Bill Roberson knows he’s telling a story effectively when he can see the audience leaning forward in anticipation of his next words.
Roberson, 66, of Sonora, said some of the keys to being a great storyteller that he’s learned over the course of his career are loving the story you’re telling, believing in it, and being able to picture it clearly yourself.
“If you haven’t pictured it deeply in your imagination, the people you are telling it to won’t see it either,” he said.
In July, the National Storytelling Network will honor Roberson with its 2019 Oracle Award for Service and Leadership in the Pacific States Region. He was selected over other nominees from California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.
The recognition is considered similar to an Academy Award for the art of storytelling, of which Roberson first became enthralled with at 10 years old when he and his brother discovered Pete Seeger’s TV show “Rainbow Quest.”
The legendary folk singer’s show in the mid-1960s showcased a wide variety of traditional American music and said to have served as inspiration for other musical greats, such as Bob Dylan.
“I thought I would just love to do that,” he said.
Roberson majored in early childhood development at California State University, San Francisco, which gave him an opportunity to share his deep appreciation for children’s music.
Timeless classics such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Jingle Bells,” “Coming Around the Mountain,” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” are good for the development of a child because of the repetition and generational connections.
“I think an invisible part of it is that it connects us to our parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents, who also sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ “ he said.
Roberson worked at San Francisco childhood daycare and preschools after college and in the city’s Office of Childcare while Sen. Dianne Feinstein was serving as mayor. He also taught at the UCSF Child Development Center.
In 1986, Roberson permanently moved to Tuolumne County, a place he visited often with family as a child. He had his own child the following year, a daughter named Piper, who encouraged him to stay close to home as opposed to touring the country like many other storytellers.
“I never felt the need to be a national storyteller,” he said. “There’s a lovely audience right here.”
Over the ensuing decades, Roberson brought music and stories to countless children and their families at local schools, libraries, fairs, festivals and bookshops.
Roberson hosted the program “Tall Tales and Silly Songs” each summer from 1987 until 2017 at the amphitheater at Pinecrest Reservoir, according to a news release by B.Z. Smith, a storyteller and president of the Mother Lode Storytelling Guild.
Hosting the program at Pinecrest allowed Roberson to bring together children and their parents through songs and stories that crossed generational boundaries.
“The point of it was to get families to sing together,” he said. “Not new songs, but old songs that parents might remember from their childhoods. Those are the songs with staying power that we need to feed to our children.”
Roberson said the high point of his career was as one of the three founding members of Sierra Waldorf School in Jamestown. He worked at the school from 1989 to late last year, first as a kindergarten teacher and later as its enrollment director, until health reasons forced him to retire.
Colleen McCool, Roberson’s wife, teaches kindergarten at the school.
Dominick Restivo is slotted to accept the award on Roberson’s behalf at the National Storytelling Network’s Summer Summit on July 26 in Fremont.
Restivo is Roberson’s protege and former student. He’s also the son of Cynthia Restivo, whom Roberson has worked with for over 20 years, including two award-winning recording projects.
“Bill has pulled the old songs and stories into the future, breathing new life into them and keeping them alive in the imaginings of children,” Cynthia Restivo said in the news release.”These ‘little pieces’ that he has shared are rich and lively, always inviting children and their parents into the joys of oral language traditions.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.