cage," he said. The bird fell on its back, legs in the air. It looked dead. "How sad," the man thought. Back home, he told his bird what had happened. Immediately, his bird fell on its back, legs in the air. "The news must have killed him." The man put the bird's body on the open window sill. At once, the bird flew off, crying, "I knew my relatives would find a way to help me free myself."

I think The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Treasured Gifts for the Holidays) would be a great story for you to use. I suggest you also look at some of the tales of Adventures of High John the Conqueror (American Storytelling). When I was teaching about slavery to my American Studies class, I used one High John story, about the slave John who had stolen a pig from his master. The master demanded to know what he was cooking, and threatened to taste it and punish him if it was pig. John told him it was possum, but that there was a folk saying that if you spit in the pot while it was cooking, possum would taste just like pig. Disgusted, the master left John to his pork stew. This story says a lot about issues of agency and selfhood, and ways slaves could assert themselves even while enslaved.

There are other High John stories that speak more directly about freedom, ones where John wins his freedom through trickery. These stories can be found in several sources, but I especially recommend the ones collected by Zora Neale Hurston. She has also written an essay about High John and what his stories meant to African Americans. Adventures of High John the Conqueror (American Storytelling) is in the Library of America anthology of Hurston's writings, which should be widely available, especially in academic libraries. It is also in a paperback, The Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston, but I suspect this collection is more obscure. She talks about the relationship between High John and Brer Rabbit, tricksters both.

An excerpt: One of Hurston's informants, Aunt Shady Anne Sutton, said, "My mama told me, and I know she wouldn't mislead me, how High John de Conquer helped us out. He had done teached the black folks so they knowed a hundred years ahead of time that freedom was coming. Long before the white folks knowed anything about it at all. . . . Freedom just "had" to come. . . . That war was just a sign and a symbol of the thing."

The essay tells of another story in which High John tells the people, "What we need is a song." . . . "It ain't here, and it ain't no place I knows of as yet. Us better go hunt around. This has got to be a particular piece of singing." She describes how John got the slaves to leave their bodies behind on the plantation while their souls went searching. They had to "reach inside yourselves and get out all those fine raiments you been toting around with you for the last longest." John brought them "a great black crow. The crow was so big that one wing rested on the morning while the other dusted the evening star." Riding on this crow, the people had many adventures, visited Hell and Heaven, found their song, and returned to the plantation. John told them, "Don't pay what he [Massa] say no mind. You know where you got something finer than this plantation and anything it's got on it, put away. Ain't that funny? Us got all that, and he don't know nothing at all about it. Don't tell him nothing. Nobody don't have to know where us gets our pleasure from." In this essay, Hurston tells more "about" the story, rather than retelling it. She slips in and out of her storytelling voice. I can't remember having seen this particular story anthologized elsewhere. This essay is short, but I think very helpful to your topic.

Another much longer scholarly book is Lawrence W. Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom.You may not have time to go into this much depth, but you wouldn't have to read the entire book. Just browsing through a couple of chapters, "The Meaning of Slave Tales," and "Freedom, Culture, and Religion," could be useful. I also recommend Roger D. Abrahams' Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, one of the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library series.

6) My Monday Quilts and Stories session went beautifully - thank all of you again for the help. I told the Freedom Bird for the first time and the 4th graders loved it. It was a great lead in to get them to think about what freedom actually means. Also told "The Caged Bird" and "The Lion's Whiskers" (Somalian version from Margaret Read MacDonald's Peace Tales. Worked in short anecdotes about Henry "Box" Brown, who shipped himself to freedom in a crate about 2'8" deep x 3' long x 2 ' wide, and about William Still, the secretary of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, who, at great risk to himself, kept records of the stories of the escaped slaves that he sheltered and helped on their way. Had his records been found, he could have been sold into slavery himself, since his mother was an escaped slave. By law, all of her children were born slaves even though their father was free. In 1872 he published those narratives - one of the first and best written records we have of the activities of the Underground Railroad. Another wonderful story that I did not have time to tell the kids is his reunion with his elder brother, Peter, who had been left behind and sent to the deep South. These powerful stories need to be heard again. In between the stories and anecdotes, I had plenty of time to share my quilts - both the ones related to the Underground Railroad Quilt Code and others. This was all to kick off a 4th grade unit that the art and music teachers are collaborating on - the kids will be giving a concert of spirituals and folks songs in mid February and in art they will be making quilts based in part on African patterns, story quilts and traditional American blocks.

"The Freedom Bird" by David Holt (1979) from Ready-To-Tell Tales (American Storytelling).
In l971 I was on a music tour of the Far East for the U.S. State Department. We spent several days in Chiang Mai, Thailand performing and meeting the people. At this time the Thai people were afraid the Vietnamese were going to overrun their country and everyone was on edge. I heard this simple yet powerful story from a young boy who was our unofficial guide around Chiang Mai. He said, "The story gives us courage." The song in this tale is a melody the children in Thailand use to taunt one another. Since that time this story has found a life of its own in the storytelling community. I am glad to see it is being told.
Once a long time ago there was a hunter walking through the woods. Far off in the forest he heard the faint sound of a bird singing a very strange song:

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

The hunter walked and walked until at last he came to a tree with a beautiful golden bird sitting in the top.

He said, "Why does such a beautiful bird like you have such an ugly song?"

The bird looked down at the hunter and sang:

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

The hunter said, "If you don't stop singing, I'm going to shoot you with my bow and arrow!"

The bird just looked down and sang again in a mocking voice:

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

The hunter put an arrow in his bow and shot.....and he missed. The golden bird sang again:

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.)

The hunter put another arrow in his bow and shot again. The arrow went right through the bird's heart. As the bird began to fall, the hunter rushed under the tree and caught it in his sack. He pulled the sack tight and started to walk home. But from down inside the bag, he heard the muffled singing of the bird:

(Storyteller keeps mouth closed and hums)

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience mimics and repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah,nah,nah,nah).

The hunter took the bird home, pulled it out of the sack, put it on the chopping block and plucked all the feathers from it. When he turned around to get a knife to cut the bird up, he heard over on the chopping block:

(Teller and audience fold their arms and shiver when they sing this line.)

"Brr, brr, brr, brr, brr, brr, brr."

(audience repeats: brr, brr, brr, brr, brr, brr, brr)

The hunter took the knife and cut the bird up into a hundred small pieces, and then scraped them into a large pot full of water and put it on the stove to boil. When the water began to boil, he heard from down inside the pot, the bird singing:

(Teller and audience make a gurgling type sound when they sing the song.)

"Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh."

(audience repeats: Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh, Gurgh)

Now the hunter was starting to get mad. He took the pot outside and put it on the ground and found himself a shovel and started to dig a deep, deep hole. When the hole was way over his head, he climbed out and poured all the parts of the bird into the hole and covered it with dirt. And as he turned to go back into the house, he heard from deep down in the ground the bird singing:

(Teller and audience sing song with hand over mouth to give muffled sound).

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

Now the hunter was furious. He grabbed his shovel and dug up every piece of the bird and put them in a little wooden box, and tied a large rock across the box with some rope. He went down to the river and threw the box as far as he could out into the water. It splashed and went straight to the bottom. He stood on the bank waiting to hear the sound of the bird. He heard nothing, so he went home. At the bottom of the river, the water loosened the rope around the box. The rock fell off and the box floated to the top of the water. It drifted along the river for three days. On the third day, the box floated by some children who were playing on the banks of the river. They saw this beautiful wooden box passing by and they wanted to know what was in it. They waded into the water and brought the box to shore.

When they opened it, out flew a hundred golden birds all singing in a full voice:

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

About a year later, the very same hunter was walking through the woods. And far off in the distance, he heard the strange sound of the bird singing. He walked and walked until at last he came to the same tree where he had first seen the strange bird. But this time when he looked up in the tree, instead of seeing one bird, he saw a hundred golden birds. He raised his hands and hollered out, "I know who you are now. You're the Freedom Bird, for you cannot be killed."

And all the birds looked down and sang to him at the same time:

"Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah."

(audience repeats: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

Telling tips: This story is easy to tell and always works. Although the tale is aimed at children, adults respond to the powerful ending. I usually start out by reminding the audience of our own cultural taunting song. Then I demonstrate how the Thai people sing their tune and get the audience to sing along. You could then mention where you got the story and then launch into it.

Throughout the story when the bird sings his song I usually sing the tune first and then motion to the audience to sing it again with me. Some of the singing has a gesture with it, such as shivering or covering your mouth. The audience will quickly catch on and follow your lead.

Classical composer Carl Orff has arranged a version of this story for the Orff insturments. He added the clap at the end of the tune which I have included in my version as it rounds out the melodic timing and brings the audience together.

David H.

8) Just for interest. Below is the Lao story that the Freedom Bird seems to have been adapted from. I first heard this from the Thai storyteller Dr Wajuppa Tossa who comes from Isaan province near the Lao border.
"Stingy Bird"
Once an old man went out to work in his ricefield preparing for harvest. He saw a flock of birds swarming in his ricefield.
"Oh, those birds are eating my rice grains again. I will catch them." He thought and quickly went home to get his net to catch the birds.
Once he was back to his ricefield, he cast his net over the flock of birds.
"Ha, ha," he laughed triumphantly.
But when he pulled up his net, all but one bird escaped. The old man was dismayed but thought, "Aha, a bird. A bird in the net is better than nothing."
He put the bird in his bamboo trap, tied the trap onto his waist, and began walking home, thinking, "A good lunch tomorrow."
As he was walking, he heard from his trap. . . .
"Khi thi Khi thi Khi thi (which means stingy, stingy, stingy)!"
The old man looked around to see where the sounds were coming from. "Khi thi, khi thi, khi thi," came the sounds again from the trap.
"What? This bird is calling me a stingy man. I will pluck his feathers and roast him for dinner tonight."
So he did when he arrived at his house. "How’s that, Bird? You will never call me stingy again."
As he was roasting the bird over the fire, he heard, "Khi thi, khi thi, khi thi," from the bird.
The old man was angry. "Even when I put it over the fire, this bird is still calling me stingy. I will eat it now."
The old man put the bird in his mouth and swollowed it whole.
"Aha, now you will never call me stingy again."
But after awhile . . . he heard from his stomach, "Khi thi, khi thi, khi thi."
The old man was furious this time. "Even after I have swollowed you in my stomach, you still called me stingy. I will thow up now."
So, he vomitted. "Now, you will stop calling me stingy."
But . . . he heard from his vomit, "Khi thi, khi thi, khi thi."
The old man was outraged. "Even after all this, this bird still called me stingy. I will beat it with this huge stick."
So he did, . . .
But the vomit splashed and one piece went to stick on his head without his knowledge.
"Now you will not call me stingy again."
But, after awhile he heard from his head, "Khi thi khi thi, khi thi."
The old man could control his temper no longer.
"Now, I will get rid of this bird once and for all with this stick."
So he waited. Once he heard the sounds, "Khi thi khi thi, khi thi," he downed the huge stick at the sounds with all his might.
But he forgot that the bird was on his head. The heavy blow sent the old man to the ground unconscious.
In his deep slumber, the old man heard, "Khi thi, khi thi, khi thi." He opened his eyes for the last time and saw the bird flying away in the air.

You can find this and other Lao tales at.
Sheila W. 11/23/08

Created 2005; last update 9/11/09

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