Introducing Potluck Storytelling: Everyone Brings Something to the Table


As Full Circle Storytelling has evolved and taken shape over these last few months, Jess and I have spent considerable time thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve the series. We’ve kicked around concepts and formats, but the model that keeps drawing us back, the idea that’s inspired us from the beginning, is an oldie but goodie: the potluck.

For years now, Jess and I have been enthusiastic singers of shape note music, also known as Sacred Harp. There’s loads written about it, much of it fascinating, but suffice to say that it’s a two-century old American tradition of a cappella harmony singing. You get together, sit in a square, take turns leading songs out of a tune book, break for some nosh and conversation, regroup for some more singing, and then go home. That’s it. It’s social music, not performance music. The point is to gather people around a shared creative activity in which each person has an equal chance to fully participate.

That break for snacks and socializing is as integral to the experience of Sacred Harp as the singing itself. At larger singings, it’s called “dinner on the grounds,” a phrase that recalls church suppers in the Deep South. It’s always a potluck, which means that folks don’t coordinate their dishes ahead of time. I’ve been to singings where everyone has brought cookies and nothing else, and I’ve been to singings where the potluck features everything from soup to nuts, literally. At the Chattahoochee Sacred Harp Convention in Carrollton, Georgia a few years ago, I counted no fewer than six different fried okra dishes.

Dinner on the Grounds

Potluck meal at the Maidencreek Sacred Harp Singing, 2007.

While many singers take justifiable pride in their potluck offerings (if you haven’t tried my friend Ruth’s mac-and-cheese, I actually feel sorry for you), it’s not a cook-off. Each person brings what she or he has to offer. Everything is placed on the common table, where there is no hierarchy of dishes nor pride of place, where the store-bought donuts rest easily next to the homemade sweet potato pie. As with the singing itself, all are invited and there is no charge.

As you might imagine, dinner on the grounds is about much more than food. It’s an opportunity to meet new singers and greet old friends, especially those that came from a distance. People use the time to catch up on gossip, try each other’s food, share travel stories, and flirt. They sit quietly in pairs, or in groups of four and five, or in loud clusters from which you’ll hear the occasional gale of laughter. The conversation does not follow any prescribed format; it is as easy or as awkward, as delightful or as noisome, as the people who engage in it. Again, each person brings what she or he has to offer.

sacred harp potluck

Snack break at a Baltimore weekly shape note singing in 2009.

For me, the Sacred Harp potluck represents human beings at their best: making art together, breaking bread with each other, and building and maintaining social relationships. I think that’s a perfect template for a storytelling series.

When I started Full Circle Storytelling in 2011, I envisioned a space where people from all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives would feel comfortable sharing and listening to stories without the pressure to “perform” for an audience. While I love storytelling as a performance art, and while it’s tons of fun to select a handful of featured storytellers who can delight and move a group of listeners, I’m much more drawn to the potluck model, in which each person brings what she or he has to offer and there is no hierarchy nor pride of place.

Thus, Full Circle will become Potluck Storytelling. The idea is simple: someone volunteers to host a storytelling evening, and Jess and I will work with them to craft the theme and guest list. Each guest brings a dish and a three-to-five minute story to share. We all grab some food, chat for a while, and then gather to tell our stories. That’s it. It’s storytelling-on-the-grounds: social, not performance.

On September 25, I will be partnering with Kafi D’Ambrosi of Studio Kafi Photography for “Stone Soup,” an evening of potluck dining and story-sharing about the creative process for a small group of Baltimore artists. There’s been such interest in this format that I’m already in talks with folks who are eager to host the next few storytelling potlucks. If you’re interested in hosting your own “Stone Soup”-style storytelling event, by all means get in touch.

I’m excited to see where this will lead. I’m eager to find out what different people bring to the storytelling table, whether it’s a smorgasbord of exotic delights or plate after plate of cookies. And if any of this sounds appealing to you, then what I look forward to most is breaking bread with you and hearing your story.

Video: “Terror Over Amish Country”

"Terror Over Amish Country"

I’ve traveled a bunch and I’ve had my share of scary experiences. I’ve been menaced by a spitting cobra in Lilongwe, I nearly died from malaria in Rangoon, and I’ve run from the cops in Jakarta.

But the most afraid I’ve ever been in my entire life was during a seven-mile balloon ride over Pennsylvania Dutch farmland.

This story was shared at the Full Circle Storytelling show, ‘The Journey: Tales of Roaming and Rambling,’ recorded at Charmington’s in Baltimore, MD on June 23, 2012.

Marceline White: “The Virgin Mary and Me”

Marceline White at Full Circle Storytelling

On April 25, Full Circle Storytelling presented stories about “That One Thing:” that one thing that nobody knows about you; that one thing that keeps you up at night; that one thing you would die before giving up. The show took place at Baltimore’s Bohemian Coffee House.

Marceline White, whom I first met in her capacity as executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, is an exceptionally talented poet, prose writer, actor, and storyteller.

She was also raised Catholic, although by the time she went to college, she was more interested in “poetry, social justice, and punk rock” than in the religion of her upbringing. Despite this, she has maintained a deep, abiding, personal, and meaningful affinity with the Virgin Mary. Here she tells the story of that relationship with the wit, eloquence, and passion for which I have come to admire her.


Jay Hargrove: “The Person I’m Going to Spend the Rest of my Life With”

Jay Hargrove

On April 25, Full Circle Storytelling presented stories about “That One Thing:” that one thing that nobody knows about you; that one thing that keeps you up at night; that one thing you would die before giving up. The show took place at Baltimore’s Bohemian Coffee House.

I’ve heard Jay Hargrove share tales about his past on a couple of occasions. I was struck by the way his stories revealed heights of joy, depths of pain, and his wonder and amusement at life’s absurdities.

Here Jay recounts a sweet, funny, and profane story about his closest friend. N.B. this recording contains references to sex, alcohol, and illicit drug use, mostly all at once. If that sort of thing offends you, be forewarned. The rest of you are in for a treat.

Ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereupon: Jay Hargrove.


Mobtownblues: “On Nearly Becoming a Secret Agent”

Kevin Griffin Moreno (@mobtownblues)

On April 25, Full Circle Storytelling presented stories about “That One Thing:” that one thing that nobody knows about you; that one thing that keeps you up at night; that one thing you would die before giving up. The show took place at Baltimore’s Bohemian Coffee House.

In this opening story, I talked about that one decision that completely and irrevocably altered the course of my life.

See, my dad made his living doing hush-hush things for Uncle Sam. And until the age of about 20, I could imagine no other career path for myself. Following in his footsteps was such a foregone conclusion for so many years that I’m still surprised I’m not working for one of those three-letter agencies.

One day, when I was jobless, broke, and down on my luck, I got the opportunity of a lifetime. The opportunity to fulfill my destiny. Here’s what I did with it.

Angels, Visions, & Backbends: Vids from FCS Mystery/Faith Show

Shakyamuni Buddha

One of the exhilarating and frankly somewhat nervous-making aspects of hosting Full Circle Storytelling is that I’m never 100% sure what to expect from a given group of storytellers. That was particularly true of the “Evidence of Things Unseen” show, which focused on themes of faith and mystery. The very nature of those subjects opens up opportunities for tales that are poignant, transcendent, funny, strange, or uncomfortable.

As you can see in the videos below, all of those qualities were on display on March 21 at the Village Learning Place.


I led things off with a story about how a dangerous and potentially life-threatening encounter on the side of a dusty road in Malawi led to my conviction that guardian angels actually exist…and that they drive white VW bugs.


Francine Housier is a consultant, an activist, defiantly “left of Left,” and one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met. Here she talks about repeatedly seeing a familiar face in unexpected places, and how that serendipity has influenced her outlook on life.


Baltimore social commentator Dennis McIver, aka @dennisthecynic, talks about how, even as a self-professed agnostic and skeptic, his life was shaped by the faith of his childhood.


Rev. James Thomas Sharp is the pastor of a Lutheran church in the southeast Baltimore neighborhood of Highlandtown. He recounted an affecting story about how he came to realize the truth of his creed on the verge of an automobile accident in South America.


Rev. Jai Brooks, a Baltimore-based interfaith minister and wedding officiant, told a story about dreams, visions, and precognition.


Designer, web developer, and FCS co-host Jessica Keyes, aka @prairieskygal, talked about how yoga is not necessarily the serene, placid practice that it’s cracked up to be.


Rancher, computer geek, hot sauce manufacturer, set designer, former teen paramedic, all-around renaissance man. The multifaceted Garrett Bladow, who regularly bats cleanup at FCS events, spoke about how he stays grounded through all the changes life throws at him.


Do you have a story to tell? Would you like to host an evening of storytelling? Hit us up.

Full Circle Storytelling on YouTube


At every Full Circle show, we try to capture the featured storytellers on tape. The videos aren’t of the highest quality – the recording device is a flipcam, the light levels generally suck, and the mic picks up every random noise – but they give you a sense of the diversity, brilliance, and boundless heart exhibited by all the good folks who volunteer to tell their stories.

Watch the videos and meet a rancher/computer geek who delivered a baby by the side of the road when he was 14; an interfaith minister with psychic powers; an unlikely couple who hooked up at a Wu-Tang concert; and many more fascinating storytellers.

It all begins right here.


Video: Brooks Long at Full Circle #1

Full Circle Storytelling is blessed with the best one-man house band in Baltimore: soul-folk songster Brooks Long, who was just voted third in Washington Deli Magazine’s best emerging artists list. In addition to being a fantastic singer-songwriter and a dynamic performer, he’s also just a hell of a nice guy.

Here he is opening Full Circle’s inaugural show at the Bohemian Coffee House on Dec. 13, 2011.