When singer Bobby Horton and storyteller Dolores Hydock join forces for “Southern Tales at the Gardens” there will be enough energy generated to light all of the Christmas trees in Birmingham.
The two iconic Birmingham entertainers debut the holiday season with “Jingle All the Way: Songs, Stories and Sing-a-Longs” on Sunday, Dec.4, from 2-4 p.m. at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Although they have performed together previously in “Starch in Their Petticoats: Women of the Old West,” with Hydock also annually charming audiences with passages from Truman Capote and anecdotal family holiday tales, this is their first Christmas-themed collaboration.
With each claiming more than 30 years on local and national stages, it’s fair to term the two performers legendaryat the risk of understating the depth that they bring to their artistry. Hydock and Horton share the best modern-day essences of the troubadour tradition, educating as they entertain and always serving a full plate of insight with a healthy helping of humor.
As an American Studies folklore major at Yale University, Pennsylvania native Hydock came to Alabama in the early 1970s to study Appalachian culture. Horton, raised in Ensley, majored in accounting and minored in economics at Samford University because he “didn’t want to become a band director,” the only viable career he could envision with a music degree.
In both cases, a love for and knowledge of history provides the backbone for their art. Hydock has written and starred in three productions based on works of medieval literature and, through her repertoire of over 60 stories, regales listeners with tales of female spies during the Civil War, a woman who was a fashion coordinator for Lovemans during the ‘50s and ‘60s, a World War II USO tour singer, her own family’s journey from Ellis Island through the Depression, and “a joyful collection of stories about turnip greens, facelifts, home repairs and other unexpected story treasures from everyday life.”
For Horton, known internationally as the recognized expert on the music of the Civil War, textbook history came alive in early childhood as he listened to his father and uncles tell firsthand their experiences in World War II. The centennial commemoration of the Civil War made a lasting impression on a 9-year-old that would later translate to his life’s work.
“All the common man fighting the Civil War had was his faith and his music,” he says, and Horton the man and the musician is likewise defined by both. A multi-instrumentalist who performs using a myriad of vintage instruments, a composer, a producer and a music historian, he has collaborated with Ken Burns on more than a dozen PBS documentaries, including The Civil War and Baseball, as well as scoring the music for two films for the A & E Network and sixteen films for the National Park Service.
Ken Burns says of Bobby Horton, “I don’t think I’ve met anyone quite like Bobby with his ability to understand the soul of American music.”
Horton first began recording his “Homespun” (tongue-in-cheek, recorded in a home studio) series in the 1980s, and his CDS of Confederate and Union army vocals and instrumentals, songs of faith, and tributes to Stephen Foster and the patriots of the American Revolution have found a world wide following.
“I have an affection for those who have gone before us,” he says of the songs that transcend the sectionalism of America’s bloodiest conflict. “I had family fighting on both sides, and I tell their stories through their songs.” While he counts among his heroes Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and for a time had a tidy side business career drawing their likenesses marketed by his wife Lynda, he recalls with pride a rousing response to a rendition of “Dixie” sung at NYU and drew a crowd of 1100 to a concert in Montpelier, Vt.
“Southerners have such a great sense of place,” Hydock adds. Describing her storytelling style as kinetic and herself as a storyteller fortunate to live in the South, she defines the southern storytelling tradition as “sitting around in the heat on the front porch, rocking and lying, making up the story as you go along.”
Neither doubts that a strong presence, a gentle ghost of Christmas past, will be on the stage with them in spirit as they sparkle aided by audience participation on Dec. 4. “Kathryn Tucker Windham was supposed to have been a part of this program,” Horton says. Hydock will read and share images from the beloved Alabama storyteller’s “It’s Christmas.”
“After Kathryn died in June, I attended the National Storytelling Conference, the first she had missed in 38 years,” Hydock says. “There was a blue bottle tree on display in her honor, and she became the first storyteller in the history of the conference to receive a standing ovation in her memory.”
Performing as one third of the trio Three on a String since the early 1970s, Horton has built a loyal local following over 40 years in addition to going into homes across America with Ken Burns. He gives credit for building a life around a passion to a trumpet playing daddy and a banjo playing granddaddy and sums up, “I live a magical lifestyle.”
Also influenced by a strong family, Hydock says of her childhood, “Both of my parents fostered a love of language. Words augment and enlarge your world and allow you to laugh and cry and share your world while experiencing the worlds of other people.”
Tickets for “Jingle All the Way: Songs, Stories and Sing-a-Longs” are available through the Birmingham Botanical Gardens website at bbgardens.org/southern-tales. General admission is $20.