Students Adapt Old Time Appalachian Story Telling Technique

Aug 15, 2019

This summer in Morgantown, elementary school students had access to  a special summer art camp series almost every week.

Last week, students learned a  story telling art form rooted in Appalachian tradition called crankies. Crankies are also sometimes called moving panoramas, as they are a drawing or painting that can be manually moved and is portrayed within a box.

“It has paper wrapped around two scrolls and when you turn the cranks it moves forward and you can draw either different frames or one big picture that you scroll to see,” said 11-year-old Timmy Carlson. “And it moves and it’s like an old form of entertainment before TV.”

At the camp, Carlson is painting a crankie box bright orange. 

Eddie Spaghetti helps Timmy Carlson complete the crankie. It is about the song 'Looking Through a Window' from the musical 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The crankie is thought to have originated in the United Kingdom in the 1800s. It made its way to Appalachia to tell stories and accompany music.

World-renowned storyteller Peter Stevenson is something of a crankie expert. He lives in Wales, but was in West Virginia this spring for an art exhibit which featured some of his handmade crankies. 

Stevenson is especially interested in the historical connection of crankies to Appalachia.

“They would sing a song, and old mountain ballad, play music, tell a story, while the picture was moving,” he said. “If you think about it, it’s early animated film. It’s like animation special effects movies, but without electricity. It’s what they did up in the mountains before they had electric, they used these crankies.”

Local artist Eddie Spaghetti also specializes in making crankies. His work was part of the art exhibit, as well, and he is teaching the crankie class. He said they are similar to old timey YouTube videos.

“In a way this crankie idea connects to something that we’re very comfortable and familiar with in our modern age, but bringing back an old thing,” Spaghetti said.

One of his students drew a story about Ned Flanders from The Simpson’s. Spaghetti helps interpret the story with a song and ukulele. 

Each student illustrates their song on a 10-foot-long paper. They write the song lyrics on it and draw and paint images that represent the song for them. 

Dashiel Harms and Zoey Gilliam work on an art project. At the end of the week there were 16 different completed crankies.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Carlo Arthurs chose ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen. 

“Around the mid it says “Don’t stop me now.” So, I did the finger wag, a stop sign, and then me. So it’s “Don’t stop me now,”” Arthurs said.

Once the scrolls are finished, they have to be installed on the wooden spools in a box. 

“They’ve been sawing, they’ve been clipping, they’ve been cutting, they’ve been painting,” Spaghetti said.

A completed crankie. Inside the boxes is a 10-foot-long scroll that can be turned with two wood spools.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

He helps the kids use a drill to create holes in the box for the spools...so the scroll can be turned.

“Yeah, it’s nice they get to do a little carpentry work too," Spaghetti said.

On the last day of the camp, the kids present their crankies. The room is filled with wooden boxes that are a little bigger than a piece of printer paper. They are painted in every color.

Zoey Gilliam chose the song ‘Something Just Like This’ by the Chainsmokers and Coldplay. 

You can hear the distinct sound of wood turning while she sings...

Carlo Arthurs, the one who chose the Queen song, said learning to make a crankie has revealed his artistic side. 

“I’m better than I thought I was at art, and I feel like art is something I will do more often and try to do more often,” he said.

A student presenting his crankie. Each student showed the class their crankie and either sang or read their song.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting