On one weekend each fall, the National Story Telling Festival is held in the mountains of East Tennessee. It is in a tiny town called Jonesborough, also known as the oldest city in Tennessee. It is a quaint little village ready for company, dressed in its fall finery of mums and pumpkins on bales of hay.
“What’s storytelling?” asked my partner when I first mentioned going. He would have to ask, wouldn’t he? But, actually, the term “storytelling” is pretty self-descriptive. You have heard comedians tell of recollections from their childhood, usually with humorous twists. Probably you have a family member that can relate antidotes about your relatives that have been passed from generation to generation. This is what storytelling is: People telling stories, often funny, sometimes poignant, usually about their own experiences, sometimes folktales from literature.
In Jonesborough storytelling has been taken to another level and has become an art form. The storytellers are professionals who tell their stories from place to place.
The history of how the little mountain town of Jonesborough became the storytelling capital of the nation is a story itself. It seems that like many small towns, it was slowly decaying. A teacher heard Jerry Clower telling a humorous story on the radio and thought, “Why don’t we have a gathering and invite people who can spin a good yarn to come?” And so they did. Year after year more people came to listen and the festival grew until it became a three-day celebration that takes over the town for a weekend.
Since there is no building large enough to hold the crowds, the festival is held outdoors under the shelter of large circus-sized tents. The night we went it rained and a cold front moved in. In the morning, the weather was damp and cold. We found chairs in the main tent and camped out on them all day, the two of us daring not to both leave at the same time lest other eager listeners grab our spot.
I’m sure the souvenir folks must have done a booming business in sweatshirts that year. While the audience shivered and complained good-naturedly, the show went on. My nose and toes felt like I was attending football game, but I sat tight. The tents were packed as teller after teller took the stage and captured the audience with the magic of their stories. No money was wasted on elaborate staging, just a stool or a chair, large speakers and a microphone. The show was simply the story and your imagination.
We lived on pizza and hot coffee the first day before we found out that we could have brought snack food with us. Leaving to eat dinner or stand in food lines meant loss of our spot and being relegated to listening from the back of the tent, a fate worse than cold pizza.
We watched, applauded, and listened hour after hour and into the night. We knew if we left we could miss the best part, whatever that was. I don’t remember ever laughing so hard or so much. Each storyteller was different, as different as the stories they shared. Most of the audience had been there before, some over and over during the 40+ years that the festival has existed. Some of the audience looked almost as old as the folktales.
It was an adventure, a moment of shared experience, a link between the past and the present, a tradition that has became an institution, but one that maintained its rural mountain roots and the flavor of southern hospitality. We were sorry when it was time to go home. And that must be why they come over and over again, to listen, to share the experience, and to enjoy the magical spell created just by the telling of stories.