Coming to Jonesborough, Ten-nessee during the National Storytelling Festival is like coming home. Even if you’ve never been to Tennessee, even if you don’t know one of the 11,000 spellbound story listeners, even if you never heard of either a “haint” or a “yenta.”
When you sit here in a tent that’s slowly being covered by falling sugar-maple leaves, breathing in the scent of hay and honeysuckle, and listening to a storyteller talking straight to your soul, you feel like this is what life’s all about. Or should be about.
The National Storytelling Festival is a magical time in this eastern Tennessee town. For three days in early October (next year’s is scheduled for Oct. 4-6), people from all over come to hear jack tales, folktales, personal stories, legends, and outrageous yarns. Some stories are sad, some are funny. Some happened yesterday, and some never happened at all, but you know they are true.
“We need stories now more than ever,” said storyteller David Novak, as he “prepared the space” for tellers following him in the festival’s largest tent. “Stories can be a reserve of faith and power. They can teach. It is important that we turn to these reserves and not let anger close off our hearts and reason. We each need to take a piece of Jonesborough back to where we came from this year, a large piece.”
The pieces came in all shapes and textures: There was Chinese Japanese-Scotch-American Brenda Wong Aoki, who told a tale of fantasy and courage in which a child’s tears brought life back to the bones of her family as they were rescued from a dragon’s belly.
“To the Hmong people, the dragon was the Khmer Rouge and the tears and memories of the children are the way the elders it murdered still live,” she said. “It is important to give them life.”
There was Jim May, an Illinois native, who figured out where the raven went in his unique retelling of Noah’s ark, weaving in the descriptive vernacular of rural carpenters and the death of his sister last year. “The dove found land,” he said, “but the raven left the ark to comfort the dead and dying as they passed over to the other side.”
There was former Methodist minister, Donald Davis, spinning stories that celebrated the human spirit, but didn’t preach. His true-life tales featured his kin and neighbors in the North Carolina mountains — neighbors like Miss Daisy, who married for the first time in her 60s and killed her husband with “an excess of unclaimed affection.”
And for those of us who find ourselves thinking about all the things we should and could do, Olga Loya told the story of the grandfather clock who grew weary ticking away each second for the past 80 years. Not even a Swiss craftsman could fix him after the clock wound down, but the words of a child set him in motion again.
“You don’t need to think about all those ticks-tocks,” she said. “All you have to do is take one tick at a time.”
The National Storytelling Festival is the nation’s oldest, an event that began on the back of a haywagon in front of Jonesborough’s courthouse 28 years ago and has expanded to seven large tents, including an “exchange place” where novice tellers vie for attention from hay bales.
As he planned the first festival, founder Jimmy Neil Smith began to dream. “Do you think it’s too presumptuous to name our festival the National Storytelling Festival?” he asked a friend.
“Well,” she asked. “Is there anything like it anywhere else?”
“As far as I know, there’s nothing like this anywhere in America,” he replied.
She grinned. “Then let’s be presumptuous.”
“Those first storytellers breathed life into the first National Storytelling Festival,” Smith says. “Even as we sat listening, we knew we would return the next year and the next. It was as if an ancient memory had been jogged — of people throughout time, sitting together, hearing stories. We were taken back to a time when the spoken story was all there was.”
The three-day festival is now comprised of a midnight cabaret of adult stories, a ghost story concert, children’s storytellers, and child storytellers. You’ll hear feminist tales and altar-boy’s tales; Jewish tales and Caribbean stories, cowboy poetry and Native American legends. You can even arrange to attend a yarnspinner’s party Saturday night to meet the featured tellers and support the use of storytelling for positive change in the world.
Librarians, educators, and regressed yuppies — all passionately devoted to the tale and now the national festival — renew acquaintances, talk shop, and reassure themselves of the vigor of the spoken work in the era of music videos.
The powerful influence of story has produced a crowd so respectful, that there is scant litter, almost no noise during performances, and lots of spontaneous smiling. On Sunday morning, when nearby churches are holding service, the audience mutes its applause to the dry hiss of palms rubbed together, a sound that when multiplied by 11,000 pairs of hands, mimics the receding surf.
Although he was not there in person for the first time since 1973, the presence of Ray Hicks was almost palpable this year, as younger storytellers paid the North Carolina farmer homage from each tent and urged visitors to buy dahlias to support Hicks’ hospice care.
Hicks, who lives up on Beech Mountain, N.C. in the house where he was born, stood 6 foot 7 inches “in muh bar’ feet” and thrust out his arms like a priming water pump as he spoke. Honored by the Smithsonian as a national treasure, Hicks’ art was telling tales of Jack, the eternal hero of people oppressed by giants and other overwhelming foes.
Jack’s adventures comprise a string of tales that go back almost to Chaucer’s time and include that perennial children’s story, “Jack and the Beanstalk.” But when Ray told Jack tales, they were part of the mountains.
Hicks also had a lot to say about ghosts. “I believe in ghosts of the spirit,” he said. “I’ve seen spirits of people in my life; I’ve heard their voices.”
Hicks shared his fascination with ghosts with another storyteller, Kathryn Windham, 84, who took his place at the ghost storytelling this year. Not only does Windham, a retired journalist from Selma, Alabama, have a continuing personal relationship with a live-in apparition named Jeffrey, but she has collected tales of ghost sightings from all over the South. In Jonesborough, she tells her stories under the stars, occasionally backlit by a roaring bonfire.
If hours of dynamic stories give you stimulus overload, Jonesborough offers opportunities for diversion. You can stroll down the brick sidewalks looking at the historic homes of Tennessee’s oldest town. Or take a leisurely horse and surrey ride. With an advance reservation (423/753-1010), you can learn the town’s history through a series of tales on the Discover Times and Tales tour.
Jonesborough is located in northeast Tennessee, about 20 minutes off Interstate 81. For more about the National Storytelling Network and International Storytelling Center, call 800/525-4514.