Between the Parentheses: Don White on the National Storytelling Festival

Photo by John W Edwards

One of the new voices we welcomed to the National Storytelling Festival this year was Don White. A folk singer with a background in comedy—White’s worked with everyone from Arlo Guthrie to Janeane Garofalo—he quickly won over his audience…and the feeling was mutual. He kindly shared a few thoughts about his experience here with us this past October.

I knew the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee would be unlike anything I had seen before by the way my storyteller friends would get all dreamy and tongue-tied when I told them I was going to be a featured teller there.

“Jonesborough.” They would say the word as if, when spoken, it released a euphoria serum into their brains. And then these people who have dedicated their lives to verbal communication would become uncharacteristically inarticulate. “Don, you’re going to love it there.” Yes, I would reply. Everyone says that. I waited for elaboration, but they’d always walk away without telling me why.

Looking back, I think the best way to communicate the effects of this event on the uninitiated is through what it did to my wife. My wife is cool. I knew it when I met her in tenth grade. She dressed cool. Her musical tastes were cooler than everyone else. After high school we hitch hiked around North America for three years seeking out the most interesting little groups of non-conformists the continent had to offer. If something is fake or artistically insincere she sees it right away and has no patience for it—no desire to spend an extra minute in the presence of it.

It’s now been 10 days since the festival, and she hasn’t stopped talking about it. We were both completely blown away by the level of talent. We discuss it at length and with reverence every day.

Picture a sleepy town with five BIG tents strategically placed throughout – the smallest holding 700, the largest holding 1,700. Picture all five tents filled to capacity at the same time. (It’s hard to believe, right?) The audience is as attentive as any you will ever find. They are supportive and polite, but they also know exactly where you stand in the hierarchy of every storyteller who ever lived within six minutes of hearing you speak.

For my part, I learned something new about how to approach a story from every performer I saw. I’ve never seen anyone use the space between sentences like Donald Davis. (The silences in his stories were somehow more articulate than the parts with words. It was masterful.) And Bil Lepp is one of the greatest performers I have ever seen. I wanted to grab the people beside me in the audience by the shoulders and say, “Do you know how hard it is to be this funny with this level of storytelling precision? What this guy is doing is almost impossible.”

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The space between these parentheses is where I had hoped to sum up my experience at Jonesborough with words so eloquent that you would be compelled to make the journey there next year. But, like all the people who tried to describe it to me before I went, I’m just sitting here dreamy and tongue-tied.

You’re going to love it there.

Don White