JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — This small town, the state’s oldest, nestles in the foothills of the Southern Appalachians. In the early fall, as the trees begin to color, tall and expansive white tents appear behind the buildings on either side of Main Street, including two near the public library, two behind the courthouse, and two atop a steep hill in Storytelling Community Park.
Casual observers might think a carnival has come to town, and they wouldn’t be far off. The National Storytelling Festival, during the first weekend of October, does turn Jonesborough into a kind of hometown carnival, albeit one with a decidedly literary base.
The southern Appalachians have long had a reputation for storytellers, whether yarns carried from the British Isles, stories passed down among the Cherokee, or legends from the African-American tradition. But something changed when Ray Hicks stood on farm wagon beds in the fall of 1973 and told stories to audiences sitting on hay bales. Those stories came out of the family kitchen, the campfire gatherings, and the church meetings into a public arena, and they instigated a storytelling revival that has grown to make Jonesborough the “international storytelling capital of the world,” as boosters label the town.
Each year, close to 50 storytellers and musicians perform from 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. The “featured tellers” are assigned half-hour segments the first day, and hour-plus segments the second day. The evening programs are called “olios,” with eight tellers performing 10-15 minutes each, plus there are midnight cabarets by musicians or tellers.
All of these programs take place in those circuslike tents, which hold 650 to 1,650 audience members, and they are packed to the edges. There are three other venues, one inside the elegant “Storytelling Theater” in the International Storytelling Center, an appropriately spooky outdoor location (rain or shine) for “Ghost Stories” in Mill Spring Park (listeners set up lawn chairs and blankets around a gazebo stage), and a small hilltop tent with hay bales called the “Swappin’ Ground,” for first-time tellers at the festival.
It was there that newcomer Dan Lynch, from Springfield, Mass., spun out a tall tale last October. His story involved being chased by a bully onto a moving train and then rolling off it, resulting in a broken arm — Lynch produced the cast as “proof” of his story’s veracity.
At the other end of festival appearances is veteran storyteller Donald Davis, who performed at the 2014 festival, his 34th. He grew up not far from Jonesborough, and he presents himself very much as a Southern gentleman, in striped seersucker suits, spats, and bow tie that match his soft Carolina drawl. His sense of timing (he values the dramatic pause), his quirky facial gestures, the placement of his hands and the way he stands — all punctuate his telling of escapades and episodes from childhood (mostly).
There is a gentle humor throughout his stories along with a quiet profundity. Davis finds a way to draw a straight line from the “lessons” in his childhood stories — such as forgiveness, tolerance, patience or kindness — to life lessons for adults. He delivers a strong punch with a subtle touch.
As does Seekonk-based Bill Harley, a two-time Grammy award-winner for his original stories and a longtime commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” During the long-format performances on Saturday, Harley told a new story called “Home,” reaching from his back porch stoop into the universe of constellations and beyond that to the jellyfish explosion in the oceans.
He asked his listeners to ponder home: “Where is the place that you go to even when you are far away? What place do you carry in your soul?” Harley skillfully kept his audience with him through his stream-of-consciousness musings about “home” until he closed with Meredith Willson’s lullaby about the moon, “Shine on the one I love.”
Harley, like many of the other storytellers in Jonesborough found a different kind of “home” at the National Festival. Davis refers to it as “a great family reunion of tellers and fans.” Indeed, some families meet up annually from various parts of the continent to experience the festival together. Groups that have come from a church or community group one year tend to come each year after, as a way to be together at an event that can produce raucous belly-laughs one minute and deep, soul-searching revelations the next.
Several of the storytellers featured in Jonesborough emphasize how supportive and empathetic the audiences are; how they are ready to listen intently, to recognize humor quickly but also to respond to the “meat” in a story. When Chicago-based Sue O’Halloran told a personal story about her breast cancer, focusing on women’s body images, the audience’s attention was palpable.
“It’s a sacred trust to perform there,” stresses O’Halloran. “The laughter makes it safe to feel the anguish.”
Connecticut storyteller Carol Birch also presented stories last year that were not “short and funny” but very down-to-earth, on such serious subjects as poverty, union-busting and the Holocaust.
In contrast, West Virginian Bil Lepp, five-time winner of his state’s annual Liars’ Contest, goes for the funny bone. A lanky guy in T-shirt, ball cap, and jeans, he sometimes stuffs his hands in his pockets and leans back as he nonchalantly lets drop the zinger to his tale.
“Getting invited to Jonesborough is like Broadway or an Oscar nod for storytellers,” Lepp notes. “And the audience is 100 percent for you. There’s no heckling, no jeering. They want you to succeed and are working almost as hard as you are to put on a good show.”
It’s not just style and subject matter that contribute to the diversity of performances at the National Festival. The stories and music come from many different cultural traditions and ethnic backgrounds. In 2014, that included African folktales (and bird calls), Choctaw legends, Canadian First Nations traditions, slam poetry, Cuban-American remembrances, Romany tales found in Wales, cowboy poetry, Deep South-inspired songs, Irish-American family stories, Japanese folktales, a Sumerian creation story, fractured fairy tales, and full-blown one-person enactments of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
Donald Davis and Bil Lepp, plus Massachusetts’s own Jay O’Callahan, are scheduled to appear at the 2015 festival (Oct. 2-4). Check www.storytellingcenter.net/events/national-storytelling-festival/ for more details.
By Johnette Rodriguez
SEPTEMBER 05, 2015
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.