A Night with Bill Smith

by: Langley Sieve
Hope Olson

This past Friday night Bill Smith, a native Adirondack storyteller and musician, joined us at Arcadia for a warm lentil soup dinner cooked by Kim Covill and Will Madison, our assistant directors. Over dinner, Bill shared a bit about his current life in the Adirondacks, a precursor to his later performance. Bill grew up in the hills of Colton, New York, with his nine older siblings. His family is full of “true” Adirondackers who have always lived off the land and fulfilled their everyday necessities by relying on the woods and waters of the region. We were introduced to many of Bill’s unmatched family members through his stories later in the night.

Cozied up on the couple couches in the community yurt, the eight of us anticipated Bill’s performance with eagerness. Starting on a serious note, Bill introduced us to the hardships of growing up in the Adirondack wilderness through a reminiscent song about his mother. The beautiful melody from his guitar complemented his lyrics. Bill coupled the act of singing and storytelling throughout the night, giving us a vivid idea of being raised in an often harsh and unforgiving environment.

As we listened to Bill, thoughts of gratitude for our growing sense of place here in the Adirondacks sat in the forefront of our minds. Bill’s stories reminded us of the many remarkable people who have opened their lives and shared their knowledge with us so far this semester. As Bill sang his song about collecting wood for his mother, our two woodworking teachers, Everett Smith and Michael Frenette, came to mind. Two Adirondack characters with drastically different personalities, they have both provided insight and wisdom on a variety of topics throughout their teachings. They have given us many pieces of advice, but a couple have stuck with us. Michael says, “You wanna know the best way to be unique? The best way to be unique is to be yourself.” He exemplifies this sense of individualism in every aspect of his life. As for Everett, he is a true proponent of doing what you love and making a life of it, as he shows us through his craft every week. He never misses the opportunity to grace us with his encouragement and love of life. Bill’s song ends and we are brought back to our current illustration of Adirondack life.

After we heard about Bill’s childhood and tried to understand such different times from those we live in, he switched the tone of the night. Filling the yurt with mixed-up words, Bill told us a familiar tale in an unconventional way. He calls this method of storytelling a “spoonerism,” a hilarious interpretation of simple stories. Bill used this clever method as a segue to his final act. He brought out a long, thin piece of cedar wood, which he sat on in his chair. Next came two small wooden puppets, a man and a frog. He sat them at the end of the board and began to play his harmonica, simultaneously banging the board with his fists. The vibrations of the wood moved the puppets’ limbs as if they were dancing to the music, almost as if they were tap dancing. Initially confused by the introduction of the puppets, we came to recognize their role in Bill’s performance as a comical form of storytelling. We laughed aloud as Bill continued to play and the puppets continued to dance.

After many thanks for a lighthearted end to the night, we said a grateful goodbye to Bill. Still gathered in the community yurt, we were once again struck with appreciation for the Adirondack Semester and its unique ability to expose us to the lives of those full-time residents of the region with whom we are sharing a temporary home. Beginning the semester unaware of what was to come, we have been consistently surprised by the joys, experiences, and encounters with so many natives and locals. They have really helped to cultivate our understanding of the variety of Adirondack experiences that we came to Arcadia to find. We owe them so many thanks for their willingness to instruct and guide us.

Our night was concluded with a freshly baked apple pie prepared by our very own Kim. With grateful hearts and full bellies, we went to bed in the community yurt, preparing to embark on our solo adventures the next morning.