I have come across the story in various forms, including a reference on p. 193f. of Russian Folklore (1950, Y.M. Sokolov). A performance, “The Tight-Lipped Man” by an Ulster teller John Campbell, is on the CD Crosskeys Inn: Tales Across the Ocean (which I got from Liz Weir).
Since posting the video, a friend has told me of a French version as a song, “Tout va très bien, Madame la marquise” (“Everything’s all right, Madame la marquise”). He writes: “You can listen to it (with English subtitles): This song is very popular and “Tout va très bien, Madame la marquise” is a way to say, that everything is going really bad, but that people still do as if there were no problems indeed.”
Asking that invaluable storytelling resource list Storytell listserv for background information on the tale, brought the following details:
- The story in some form has been perpetuated from time immemorial. It has been traced back to India and during the period of earlier French literature was one of the many folk tales. In modern form it has been repeated by after-dinner speakers and upon phonographs, only changed to give a local colour.
- My mother’s mother told me about this. She didn’t tell it — it was more like telling about a movie she’d seen a long time before. I believe she got it from the variety stage — music hall, to you. There is a song, somewhere, too, as there often is with this kind of thing. It’s almost an urban legend.
- This story can be found in the old McGuffey Readers (5th or 6th year – can’t recall which) under the title, “How to Deliver Bad News”. I also read a version of this story in Russian Folklore, by Y. M. Sokolov, published by Macmillan, 1950.
In both of these versions a servant/serf is meeting the nobleman’s son/nobleman and gradually letting him know the entire family fortune is lost.
The Folktellers, Connie Regan-Blake and Barbara Freeman also recorded a version titled “No News.” It is on the album created to celebrate the 10th National Storytelling Festival. According to the album notes: “This humorous answer to ‘What killed the dog?’ was originally created in the early 1900’s by Nat M. Wills. The tale was revived by humorist Marshall Dodge of ‘Burt and I’ fame, who passed it on to The Folktellers…
A nice reversal of No News is this story told by the incomparable Dan Yashinsky, which a friend kindly sent me. (Link added with Dan’s generous permission.)
The video gallery has become very extensive. So if you would enjoy more comic tales like this, here are a few suggestions:
Just another joke about cheating husbands? Wait for the punchline!
- Bishop Daley’s Sermon
One of the greatest jokes: how a little priest achieved his life’s ambition
- The Umbrella and the Ten Commandments
A tale of what thou shalt not do
- Abu Hasan
An earthy tale from One Thousand and One Nights
- First Smile
An old tale which shows who smiles more, men or women
- Spelling Broccoli
A joke with one of the greatest punchlines
- Blood-Covered Vampire
A new recording of an ever-popular tale, and not just for Hallowe’en
- The Cobbler in the Convent
A man who did exactly what he was told – an irreverent and bawdy tale from Greece
- Parrot’s Prayer
A favourite tale for adults, showing the power of prayer
- The Wife’s Letter
A tale from Surinam which shows the power of the written word
- Worm in the Whisky
One of the many great tales about Scotland’s national drink
- The Tailor and his Wife
Not enough money in your pocket? This bawdy Scottish tale has one answer
- Travelling Man and the Bed
A tale of temptation
- Missing a Moral
A great encore for an adult audience
- The Box under the Bed
Ever thought of the difference between a joke and a story?
- The Widow of Ephesus
From ancient Rome, one of the great satires on marital fidelity
- Pig with the Wooden Leg
A tale which explains why I am the cold-hearted man I have become
- Greatest Pickpocket
A great tale – and one of the best punchlines
- Nasruddin looking for a Wife
Many men wish to find the perfect wife, but Nasruddin found there was always a problem
- Why Cats live with Women
An African tale: the title says it all
- Cow, the Pig and the Politician
In Nov. 2016, with politics in the air, I chose this story as an encore for a recent performance
- Boys and God
A tale all parents will understand
Showing why every man needs a good tailor
- King’s Three Delicate Wives
An Indian folk tale showing the dangers of when a man has foolish ideas of what a woman should be
- Nasruddin’s Daughter
A tale which shows the dangers of having only one story to tell
- Nasruddin’s Cat
Another wonderful Hodja story
- Reason to Beat your Wife
A tale in which one person really does know the secret of how to have a happy marriage
View video gallery for all the tales to watch
View all tales for a complete alphabetical list of tales (audio, text and video format)
Teaching activity: Past tense – revising questions and statements
During my many years as a teacher of English, telling stories all the time, teaching activities often developed. This is one.
After telling the story, write on blackboard:
“Your dog died.”
Ask students how questions are made in past tense and what was the farmer’s next question.
Write their solution: e.g. “How did he die?”
Elicit further answers and questions (in that order):
“Ate burnt beef.” “Where did he find burnt beef?”
“When your cowshed burnt down.” “How did my cowshed burn down?”
“A spark from your farmhouse set fire to cowshed.” “How did my farmhouse burn down?”
“Was the candle.” “Candle? What candle?”
“Candle on the coffin.” “Coffin? What coffin? Who died?”
“Your mother-in-law died.” “What did she die of?”
“She died of a heart-attack.” “Why did she have a heart-attack?”
“Had a heart-attack when she heard your wife had run off with your best friend.” “???”
If wished, the facts that the was/were and who died questions are not formed with did + infinitive, and that the final sentence contains a past perfect tense can be pointed out.
If not, modify the sentences to make them all fit the did + infinitive pattern.
(The grammar activity is © Richard Martin, 2005. Permission for non-commercial classroom use with citation is granted.)
The video clips here are all amateur quality, shot in various theatres or, as here, in my home studio.
Their intention is just to show the range of my storytelling and give a flavour of a live performance.
Permission is granted for use in non-commercial educational contexts.
The videos are © Richard Martin.
Professionally recorded CDs and DVDs are available here.
Go here for a list of all tales included on this site
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Permission to tell outlines my views on copyright
For those who are teachers: Telling stories in the classroom: basing language teaching on storytelling