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August 22, 2014
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The Johnny Darling Frolic: a local legend lives on in Livingston Manor


The Johnny Darling Frolic, spearheaded by local historian Mia Koerner, began in 2009—the 200th anniversary of storyteller Darling’s birth. Johnny Caesar Cicero Darling’s reputation is a story in itself, rich in legend, based on fact. Famous for his “tall tales,” Darling’s love of folk stories and his passion for children and keeping the spoken word a living tradition has become a part of the landscape in these here parts, and Koerner’s commitment to keeping his spirit alive is a big part of the picture.

“I didn’t want the next generation to lose sight of what Johnny Darling stood for” Koerner told me, “and these days, with technology and the internet, if we don’t maintain his legacy of storytelling, it will surely die.” Traditionally, Appalachian folk music and stories were not written, but passed down orally from one generation to another, and the Frolic is dedicated to commemorating this form of entertainment. “Folk tales, which are known for exaggeration and hyperbole, used to make the common experience uncommon. As the stories made their way around the country, they often grew into unbelievably tall tales...and this is part of the charm.”

Darling, who lived in Shandelee, met his wife Martha at a “frolic” (read “merry or cheerful event) in Purvis, NY—now called Livingston Manor—on the grounds of what is now the Livingston Manor Central School. In tribute, this year’s frolic will take place directly across the street at the Water Wheel Junction (3 Main St.), and will be an all-day affair on July 14, beginning at 10 am.m. Local storytellers Jim Newton and Malcolm Lamoreu will join kids (over the age of ten) in a “tall tale” contest sponsored by the Livingston Manor Free Library, replete with prizes and boasting rights, as befitting the man himself.

Craft vendors displaying quilts, weaving demonstrations, homemade soaps and candle-making workshops will be followed by local musicians Little Sparrow, the acoustic sounds of Mike Vreeland and 16-year-old equestrian and clogger Ashlynn Ratner performing with Iris Gillingham’s tribute to Darling’s Gaelic heritage, in the form of Irish High Stepping, the traditional dance of Johnny’s ancestral home.

Koerner is by no means alone in her desire to keep this art form alive. “The worlds largest museum and research institute, the Smithsonian, is now doing research and documenting the same subject,” she told me, “in their own efforts to keep these traditions from dying out.” A coloring book, “The Marvelous Adventures of Johnny Darling,” by Maurice Jagendorf, enjoyed five printings before being eventually retired by Vanguard Press. The illustrated interpretation of Darling’s tales was the brainstorm of Koerner, and is still prized by adults and children alike, not only here in the county, but around the globe.

An internet search on Johnny Darling served to expound on all that I had learned from Koerner, and “American Tall Tales” author Mary Pope Osborne’s words concurred: “Begun is the 1800s as a way for Americans to come to terms with the vast and inhospitable lands they had come to inhabit. the heroes of the tales were like the land itself: gigantic, extravagant, restless and flamboyant. These tales, written in the language of the common people, often tell of life on the American frontier and contain larger-than-life characters who take part in, or witness, fantastic events.”

Mia Koerner, “with a heap of help”, will likely be dancing a jig with fellow revelers come July 14 on the streets of Livingston Manor. The frolic’s front porch set, designed and constructed by Koerner’s husband, continues to serve as the perfect backdrop for the music, traditions and above all else, the stories- that will live on... just as Johnny Darling dreamed. The day-long event is funded by a raffle every year with the winner taking home a local award winning quilter’s masterpiece. For more information, visit www.livingstonmanor.net