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The Not-So-Lost-Art of Storytelling

Some of you know how much I love storytelling festivals. This love affair started over 20 years ago in Selma, Alabama, when I attended my first storytelling festival and almost fell out of my chair listening to Donald Davis and laughing as he described the sheer terror he felt in taking a mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That was my very first story at my first festival and I’ll always remember it. I was hooked. The other tellers at that festival were David Holt, who wore a musical suit (it made assorted sounds depending on where he whacked it), and the grande dame of storytelling, Kathryn Tucker Windham, who lived in Selma, told wonderful stories and also welcomed us graciously to her home town. Miss Kathryn died in 2011 (I have a feeling that if I used any euphemisms for “die” she would come back and haunt me, and she was a woman who understood a good haunting) but Donald, David, and a bunch of other tellers will be in Jonesborough, Tennessee for the National Storytelling Festival coming up the weekend of October 6-8.
We won’t be going this year, but I always think about it and get a warm fuzzy feeling even the years we aren’t able to attend. October is the perfect time to be in Jonesborough. Nights tend to be a little chilly but the days are usually pleasant and dry, which is good because the storytelling takes place in several revival-size tents scattered around downtown. The sides of the tents are rolled up to allow air to circulate and so that latecomers who may not be able to get a seat inside for the most popular tellers can still hear them, seated on bales of hay placed just outside, or on the ground on cushions they’ve brought to make a long day in folding chairs more comfortable. The hay bales make a good backrest. Stories are told in all the tents simultaneously, so it’s impossible to hear everybody you want to hear. I take the schedule and use a three-color highlighting system to plan the day and sometimes leave the tough decisions until the last minute.
The trees are starting to show their colors in eastern Tennessee, and trains occasionally pass through town, causing all activity in the Creekside tent to pause for a couple of minutes because you can’t hear the teller even with a microphone. That’s OK because time slows down at storytelling festivals. People actually talk to each other at the break and strangers become friends. Most of the churches in town have fundraisers that weekend, serving up delicious home-cooked dinners to the thousands of out-of-town visitors who overwhelm the area restaurants.
I close my eyes and picture Jonesborough, feel the crispness of the air and the energy of the break between sessions when you can change tents, run to the Resource Tent to snag a CD of your new favorite teller, or get a snack; or the contented drowsiness if you decide to stay put and just wait for the next session. I feel the squishiness under my feet of a particular fruit that always falls on a particular sidewalk around that time—maybe persimmons? I’ve never known for sure.  Mostly, I hear the voices and the music–many of the tellers incorporate music into their stories, or perhaps the music itself becomes the story, is the voice.   I also hear the shared laughter or the breathless silence of several hundred people hanging on to every word of a single voice spinning a tale.
Friday, the opening day of the festival, is a good time to meet new tellers because two tellers are paired together into one-hour sessions. You go to hear some of your favorites whom you haven’t heard in a while and get introduced to people you may not know. After the dinner break is the Friday night olio, where you can hear eight or nine storytellers in a two-hour session. (The dictionary defines “olio” as a hodgepodge or miscellaneous collection, or a dish of many ingredients.  Is that a cool word or what?)
I wanted to post this ahead of time because for the last few years, they’ve done a live stream all day Friday from the Library Tent and they’re doing it again this year. I’ve never watched any of their live streams so I have no idea how well it will translate but I hope to watch at least a little of it this year. Three of our favorite tellers will be in the mix during the course of the day: Donald Davis; champion liar Bil Lepp, and Willy Claflin, known for, among other things, the fractured fairy tales he tells with the help of a puppet named Maynard Moose. I hope to hear some new folks as well.  FYI, if you’re going by the schedule, the time is Eastern time and is correct for the storytelling pair but they may not go in the order listed.  If any of this sounds interesting, you may want to check out the details for the live stream of the 2017 National Storytelling Festival.  Please let me know what you think!

4 comments on “The Not-So-Lost-Art of Storytelling

  1. Carolyn, Cambridge says:

    I know Willy Claflin’s son Brian, who worked with me maybe fifteen years ago. I’ve heard them singing and talking together once; Brian’s a songwriter now living in Asheville. Very cool people.

    1. That IS cool! Thanks for sharing, Carolyn!

  2. Miriam says:

    Sounds like a wonderful festival.

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