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The History of ISC

Storyteller Jerry Clower, photo credit David Cortner

The world’s storytelling renaissance began in Jonesborough, a tiny town in the mountains of Tennessee over 40 years ago.

On a warm October day in 1973, the town of Jonesborough played host to the first National Storytelling Festival. The Festival was small, but something happened that October weekend that has changed forever our culture, this traditional art form, and this Tennessee town.

Now in its 43rd year, the National Storytelling Festival was created by Jimmy Neil Smith, a former journalism teacher and mayor of Jonesborough. His inspiration, quite simply, was a well-told tale heard over a car radio—a story told by Grand Ole Opry star Jerry Clower about hunting in Mississippi. Why not a storytelling festival? Smith wondered.

The first National Storytelling Festival, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, ignited a renaissance of storytelling that is, even today, far-reaching. People across America and the world are rediscovering the simplicity and basic truth of a well-told story.

Ancient storytelling traditions are being recognized and reborn. Storytelling organizations, festivals, and educational events now dot the globe, and the professional storyteller, a fixture in more primitive times and cultures, has reappeared.

The autumn festival, held under colorful circus tents scattered throughout Jonesborough, now attracts more than 10,000 visitors, and this first-of-its-kind event has become the flagship of the international revival of storytelling. Jonesborough, the Festival’s home, is recognized worldwide as the revival’s birthplace.

Two years after the first festival, the National Storytelling Association was founded to spearhead America’s storytelling renaissance. For almost a quarter of a century, NSA served as the connecting point for this storytelling revival—the momentum behind this ever-widening movement.

Today, NSA—now known as the International Storytelling Center—promotes the power of storytelling and the creative applications of this ancient tradition to enrich the human experience in the home, at the workplace, and throughout the world.

Just as the first National Storytelling Festival gave birth over 40 years ago to a quiet revolution felt across the globe, we expect that over the next 30 years and beyond the work of the International Storytelling Center will help transform our world—making a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals and families, corporations and institutions, and communities and cultures everywhere.