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John Campbell
- by Peter Fairbairn Issue 19 January/February '97




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John Campbell Storytelling

John Campbell and Len Graham have been listening, (on and off), to each other's songs and stories for some time, having known each other for the past thirty years or more. Audiences have also heard and enjoyed their material in sessions, prisons, hospitals, residential homes and all sorts of clubs and festivals at home, the U.K., much of Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA. They have also worked with various education departments and for the last seven years taken traditional material around schools and colleges.

My first introduction to John Campbell and his stories was on a "cold and stormy night", with the rain rattling on the windows and the audience (still in coats and jackets) huddled in the corner of a cool and draughty folk club. Now, I have heard many storytellers and have often felt left out, missing the point of their stories, even the point of why they tried to tell their stories, mostly because they told their stories to themselves. Talking at the audience and not talking to or with the audience. John Campbell talks, indeed, converses with his audience, to everyone in his audience, no-one is left out. He acts, relieves and enlivens his tales with grand gesture. Hands and arms sweep and sculpt the air forming his cast of farming folk, merchants, rogues, school ma'ms and their pupils, poets or priests. While their animals, horses, dogs or pigs and their carts, chairs, doors, beds and aeroplanes are shaped, touched, pointed to, or hinted at. His voice rises and falls and subtly changes to suit a character, while a salient point or a neat turn of phrase is underlined by an incline of the head or a look over the top of his spectacles.

John Campbell is from County Armagh, well known for its traditions and folklore and lives now in Mullaghbawn, the village sitting at the foot of the mystical mountain, Slieve Gullion. Some of John's collected material has been contributed to the Department of Folklore Archive in Dublin and the Ulster Folk Museum in Belfast and John is still a keen collector. John earned his living as a barman for over twenty years, then with a building firm in a clerical and managerial capacity until being made redundant in 1980. And as John has it, "... that was that. I haven't done any organised work since. Well I keep several sheep an' I tell stories. I tour 'round places with Len (Graham) an' since my family are raised, it doesn't take much to keep me". Regarding his gift for the stories, John said, "I'm always listenin' for stories. I get bits of stories and the names and the places, get to know where they lived, the houses they stayed. Even though they're dead an' gone, I've got them in my stories. The year I was born, my father died. That left me to be with my grandfather. For the first twelve or thirteen years of my life, my company was old people. The neighbours and my grandfather's friends. They were always talkin', everyone tellin' stories, the whole conversation was a story, ye know, they would just call it a night's crack. Someone would start reminiscin' an' goin' back. That's when you'd hear the stories. The horses that ran away, people that got married and other farmers, ye know, you'd hear all these stories. Fairs an' sales were another place to hear the stories. Now everyone is concentratin' on the auctioneer and his prices but outside, after the auction, you can still hear some and with keepin' the sheep I still go to auctions".

John also related, how after one of his hospital storytelling visits one of the residents of the hospital recounted a number of stories including this one, "... anyway, this woman was gettin' a new door on her house, but it was an old cottage an' when the door came it was a standard door. Now her cottage was just small so she got an old joiner to come an' put on the door. An' he had to shave four or five inches off the door all round, to get it to fit. An' he was workin' away an' fed up with it. Standin' knee deep in shavin's'. Just then the woman of the house looked out an' says, "OH, look who's comin' down the road now?". She says, "It's the new curate". She took off her old apron an' put on another. "An' didn't he pick a time to come". When he arrived she went out to meet him an' said, "Oh yer welcome. Come on in. Come on in".

"No", he says, solemnly. "No, I'll not come in. I just want to stand a while an' watch the carpenter at work. The saviour was a carpenter". "Aye", says the workman, wipin' his brow, "but it wasn't long before he threw it up an' started the preachin' instead"!

As we finished our conversation John left me with a bit of a true story and a few verses of his own. John had been having some problems with his bills, and his bank manager, (whom he knew quite well having seen the man at a few of the regular sessions), eventually wrote and asked him to come in to the bank and discuss his overdraft. John went to the meeting at the bank but had with him a reply and explanation in rhyme. This worked for John but whither it would work for yourself is a different matter. Here is a brief excerpt ...

Through life I walked in honeyed vales with step as light as breeze waft feather I met a banker in his den and we sat down together

My every step is fractured now weighted down with other matters the banker's hands are red ink stained writing me those threatening letters

Now from high cholesterol he is ill and storms of the mind for I've been dyslexic all my life and also colour blind.

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