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Novermber 1994
Vermont Times

THE ART OF RELATING

Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder are co-conspirators in music, storytelling, and life

by Amy Rubin


The artist's st
ruggle between creative work and romantic relationships is ageless. Leonardo d Vinci addressed it in his notebooks 400 years ago. He wrote, "If you are alone you belong entirely to yourself; if you are accompanied by even one companion you belong only half to yourself."

While the image of the solitary genius captures our romantic imagination, we will always be taken with artists who-- as half of a creative team with their significant other-- simultaneously court their muse and their lover. Burns and Allen. Hepburne and Tracy. Tomlin and Wagner. Although legitimate individual artists, both partners reach a level of achievement together which they could not have found alone. And we love the results.

Such is the case with Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder-- co-conspirator in music, storytelling and life. After years of individual success, these two merge the best of their respective talents to create sturring evenings of collaborative art. This week, after five years as an artistic team, they celebrate the release of their second collection of Celtic instrumental music under the duo name "Sheefra." They'll also perform their new collaborative story performance, "The White Bear," in a series of shows that starts Thursday at the Daily Bread Cafe in Richmond.

On a rare free evening last week, the mellow, fortysomething pair spoke about their work in a modest, life-cluttered house in Burlinton's Old North End. Settling into well-worn couches with a rescued greyhound, Billy, and a cat named Homer, they sing one another's praises-- and finish eachother's sentences.

"It's so much more fun doing this together than separately," says the bearded Jennings, who resembles an elfish Burl Ives. "If you're at all tired or weak--"

"Or if somebody in the third row hates you," Ponder completes the thought. "Not to mention--"

"Moving the lights!" They say together, in unison.

###

Stephen Stearnes-- of Gould and Stearns-- caught the duo's act two weeks ago. "Tim and Leanne have a very natural rapport," says the nationally acclaimed storyteller and physical comedian. "The way their stories flow is fantastic. It's like one's the bank and one's the stream. Then the other's the bank, and the other's the stream. I can see them getting to be real classics. They're top notch."

Ponder and Jennings met in 1986, through the Artists in Residence Program administered by the Vermont Council on the Arts. Just six months into the relationship, Ponder suggested that she start telling stories in Jennings' established storytelling program.

"Boy did I put on the brakes!" says Jennings. "I hated that. But when she said she'd learn the harp, I thought, 'Good. That'll take awhile.'"

But Ponder was driven. After just two years of teaching herself Celtic melodies, Ponder had command of the harp. One day, Jennings picked up his concertina and began playing along. The sound they discovered that day-- a hauntingly soothing blend of the sublime and familiar-- was to become the duo's trademark. They took the stage together as musicians, while Jennings told his folk tales.

By 1992, the pair decided to not only perform as a musical duo, but to finally share the storytelling spotlight. The decision-- which established the couple's current format-- was a natural one; Ponder had just finished touring the state as a 19th century storytelling peddlar for the Shelburne Museum.

I wanted some of her stories," Jennings says with a chuckle. "We became much more collaborative."

That collaboration is clearly a passion for these two. Luckily so, considering that one twenty-minute story can take four months to develop. While the pair finds some stories the traditional way-- from other tellers-- most of their material comes from books, which require extensive adaptation.

###

The lengthy task is worth it to Jennings, who is no stranger to long hours of patience and effort. As a child in Philadelphia in the 1950s, he was bedridden with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. To amuse him, his parents--both professional writers-- gave him books of folktales and fairy tales. He listened to old recordings by folksingers such as The Weavers and The Almanac Singers, and spoken word records featuring the likes of Basil Rathbone and Burl Ives.

His mobility improved, and by the 1967 summer of love, Jennings was doing street theater in Philadelphia and "being a hippy." A couple of communes and one marriage later, Jennings found himself in the audience of the Philadelphia Folk Festival. There he saw storytelling legends Sarah Cleveland, Norman Kennedy, and Utah Phillips. "It was a bonding experience. I wanted to do that; I wanted to make that happen for other people, the same as they had done for me."

Jennings started finding stories, which he told in his job as a bus monitor for emotionally disturbed children. "I stood in the front, shouting to the back. Some people say I still tell stories that way."

His new skills came in handy when he moved to Jeffersonville, VT, in 1974 to establish a junior high school for a group home. "Storytelling is how I got through to the kids," Jennings remembers. "I got good, 'cause these kids weren't polite."

While co-running the school for five yhears, he got his bachelor's from Goddard College, where he focussed on children's literature, storytelling, and writing. With friends, Jennings began storytelling and traditional music performances.

In 1979. he jumped at a chance to broaden his audience through a program which brought arts to community centers in Lamoille County. By the program's end in 1980, he was a seasoned peformer and self-promoter with a solid repertoire.

Since then, thanks to a full schedule of appearances-- including gigs on National Public Radio and Vermont Public Television-- and funding through the Vermont Council for the Arts, he's managed to make a living by teaching and perfoming his craft throughout New England.

###

Leanne Ponder is stately and calm. She inherited physical grace from her father, who played major league baseball, and musical ability from her mother, a self-taught pianist. Raised in Albuquerque, the young Ponder was encouraged to sing and play guitar in church.

"But my brother told me nobody would ever date me if I played guitar," she recalls, "So I quit."

Ponder's interests turned to folk tales, and she spent joyful hours listening to radio dramatizations of fairy tales. But life soon contrasted sharply with those myths. Her parents pulled her out of Utah State University for dating a black student. She escaped into a marriage to a professor that turned violent. As Ponder followed her husband's career moves, she earned a bachelor's in psychology from the University of Oregon, and a master's in English at Western Michigan University.

It was at Oregon that Ponder first received awards for her short fiction. "Poet Theodore Roethke said that the best poems come when there's a roadblock between you and what you want most," Ponder muses about her acheivements during this difficult period.

Boosted by her writing accomplishments, Ponder got a divorce in 1971. The following year she moved to an isolated house in Eden, Vermont to be with her lover. This relationship also ended, and after a brief, solitary stay in New Mexico, Ponder returned to Vermont, "hungry for people and music."

Ponder through herself into her work and community. Thorugh a job with the Poets-in-Schools Program adminisitered by the Vermont Council on the Arts, she led elementary school poetry workshops. Burlington got its first taste of Ponder's talents when she placed her own and students' poems in menu covers on restaurant tables all around town. It didn't make her famous, but it got her work into many hands.

This inventive, humble beginning was followed by her publication in Transatlantic Review, Literature East and West, Esquire, and other magazines. By the time she met Jennings in 1986, Ponder's writing reputation was established. But Jennings' performances rekindled her childhood love of music. She experimented with various instruments, until one day she spotted someone playing a harp on the street. "I sat right down on the pavement. That was it."

Looking back, Ponder knows what enabled her to survive her difficult past. "It seemed like somewhere out there, there was something. I believe I've found it."

###

As for the future, Jennings' sights are high. "Eventually, I can see an evening where it's all integrated. The music and storytelling would all be one whole."

His partner pipes in, "And a car that doesn't break down at 3 a.m. on a winter road would be nice."

 

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