Every year when I mention attending the National Storytelling Festival to friends, eyes glaze over, and, I suspect, they pretend interest for a few minutes, hoping I’ll veer off onto another topic. For a long time, I was one of those people—storytelling? Boring, boring – until I actually went to see and hear for myself, that is. For the last fifteen years, the first full weekend in October is one of the first things I mark on my new calendar. Sacred time–nothing else planned for then.
Jonesborough, the oldest town in the state of Tennessee, is nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains; this has been the site of the Festival since 1973, when local Jimmy Reid came up with the idea. At that time, it was located in front of the courthouse, featured six storytellers, and an audience of sixty sitting on hay bales. Today, there are five white circus-type tents set up all around the town, and the headcount is something over 10,000 and growing every year. The largest tents can hold about 2,000 people, and if you’re sitting in the middle of the tent on a warm day, it seems like a lot more! This is bare bones—folding chairs and a stage set up at one end with a microphone and a stool, but nobody seems to mind, as you are not there for comfort, but to be carried away to another place in time by the magic of the amazing tellers.
The Festival came into being to help preserve the heritage of stories passed down through families living in the mountains—usually Scots-Irish in origin. Most of the original stories and ballads were never written down but recounted generation after generation by word of mouth. Many feared this treasure trove of timeless works would be lost over time unless the tradition of storytelling was celebrated and preserved for future generations.
You might think that, because the Festival is located in mountainous Southern territory, all the storytellers would be from the South and that all the stories would be about moonshine, farming and such, but no. Today there are not six, but twenty-four storytellers each year, from all over the U.S. to be sure, but also from Europe and Asia. Most of them are professional storytellers who are renowned in the field: they perform, teach and write, as they want to not only entertain but to educate. And what an amazing group they are. Each year, there are a couple of veterans and real crowd pleasers who return for each session, a rotating group of well-known folks, and, of course, a sprinkling of newer tellers who are just getting started.
And the storytelling methods are all different. There are musicians who tell through their interpretation of musical pieces—performed with banjo, fiddle, guitar and woodwinds. John McCutcheon is one of these wonders, and he is always ready to tickle your funnybone or break your heart with a story of WWI soldiers on Christmas Eve. Sheila Kay Adams is another lovely storyteller who uses her banjo to weave stories of the Carolina mountains she grew up in. But the language does not always have to have sound—Peter Cook is a wonderfully imaginative deaf teller who communicates to the audience by sign language, with a verbal interpreter standing just to the side of the stage to “tell” the story.
In one day, a person can visit an amazing number of places, moving from tent to tent and opening your mind. You may hear crazy Andy Offutt Irwin tell about his grandmother’s (fictitious) “Old Southern White Ladies’ Hospital” or maybe be carried away by Tim Lowry (in full Colonial costume) recounting one of his fascinating Gullah tales. Sit and listen to the sonorous voice of the great Jay O’ Callaghan from Boston, who will capture your imagination with his legend of the great auk. Or maybe Antonio Rocha is onstage, recounting his Cuban heritage using mime and hilarious impressions to tell about his large Cuban family.
All the storytellers are wonderful in their own ways, but I must admit I have one particular favorite—Donald Davis. He is a former Methodist minister and was raised in North Carolina, which is where most of his stories have their base. Growing up with a younger brother provided all kinds of fodder for his tales; for example, there is the story of the family taking a long car trip, “… in a monkey vomit green six cylinder Pontiac in which my brother Joe and I could slide across the seats in wool pants in winter and generate enough electricity to flat-out kill a ten pound dog.” You can always count on Davis to have you laugh and laugh and then remember a poignant moment in childhood that has you recalling a favorite grade school teacher. This is the intent of the best storytellers—to give you something to take away from the stories they tell—something to remember and maybe pass on with your own story.
Have you ever attended a storytelling event? Do you tell stories to family and friends that you hope will be remembered and passed on?