Men Of Substance

In the early days of my participation in the Texas Renaissance Festival, around 1988 I suppose, I met a man named Bill Sanders. I can recall walking up the slight slope which passed what once was the battle mound coming out of Sherwood Forest up to where the Wharfside Music Gazebo now stands.

At the crest of this small hill, standing alone and gazing at an astrolabe, was a curious looking man dressed in black leggings and a black doublet with red piping. His long black hair shooting wildly out from under the floppiest of hats, his wiry beard formed a fuzzy half-moon shape that reached from one ear to another.

I remember I was walking with my band-mate and friend, Joe Linbeck, and he knew this guy so we stopped to chat. That was when I met Bill Sanders.

Bill was at the festival and playing the role of Galileo. All the time we spoke with him he remained in character and was quite amusing. Joe and I wandered off to do whatever it was we on our way to do, but the memory of Bill lingered.

Back then we used to camp out at the festival and hang out with the other actors and musicians. Bill kept a pretty elaborate camp site and it was a gathering place for Rennies in the evenings. That year and the next my band-mates and I stuck up a pretty good friendship with Bill and we spent many evenings drinking and listening to Bill tell stories. You see, Bill was a history major (well out of college) and had a penchant for very esoteric historical events and had a way of telling stories that was quite amusing. Bill would cast those who listened to him tell his tale into the roles of those he was recounting the tale about. It was always engaging and always monstrously funny.

One year I recall I was wandering around the festival site late at night when my fiddle player Greg and Bill loomed up out of the darkness near the Globe Stage.

Greg was an expectant father at the time. His wife Deborah was pregnant with his unborn daughter Joanne. Bill was a father of two preadolescent girls and had spent some time “counseling” Greg on what to expect as a father. To this end he had told Greg the story of Sawny Bean, the cannibal of Scotland, as a cautionary tale of family values.

Let me give you a brief synopsis of Sawny Bean. The legend goes that a man named Sawny Bean lived in Scotland in the 12th or 13th century. Allegedly he took a wife and took up residence in some caves on the Road to Edinburgh and there he raised a family of over 40 inbred cannibals that preyed on the travelers to and from the city for over 20 years before they were captured and executed.

Bill postulated that the downfall of the Bean Clan most certainly resulted in a breakdown of family values. Sawny would have had rules about capturing the travelers and bringing them back to the caves to kill and eat. He might have warned against lighting any cooking fires and admonished his offspring to leave no survivors and no trace of their existence.

These simple rules allowed the clan to go undiscovered for over 20 years. It was only when some of the older children were on a hunt and decided to cook their prey and have sport with the women that a hapless traveler escaped and fled in a terrified panic back to Edinburgh with is tales of horror and cannibals.

You could just imagine those those kids saying “T’hell with dad and his rules!!!” followed by that adolscent “uh-oh” when the traveller escaped and they returned, sheepishly, to the caves to tell dad of their error.

Prior to this the people believed the road to be haunted to plagued by monsters. Now they knew what they were up against and it was a simple matter of tracking them down and capturing them, which they did in short order.

This story captured my imagination and Bill and I would spend countless hours pouring over the details and speculating about those events late into the evening and well into the wee hours of the following morning.

One night at the Globe Stage Bill and I were sitting and talking when Greg Taylor wandered by. Greg Taylor now plays the role of King Henry the VIII at the festival but back then he had a more humble calling. He was Gipepetto the Pickle Boy (or something similar), hawking pickles to the patrons. Neither Bill nor I really knew him but he seemed a nice enough fellow. In later years Greg Taylor confided that he was not really sure WHAT he had gotten himself into when decided to stop and “break bread” with Bill and Jay the Cannibals as we came to be known.

As we conversed Bill and I told him the story of Sawny Bean. As we told the story more people wandering by and stopped to listen.

In true Bill form he began to cast the audience into the roles of the characters in the story. I was Sawny Bean, Greg became the father of his bride that was killed before Sawny fled to the caves to start his family. The various passers by became the travelers on the road to Edinburgh who were set upon and devoured at which point they became members of the ever growing clan and so forth. It went on this way until everyone was a part of the story.

In the end everyone became the cheering town-folk as I, in the role of Sawny Bean, was executed.

There must have been 15 or so people who witnessed that. Bill and I discussed it after everyone had moved on and we thought it might be a good idea to try and tell this story in this manner on the Saturday of Halloween weekend.

We picked the stage that is now The Odeon as the site for our tale and invited anyone who would listen to meet us there at 9:00 pm for a Halloween story. There was a jack-o-lantern carving contest being judged at 8:00 and we figured when that was over people would trickle over to our stage and we would have some fun.

Bill and I staked out the stage with a few others, including Greg Taylor, and prepared ourselves.

As it approached 9:00 pm there was really nobody there and we began to think that our idea was a bust and were getting ready to move on when someone said “LOOK!”
We all turned to see what it was and there, in the distance, was a line of lit jack-o-lanterns being held aloft as a parade of people wound their way through the site headed right for our stage.

Each of the jack-o-lanterns was placed at the foot of the stage like a stage light and people began filling the benches. It must have been a hundred people or more.

We told the story and by the end most of the people were on the stage, cast in one role or another. It was magnificent.

The next year Bill and I worked together in the performance company and we told that story, in that way, to the patrons. In fact, that is when I met Cynthia who was a cannibal groupie back in the day.

To this day they still tell the tale of Sawny Bean on Halloween weekend at the festival. Bill Sanders passed away a few years ago and I haven’t attended the event in many, many years myself, but it makes me happy to know the tradition lives on.

Of cannibals, renfairs, friends and family values

12 thoughts on “Of cannibals, renfairs, friends and family values

  • April 7, 2006 at 8:38 pm

    Ah, the days of the Bean tales were bold and noble days indeed! I witnessed these events many times and they were always noteworthy for their hilarity! I am glad to hear this recounted.

  • April 10, 2006 at 9:08 am

    ok, i’ve got goosebumps….i could hear bill as i was reading your recount of sawny bean.

  • April 17, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    I was blessed by observing Bill performing the marriage ceremony for two friends of mine. This firece eyed hawkish individuals ability to mesmerize crowds of people was well utilized that day as he effortlessly wove traditional wedding ritual with folkloreish elements into a spellbinding event which will not soon leave my memory. After his death I was asked to participate in a “Sawny Bean” on Halloween night out at faire, and after doing some research ran across the lyrical portion of a ballad dedicated to the figure (hisctorical or fanciful, who cares?). I have set the yarn to music which you are welcome to put an ear to over at certainly a tune the fish should (and are more than invited to) cover.

  • May 30, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    bean burgers now served at the clifftop.Mmmmmm

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  • March 7, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    That is just great that in my search for info on Bill Sanders, you happened to have a post about him. I must have heard this story in 98 or 99. By now I really remember nothing of the events. What I do remember is that Bill told a great story and his camp was one of my favorites to spend time at. Bill Sanders was a helluva guy.

  • October 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Jay, I remeber both of these nights!! I was out wondering with a few friends and we happened upon you and bill. then on that most wonderful of halloweens a tradtion was born. sigh I miss the old days

  • October 20, 2009 at 3:03 am

    Ah, that first Hallowe’en telling of the Beane story. You played young Sawney, and when it came to the part where Bill said, ‘And by and by, Sawney . . .’, you whipped off your hat to show yer bald pate and shouted out ‘. . . grew old!’ And at the end, having to pick our way through the dead, which literally covered the stage. I hope you and everyone else who reads this can make it out this year to the first actual Hallowe’en night telling of the story since ’98. Bill AND Sawney live on!

    Can’t help but miss Bill and his storytelling. I especially miss portraying the heathen Philistine god in the story of the 5 Golden Emerods.

    Thanks, Jay. I miss you, Brother.

  • October 20, 2009 at 6:38 am

    Jay- please come this year. Please please please!!!! Larry tells the story very well and he tells it as I think Bill would have like for it to have been told. PLEASE!!!!

  • October 20, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Good times…..Good times…

  • October 20, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I will never, ever, forget that first Halloween performance. Bill had approached me earlier with “Wanna help us out with this thing we’re doing Halloween night over at Players’ Podium? You don’t have to learn any lines, just show up and go with it.” OK, by then, if Bill had suggested that I “just show up and go with it” I would have gleefully turned up to pie President Reagan, no questions asked.

    Among my fondest memories of that evening (other than stage-copulating like a crazed ferret with The Bald Heretic himself in the guise of the ever-horny, ever-hungry Mrs. Bean) was the reaction I got, later, from Owain Phyfe. By an amazing happenstance, he was making his TRF debut as a guest street-musician that weekend. He was utterly astonished… and most amazed and impressed when “that beautiful little child who was playing a sheep (Melissa Sanders, duh!) just rolled over with such joy and excitement and trust and exposed her quivering belly for disembowelment!”

    Wiping away some fond tears now… Love to all!

  • November 12, 2012 at 11:28 am

    The telling of Sawney Beane… Not only a tradition but also a tribute to the man who started the telling. Our band The Cannibal Tudors created a song to tell the tale as well. We want more to know of this story of cannibalism and the family values Bill told us about. We play this song every weekend in honor of Bill and to educate the patrons…the tale is also told right where Bills tree was planted and thrives to this very day.

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