lost, for a little while

storyteller q&a: jack gladstone
July 12, 2011, 1:07 pm
Filed under: advice

Jack Gladstone is an Emmy-nominated Blackfoot singer/songwriter who has been working with Glacier National Park for the past 27 seasons to present programs for visitors that combine his original songs with historical and cultural information about the native peoples of the area. His latest CD, “Native Anthropology,” was released in 2010.

What types of performances do you give?

In Glacier National Park, I do two types of programs. Number one is the campfire program—which, actually, is always done without a campfire, because the smoke would damage my vocal chords! The campfire programs are acoustic performances held at different campgrounds around the park. I also give multimedia programs in the lodges, which include pictures and slides along with my singing and speaking.

How would you describe the type of music you perform?

I utilize what I’ll call a ‘contemporary folk’ direction, but there are pop, rock, and blues influences, as well. Basically, I round up whatever tools I need in order to tell the story. I’m subservient to the story, the narrative, the theme, the spirit of the song.

What are some of the topics you sing about?

Mythology. Blackfeet mythology, in particular, as well as other Native American cultures. I’ve written songs on the Navajo Code talkers, Jim Thorpe, Chief Joseph…some of these are figures and stories from other tribes, but I do my best to be respectful of their traditions. We have more in common than different.

What kind of information is presented in the multimedia program?

Primarily, information about the indigenous people of the area—there are the Kootenai, the Salish, and the Blackfoot tribes, and I speak about the Blackfeet. I provide historical information as well as cultural information.

How did you get involved with the park?

I was playing in bars, and I saw an ad in the paper. I gave them a very thin resume, but they bid on it and I was one of the people chosen to do this. Except, they made the mistake of paying everybody for a month of programs before it even started, and nobody showed up after that but me. [laughs] So, I became the main storyteller of the program by default.

What is your process for writing songs about historical events or people?

With any song, particularly a personal portrait, I try to tap into the spiritual overtones of the story. This can be done in two ways: first, by meeting with experts of the subject who can empathize with the story, and second, by speaking with people who were actually there, eyewitnesses to history. The newest CD, Native Anthropology, has a song on it called “Remembering Private Charlo,” which is about a Montana veteran who was killed at Iwo Jima. I think I sat with seven or eight Iwo Jima veterans so I could recreate that emotional landscape of what they went through so I could find myself on the trail or in the battle.

You mentioned before that your grandmother was a big influence, can you elaborate on that?

Grandma was authentic. She was the oldest girl of the family, and traditionally, the oldest girl was the carrier of stories and the oral history. In the song “Speak to me, Grandma,” I sing Your eyes were the light for us, but our bodies couldn’t carry us beyond. Human beings have a limited ability for mobility, but Grandma allowed a kind of time travel through the stories and mythologies she told.

So, all the stories that were passed down to you were told by her?


Why is storytelling important to you?

It’s my living, it’s my passion, it’s my connection to who I am. It takes stories, these narratives, to trigger the recognition of the relationship we have with the world. It’s the recognition that we are one with something larger. It’s also an opportunity to shed light on the part of the mental landscape that’s darkened by ignorance. After tonight, there’s a dozen or more people who have my recordings, and those stories will become etched into the neurological structure of their brains. That’s pretty wild.


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