|Jon Sundell – Storyteller, Folksinger, Square Dance Caller & Balloon Artist
For fifty years Jon Sundell has been performing as a professional storyteller, folksinger and square dance caller across the United States, as well as several countries of Europe and Latin America, entertaining people of all ages and backgrounds in Spanish as well as English.
Jon weaves together folk songs, accompanied on guitar, banjo, autoharp, mountain dulcimer, ukulele and spoons, with multicultural folk tales of all genres – from tall tales and legends to animal tales, fables and fairy tales. This sometimes includes “twisting-and-telling” – creating a balloon figures as he spins a tale around it, then uses the figure as a storytelling puppet. Children’s concerts for libraries, birthdays and other smaller audiences are often followed by Jon and his wife making personal balloon figures for children present. Sometimes, especially with preschool and primary aged children, Jon uses regular hand and rod puppets as characters in a story or as mascot companions, like Osito (Little Bear) and Senior Gomez (a Mexican immigrant), who may help sing a song, discuss their feelings or experiences, or otherwise interact with the audience members.
Jon provides many opportunities for audience participation – through singing, movement, playing rhythm instruments, and responding verbally in different ways. As well as patterned refrains in songs and tales, Jon often invites creative interaction by soliciting opinions, feelings, plot direction, and even new verses for a song. All of there techniques form part of Jon’s over-riding approach to his art: to build a sense of community both among his audience members and between them and the world that surrounds them.
Although born and raised in New York, Jon moved to East Tennessee in 1971, and he has lived close to the Southern Appalachian Mountains ever since. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he gathered many songs and tales first hand from traditional artists and organized local festivals for them to share their talents with people in the region. Jon’s book, Stay With Us: Visiting With Old Time Singers and Storytellers in the Southern Mountains can still be viewed on line at his web site, songsandtales.com. Appalachian folk songs, along with the people who have carried them on, still form the core of Jon’s repertoire.
Starting in the mid-1980’s when Jon began working as a children’s librarian, he has been expanding his storytelling across many countries and cultures. He often complements multicultural tales with songs of good will to build understanding, appreciation and empathy. Jon introduces other cultures and their history or experiences in different ways and degrees, depending on his audience, seeking to nudge his audience, where possible, toward a broader appreciation and understanding, but not alienate them with something they will find offensive or “radical.” Through his role as head of Forsyth County Public Library’s Hispanic Services and various other experiences Jon has developed a strong bilingual repertoire of folk songs and tales.
As well telling stories himself, Jon also teaches workshops of varying lengths in how to tell stories. These generally combine games & exercises in vocal and physical expression with a collaborative process of students learning and performing their own stories. His webpage on Educational benefits of storytelling contains the most comprehensive sampling of storytelling’s impact on literacy and social-emotional development that is available anywhere.
During his time working in public and school libraries, Jon kept a low profile, but continued learning and performing both inside and beyond library walls. Since retiring in 2016 from the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, he returned to full time work as a free lance “edu-tainer” and began seeking wider audiences. Since then he has added balloon twisting to talents, “twisting-and-telling” stories as part of his performances, as well as creating personal balloons for children, often assisted by his wife, Vivian. Sometimes when calling square dances for a group, he creates multi-faceted folk experience by filing dance interludes with folk songs and tales. Jon entertains at all kinds of venues, including festivals, camps, schools, churches, scouting groups, family parties and more.
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