Chances are, if you grew up in Santa Fe after 1980, storyteller Joe Hayes has shaped you in one way or another. Along with a consistent presence at elementary school events, Hayes has been a staple at Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian since 1982. He’ll wrap up that tenure with a grand finale of Saturday evening events beginning, July 31. We sat down with Hayes to reflect on his storied career.
SFR: How did you get started as a storyteller?
Joe Hayes: I got started telling stories to my own children. I was divorced, and the kids’ mom moved to California and took the kids...I started recording cassettes of stories and sending them to the kids. I taught at the high school in Los Alamos, and I started going across the street to the elementary school and telling stories to the kids at the elementary school. And then I’d get a telephone call from some other schools saying, “Maybe you could come to our school?”
What kind of stories were you telling?
Right away I started delving into folktales. Part of that was because of the era, the [Great Folk Scare in the ’60s]. So that led me to start investigating traditional stories. That’s when I realized—ooh, there’s a rich trove of stories here in New Mexico.
Where did you go to investigate?
Initially I would go out to little villages and ask if anybody knew somebody who told stories, and I’d pick up a little bit here and there, but it wasn’t very productive. I realized a lot of collecting had already been done, so then I started delving into the material that had been collected by anthropologists and by folklorists.
What makes New Mexican folktales different from the rest of the country’s?
When people came from Spain, there were old European stories with them that were versions of the same stories that were collected by the Grimms and by the Russian folklorists. There are certain idiosyncrasies. For the most part, people were illiterate. It really was the oral tradition that was keeping the stories alive.
How did you get wrapped up with the Wheelwright museum?
I was in the laundromat, and there was a little girl putting clothes into a washing machine. I had already begun visiting schools so I thought, “I wonder if I ever went to her elementary school?” I talked to her, and her mother was the public relations person for the Bank of Santa Fe; they were looking for something to sponsor through the bank that would reach out to all the different elements of the community. They sponsored me to begin telling stories in 1982.
At this point, in ’82, you’re a full-time storyteller?
I was already, I just devoted myself full-time to telling stories. And when I think back—what a miracle. I’ve never had to have a day job. I wasn’t making very much money, but I was surviving. I’ve been able to just devote myself to telling stories. And I started thinking, “Wow! Maybe I’ll get to do this for five years. Wouldn’t that be great?” Five years passed...And then it just extended and extended.
What’s your workshopping process like?
The first phase is...almost fantasizing about what it would be like to tell a story. A lot of it I have done walking, and I start talking to myself, imagining a group of people listening to the story. I sort of shape it up like a string of beads. I always feel like you’ve got to start telling it; you’ve got to pay attention to the listeners because they’ll show you the best way to tell the story by the way they’re responding.
So you take artistic license with a lot of these traditional stories?
I never fool myself into thinking it’s truly a traditional story. It’s a story derived from tradition, at least to my own understanding and my own experience with tradition. I’m aware of what I see as being essential to the story. I try to preserve that element. I try to avoid making the story say something that I think really would not be valid to the source of the story.
How many do you think are in your head right now?
Oh, I was just working on that. I have a list of about 60 stories.
Wow. Well, pretty much everyone from here I know considers your version of La Llorona THE definitive version. Have you reflected on the impact of that story?
I worked with things I had heard about the Llorona, when I was a kid, and other things I had learned from doing research to come up with my version of the story. Then I just told it so much that, in many people’s minds, that became sort of the official story. Everybody knew you better get home because La Llorona might get you, but they didn’t know the legendary story behind it. I think I sort of filled that void when I started telling the entire story.
With four grand finale shows coming up, do you have your setlist in mind?
I haven’t really sat down and thought that through yet. I keep telling myself every day when I wake up, I need to. Some stories are so closely associated with me, like The Day it Snowed Tortillas.
Did you ever hear about how, in the late ’90s, some kids at Santa Fe High showed up with a whole bunch of tortillas and had a Day it Snowed Tortillas day, and just threw tortillas all over?
I remember hearing about that. Some of the people who participated told me about it, I wish I could have been there.
Your time at the Wheelwright is coming to an end. Do you feel ready to move on?
I don’t feel ready to move on. Sometimes I look at myself realistically and say, ‘Well, I’m 75 years old. Maybe life is just telling me it’s time to fold up my tent.’ But I don’t know what you’ll see. I hope to start doing schools again soon.
Storytelling with Joe Hayes: 7 pm Saturday, July 31 and Sunday, Aug. 1. Free. Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo, (505) 982-4636