On Preservation and Progress

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah

This blog is part of a special series of reflections leading up to the 50th annual National Storytelling Festival. You can read the first entry, on how the Festival means different things to different people, here.

Part of our charge here at the International Storytelling Center is to represent oral traditions from all over the world. We perform this expansive work in a very particular place: Jonesborough, Tennessee, the state’s oldest town, tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains. Our organizational history is inextricable from the story of this particular community, where residents watched a dying Main Street town transform into the “Storytelling Capital of the World” one October weekend at a time.

Ray Hicks

Traditionally, the mountains (and more generally, rural communities) have been rich veins of preserved culture, due in part to their isolated geography. I sometimes think of these mountains as the Library of Congress of storytelling traditions. ISC has deep roots in this place, and the people and communities who surround us have helped make us who we are. Storytelling began as a grassroots movement, with people passing around news of the National Storytelling Festival by word of mouth. Each October, Ray Hicks ambled down from his traditional mountain homestead to regale the crowd with Jack tales. His deep accent and old ways almost made him seem as though he was from another world—and, in a sense, he was.

Our founder, Jimmy Neil Smith, was a visionary, and he worked hard to bring diverse storytellers representing different cultural traditions to our small town of Jonesborough. Naming the event the National Storytelling Festival was aspirational at first—a real “if you build it, they will come”-type approach. Jimmy Neil has always talked about how you think of an idea, and then you work to become it. You have to invest your belief in that idea in order to make the reality of it come true. So his idea of the Festival was, from the very beginning, much larger than the 60 or so people who showed up in 1973. The Festival was always a work in progress, and though the event and the organization have expanded exponentially larger since then, I still treasure that notion and that framework. Inclusion and representation—making room for everyone in our tents—is more of an ever-evolving process than an endpoint.

As we approach the 50th Festival (a milestone in its own right, as well as our return to in-person storytelling after the pandemic shifted all our events into virtual reality), I’ve been reflecting on the importance of place. People who have been with us from the early days often talk about the days when Jackie Torrence would tell ghost stories in the old graveyard. They heard tellers’ stories and walked with them down Main Street, or from tent to tent. They talk about the spiritual connection between Jonesborough and the Hicks family homestead in Beech Mountain, North Carolina. Or how they’ve passed along the tradition of traveling to Jonesborough with their children, or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren!) to revisit a memory or a brick that someone in the family inscribed.

I think many people think of it as a pilgrimage. The late storyteller Syd Lieberman requested that part of his ashes come to Jonesborough because he regarded it as sacred ground. Tellers and listeners alike see the Festival as a special place, a homecoming, and a town that’s close to their hearts.

As they visit year to year, so much has stayed the same. The Festival is still here in these mountains. And we’re still heavily invested in preserving traditions (both our own, and those from further afield). This work has gotten easier in some ways, because the world we live in is more interconnected. But it’s also harder, because modern life can be isolating. Political divides have caused friends and families and communities to fragment. And the pandemic revealed how much we need each other, even as we were forced to spend time apart. We’ve learned that technological tools like social media can both bridge and deepen these divides, in different hands. And we’ve thought about how we can use these tools to connect with new audiences. Some places developed online platforms as a stopgap solution to sell tickets. But we want to use them to bring Jonesborough to the people who can’t be here, physically. Providing access to storytelling as an experience in the truest sense is more than just posting a video online.

The goal of our Festival (and of any artistic or cultural experience, in my opinion) has to be more than a presentation about how to understand the world. It’s a tool to help you make sense of your place in the world outside that immediate space. We know that stories from different people, and different times, and different places contain important information about the past. But they are also in dialogue with the present, helping us make our way through the world with empathy and curiosity and kindness.

As stewards of the art of storytelling, ISC has always sought to balance the specialness of the past with the exciting potential of the future, the material textures of place with the promise of open access. I think that project will always be crucial to the Festival, an area of core growth that by definition can only develop, not mature. Many years from now, when that first Festival fades from living memory, I know people will continue to reflect on our roots. But preservation is deeper work than nostalgia. To truly fulfill our original purpose, we have to also seek progress and embrace change.