JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — Step inside any of the large circus-like tents scattered across this Southern town and you might find yourself magically transported into the dynamic worlds of fairy tales and scary mountain lore, legends of medieval knights and backporch Southern humor. Mixed in with the jargon of Southern tongue and hillbilly laughter is a fierce loyalty to the oral tradition. It’s the National Storytelling Festival, and you are about to get “learned.”
Every year during the first weekend in October since 1973, the National Storytelling Festival commences in this little Tennessee town – where the wildflowers grow wild and the southern charm sinks in like a breakfast of buttered grits and fried eggs. What began with hay bales and wagons for a stage of 60 spectators has evolved into a yearly October tradition for the small community in Jonesborough. Having just completed its 35th anniversary and ranked one of North America’s top 100 events, the National Storytelling Festival now has a mere 10,000 attendees and enough sweet tea to last a lifetime.
After reading up on the event, it is tough to resist a short weekend away from the city. Two McFlurries and 411 miles later, Interstate 81 had carried us to the Blue Ridge Mountain town ready for a good nights sleep to begin, bright and early, the busiest day of the festival. Waking up early Saturday morning in order to arrive on time to the first 10 a.m. performance, we ran to locate our festival passes which came in the form of quilt-like pieces of cloth that pinned to the front of our t-shirts.
By 9:30 a.m. people were already spilling out onto the sidewalks surrounding storyteller Donald Davis’ main-stage tent where he was set to perform any minute. Davis’ performance is one of the most anticipated every year, and the lack of seating hadn’t gotten in the way of the crowd. Here’s a typical scene from the weekend: packed tents spilling out onto the curbside, with people situated in any way comfortable to spend their next hour just listening. We quickly scanned the audience to conclude the average viewer was at least 55-years in age, and we got the sense that many were festival returnees, as their previous year patches had been sewn into the hats and sweaters that they were wearing.
“Headliners” of the oratory festival Sheila Kay Adams, Andy Offutt Irwin, and Kathryn Windham were just a few of the familiar faces who return year after year- weaving their sometimes tall, sometimes stretched tales of crazy family members or childhood adventures- winning over audiences time and time again. The close bond and comfort forged between the tellers and their listeners was evident within the first five minutes of taking the stage. You could hear whispering in the audience of “how funny Andy was last time I saw him,” as if the telling was happening at their yearly family reunion.
Even for first time storytellers like Laura Packer, a professional teller of 15 years, the experience of the festival is overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s my first time at the festival and my first time telling (at National Storytelling Festival). The audience here is so receptive and present. And storytelling is so much what happens between the storyteller and the audience,” she said.
This is exactly what keeps the festival enthusiast coming back each year. Patches fill shirts and caps marking their years of dedication to the festival. Lucy Mincher, a seasoned festival patron, travels each year from Brooklyn, N.Y., and has made this weekend a tradition for her family.
“My dad and his wife have been coming for 22 years.We’ve brought other people with us, another sister, another brother, but it’s a family thing. It’s a wonderful place,” she said. “The people, the stories, it’s a great experience. We drive down and camp in an RV. It’s really an adventure. And you don’t need to be southern to enjoy the weekend, either!”
The small mountain-town of Jonesborough has always been on the map as the oldest town in Tennessee, but for the past 35 years this close-knit community has truly made their claim to fame as the home to the largest storytelling festival in America. It’s clear from the bustling streets, smiling faces and hospitality that the Jonesborough residents take enormous pride in hosting the festival every year, and it’s clear how much this has become a communal effort. This festival is as much storytelling as it is Jonesborough, with the entire community coming together to put on such an event. Locals open up their front lawns for parking, churches along Main Street pack with lunch-break listeners looking to fill their stomachs with baked beans and corn bread, and not a single festival volunteer fails to greet you with anything less than a smile, asking “What can I help y’all find?”
Ann Hall of Johnson City, Tenn., a neighboring town to Jonesborough, said the preparations are extensive.
“You have no idea what goes into planning a festival like this. It takes a full year to plan and the entire town of Jonesborough to put together something like this,” Hall said. “I’ve been working this festival for the past 15 years and every year I still try to get all four of my children and grandchildren to come and share this experience with me.”
As the weekend came to a close, it is tough for minds not to drift back to the Tennessee adventure. We had been carried through a day with thousands of other attentive kinfolk, lingering in the porch-like setting as the grandma’s and grandpa’s of storytellers wove us familial tales that would become a part of our oral tradition.
As 82-year-old Kathryn Windham so eloquently closed her tales: “Just relax, sit back and let time go slowly by while we tell stories to each other, and laugh with each other, and cry sometimes with each other.It meant so much in my childhood. the storytelling that passes on the traditions that bind us together- we must not loose them, ’cause storytelling glues us all together.”