It’s hard to believe that a sleepy little town like Jonesborough could come alive the way it does once a year. But come alive it does with so many people that you can’t imagine where they all come from or why they are interested in something as simple as storytelling.
Often we trek to East Tennessee to the tiny town of Jonesborough. It is the oldest city in Tennessee, but is better known as the storytelling capitol of the world and the home of the International Storytelling Festival.
Many in the crowd are seniors who remember the days when rocking on the front porch or sitting around the pot-bellied stove, telling stories and listening to those told by others was splendid entertainment. The ability to spin a good yarn was a highly regarded asset and good stories might be passed from generation to generation.
Stories may be true or embellished with the imagination of the teller to make a good story even better. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the truth from the fiction. In fact, a good liar with an obvious exaggeration might be considered even better than the truth and telling tall tales is a skill of its own.
At the storytelling festival there is a little bit of everything. Some folks specialize in traditional folk stories passed down for so long that no one really remembers where they came from. Folk tales may be told while wearing colorful native costumes and the oral history helps to keep heritage alive.
Most visitors have favorite tellers. After all, it is not only the story that is important, but the delivery and the way that a particular story is told. Jonesborough began in the tradition of the great southern humorist, Jerry Clower, who could spellbind an audience with his funny stories of the rural South.
Modern favorites seem to be tellers such as Donald Davis, a teacher whose story of riding a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon puts you right in the saddle and on the edge looking down hundreds of feet from a mule so bored that he might go to sleep at any moment and walk off the edge.
Bil Lepp is another audience pleaser who uses redneck humor. He came from the tradition of liar’s contests and his stories carry you right along with him painting a house on stilts, being chased by gophers and catching on fire from a bonfire. The situation gradually becomes funnier and more absurd until you realize he is skillfully pulling your leg.
Another beloved teller was 90-year-old Katherine Windham, whose sharp wit could still charm an audience with true tales from her life as a southern journalist. Her moving stories of a segregated south brought smiles and tears. One moving story was about a barefoot child who never forgot the gift of a pair of shoes and as an adult law enforcement officer still visited the benefactor to thank her.
Stories are told by many different voices. Great stories make you laugh or cry, sometimes both in the same story. Music is sparse and mainly consists of folk music with a guitar or autoharp. The real music is not from instruments, but the music of the human voice and the harmony of souls sharing a common listening experience.
Every year when the leaves begin to change color in the fall and the hills beckon, folks return to sit shoulder to shoulder with others in the great musty tents, to hear the stories, to share the laughter and emotion.
We return to a place where stories come alive, past becomes present, and legends become art in the tiny town of Jonesborough, tucked away between hills in the autumn splendor of Tennessee.