Crankie Festivals are popping up all around the country, from Seattle to Baltimore and, for the past six years, in Southern Vermont. Crankies are scrolls of images that illustrate or interact with stories or songs. Sandglass Theater, from Putney, VT, is primarily a puppet theater, and its founders, Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass, came to Crankies as an extension of their puppet art. Together, Eric and Ines have created an array of crankies that range from a humorous Quebecois song to an enigmatic Yiddish lullabye, from a 1930s novelty song to an imagistic journey of refugees set to a guitar instrumental. Inspired by crankie artists as diverse as Anna and Elizabeth and Bread and Puppet Theater, Eric and Ines have their own original take on this artform, blending Ines engaging artwork with Eric’s guitar and banjo arrangements. Sandglass has been presenting a mini-festival of Crankies in southern Vermont for the past six years, developing the mystique and low-tech charm of pairing song and story with rolling pictures.
The term “Crankie” is often credited to Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet, but the form goes back centuries. In Europe, in the middle ages, street singers often delivered ballads of murderous deeds with large panels that illustrated German Moritat, or morality songs (think, the Moritat of Mack the Knife, from the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht musical, "Threepenny Opera"). The crankie's long illustrated scroll, wound onto two spools, also became a means of presenting travelogs and scientific panoramas in salons and meetings during the 19th century. They were then called “ moving panoramas.” The term “crankie” refers to the way that the spool handles are cranked, to move the panorama forward. Today, crankies are strongly associated with Appalachian music and tradition.
Ines Zeller Bass has blended evocative illustration with a puppeteer’s dramatic sensibility, in creating images that are original and delightful. Eric Bass has added his own perspective as a theater director, helping to make each individual crankie a dramatic and musical event. The set of crankies, taken together, presents an arc of songs that are sometimes funny, sometimes quite moving, and often evoke metaphorical worlds and journeys, complementing folk songs of several countries.