Special women help in the making of Footprint on the Sky, Holidazed!, and other stories

Hydock recalls special women when she does words
                                                                            -- Mary Colurso, The Birmingham News

Dolores Hydock was voted best local actress this year by readers of The Birmingham News, but when she starts to tear up outside a Homewood coffee shop, I know she's not acting. Red eyes simply go along with remembering Hazel and Miss Dory, two generous and loving women who drew Hydock into their world on Chandler Mountain in 1974.

At the time, she was a wide-eyed scholar from Yale University, doing field research on Alabama folklore for a paper in her senior year. Hazel and Miss Dory took a shine to the 22-year-old Yankee in their midst and, from January to April, taught her about quilting and growing tomatoes, making bonnets and feeding chickens. They invited her to supper, shared recipes and home remedies. They took her to church, where the pianist played bouncy hymns and folks sang four-part gospel.

Hazel and Miss Dory didn't quite understand the Pennsylvania native's interest in folklore "Folklore? There's no folklore here," they'd say but if Hydock wanted to talk about local superstitions, the kindly senior citizens would do their best to comply. "Miss Dory was such a storyteller," Hydock says. "She'd get tickled to death by all her own stories."

But it was an image of her friend Hazel that had the most resonance for Hydock 25 years later, when, her college paper long behind her, she tried to shape her Chandler Mountain recollections into a story of her own.

"I thought of Hazel in her bonnet, galoshes and overalls, feeding her chickens," Hydock says. She hunches over, demonstrating, and her voice takes on a high-pitched accent and rhythmic cadence. "C'mon, babies, c'mon babies."

Hydock, a well-respected actress, writer and storyteller, will bring Hazel to life again on Thursday, when she does "Footprint on the Sky: Memories of a Chandler Mountain Spring" at the Leeds Community Arts Center. It's one of several performance pieces that Hydock regularly presents to adult audiences throughout the state. For this 7 p.m. show, she'll be joined by Flying Jenny, a trio of Birmingham musicians who'll punctuate Hydock's narrative with old-time songs such as "Bile Them Cabbage Down," "Turkey Foot" and "Jenny Broke Her Wooden Leg A' Dancin' at the Ball."

"Footprint on the Sky" also is available on a CD that Hydock sells at her performances and at places around town including Bare Hands Gallery, Lawler & Taylor Gallery and Laser's Edge.

I picked up a copy of the disc in August at another of Hydock's shows, "Holidazed! A Story Tour of the Holiday Calendar." On a Sunday afternoon at Birmingham Festival Theatre, she made summer melt away into tales of Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with holidays that don't show up on calendars unless someone scribbles them in. For an hour or two, Hydock touched hearts and poked fun at birthdays, graduation days and community traditions without ever veering into sentimentality or sarcasm. A neat feat, and one that will be captured on her next album, also called "Holidazed!" It'll be released in November, Hydock says, just in time for you-know-when.

The Birmingham area is her home now has been ever since she discovered Chandler Mountain but Hydock's holiday stories aren't planted in any specific soil. One takes her to Paris for her mother's 80th birthday, where mom's woolgathering about two fancy dresses ends up being the most precious gift. Another touches down in Virginia, where Hydock tries to find the Christmas spirit in quaint (she hopes) colonial Williamsburg.

"What I'm trying to do is to get people to hear their own story, not my story," Hydock explains. When "Holidazed!" and "Footprint on the Sky" are most effective, then, audiences are compelled to recall unexpectedly special occasions with their own parents, or think of good neighbors who work hard, live simply and cherish their families.

Although she has been writing her own material for three or four years, Hydock's repertoire isn't restricted to memoirs. She has just started to develop a piece based on a 13th-century French poem, "Silence," about a girl who was raised as a boy so she could be the family heir in a society that didn't allow females to inherit property.

Hydock says "Silence" will be performed in tandem with PanHarmonium, a medieval music ensemble that uses authentic instruments such as a viol, recorder or hurdy-gurdy. She has teamed with that group before, when telling the ancient story "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

"Their music definitely helps to create a context," she says. "When they start to play, you can almost feel that drafty castle."

One conversation with Hydock over coffee and a scan of her Web site at www.storypower.org are enough to convince me that she's a tender-hearted soul and busy professional. She doesn't lack ideas, depth, smarts or energy. Like Sir Gawain, however, Hydock says she faces a difficult quest: trying to nail down a concise job description.

Is she a performance artist? Not if that implies smearing chocolate on her body while screaming. A dramatic storyteller? Sounds too much like overwrought soap opera. A one-woman show? Hydock fears that audiences may expect razzle-dazzle singing and dancing.

"When people ask what I do," Hydock says, "I tell them I'm a speaker-storyteller-actress-writer.

"But really," she adds, "I do words."