Storytelling at Jonesboro


David Holt makes a living playing music with the likes of Doc Watson, a legendary blind musician from the mountains of North Carolina’s High Country. But, Holt is also known to thousands as a storyteller. He’s known to spin yarns like a spider spins webs.

“I usually either try to include music in the stories or in some ways involve music,” Holt said. “I really like to entertain anaudience.”

A native of Texas, now living in Asheville, N.C., Holt began making appearances at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., in 1976.
“I usually either try to include music in the stories or in some ways involve music,” Holt said. “I really like to entertain an audience.”

A native of Texas, Holt began making appearances at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., in 1976. That’s almost since the festival’s beginning in 1973.

“Certainly the audience has changed,” Holt said. “In the early days, it was teachers, parents and children. Now, it’s mostly retired people – people who are retired who are looking for interesting things to do.”

Little more than turned out that first year at Joneborough’s National Storytelling Festival. Since 1973, the event has moved from the steps of the Washington County Courthouse and the basement of a local church to stages under huge tents.

And it has expanded to nearly all parts of the camera-ready corridor of Jonesborough’s handsome downtown district.

Now, more than 10,000 people a year turn out for all-day programs, late-night performances for adults, ghost story concerts and events geared for children with performers including Holt, Roy Book Binder, Donald Davis and Kathryn Windham. Diane Ferlatte of Oakland, Calif., also served as one of the featured tellers at this year’s festival. Known for telling stories with a personal touch, Ferlatte has been coming to Jonesborough’s gathering since 1991.
“You’re on the road by yourself – it’s nice to connect with other people who do what you do – and see some of their stories,” Ferlatte said. “I’ve been telling stories, professionally, for 20 years.”

Ferlatte, 61, first took up storytelling at home. “My son was adopted when he was three, and he was a TV addict,” Feratte said. “I began to read the stories, and told the stories, and he was listening like it was live TV. And I thought ‘A-ha!’”

Before long, Ferlatte began visiting schools to tell stories. She became well known and successful enough that she quit her day job in an office. Now, she travels the country as a storyteller.

“My father could not believe this,” Ferlatte said. “He said, ‘They pay you to do this?’”

On the , people still talk about the time when Vice President Al Gore showed up with his wife, Tipper, at the National Storytelling Festival. That year, in 1996, Gore expressed a sentiment about how the spoken word – and the art of storytelling – was getting lost in the era of lightning-quick electronic communications.

Such sentiment resonated with the crowd a decade ago. Today, it’s a sentiment shared by Sheila Kay Adams, a schoolteacher-turned-storyteller.

“I think people are coming out to this because they are longing for the spoken word,” Adams said. “I think people are just starved for that feeling of sitting around on the porch.”

From Monroe County, N.C., Adams tells stories about her family and her life in the mountains. It takes skill to be a good storyteller, Adams said.

“You have to have a good ear,” Adams added. “You have to be able to time things right … It could be just propping your hand on your hip.”

A regular storyteller at Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival since 1997, Adams now encourages other up-and-coming talents, like Faye Wooden, a traveling storyteller from Maryville, Tenn. Wooden sings and plays music. She bills her act as a combination of “laughter … legends … lessons … life.”

With a story set in a graveyard, Wooden weaves the history of the Great Smoky Mountains into explaining the meaning behind the phrase “Graveyard Shift.”

“I do it because I love it. It’s fun. It’s healing. It’s what I love,” said Wooden, a former student loan collector at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m a star or whether I’m famous.”

Beyond Jonesborough, countless other storytellers abound, like Jerry Vencill of Pounding Mill, Va.

Vencill dresses as a mountain man, wearing a cooksin cap. He also writes books and appears at festivals and events across the Appalachians.

You’ll also find storytellers like Donnamarie Emmert, who frequently tells ghost stories on the downtown streets of Abingdon, Va., about an hour north of Jonesborough, especially around Halloween or during the summer’s Virginia Highlands Festival.

For many in Jonesborough, the late Ray Hicks still serves as the face of the storytelling movement.

“Ray was kind of the center-post of traditional telling,” said Donald Davis, a former Waynesville, N.C., resident who now lives at Ocracoke Island. “Ray held up that side of the whole telling world that said there are stories that never die.”

A former United Methodist minister, Davis is one of the most popular storytellers at the National Storytelling Festival.

Davis began appearing on Jonesborough stages in 1981 and has since been invited to appear each year, telling stories about “what you did to your brother and what went wrong at Christmas and the trip with your family that you’re never going to take again,” he said.

Along with Davis, new talents like Bil Lepp shared the bill at this year’s event. Lepp, 36, tells tell tall tales about himself, his friends and his dog. A resident of Charleston, W.Va., Lepp got his start a few years ago after winning Liars’ Contests in West Virginia.

He appeared at the “Exchange Place” for storytellers at Jonesborough’s festival in 2000 and has since moved on to performing about 150 shows a year.“ There’s probably 40 tellers that are on a regular rotation on the national scene,” Lepp said. “To be invited to the national festival, it’s a symbol of the appreciation that the storytelling community has of your work.”

It also means being cast aside the greats, like Ray Hicks, who died in 2003 at age 80. Lepp called Hicks “the old guy sitting on the porch telling stories.”
A farmer from the deep woods of North Carolina’s High Country, Hicks was the epitome of old-time storytellers – and once, perhaps, the most recognized face of the National Storytelling Festival. “I loved Ray,” David Holt said. “He was absolutely impossible to emulate. He was the real thing. He told the Jack Tales, and he pretty much was Jack.”

Adams agreed. “It was amazing to watch an audience with him, because they really couldn’t understand what he was saying,” Adams said. “It was like, when Ray died, it was the passing of an era.”
Today, many story tellers took to the 78-year-old Doc McConnell for inspiration. A resident of Rogersville, Tenn., McConnell, 78, grew up in a family of storytellers along the Tennessee-Virginia line. “We told stories in our home – not in any sort of organized way,” McConnell said.

Still, hearing tales in front of the fireplace ultimately inspired McConnell. He became a musician, playing autoharp, and he found telling stories could fill the gaps when somebody broke a string or an instrument needed fixing.

Over time, McConnell refined his act as a mix of corny jokes and an old-time medicine show – a throwback to times when a traveling group of entertainers would visit a town and help support themselves by selling strange tonics or cure-all gadgets.

On the streets of Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival, McConnell sells stuff, too. He performs skits. “We do a little bit of music,” McConnell said. “And then we do some tricks.”

Other times, McConnell travels. He stages workshops. McConnell visited Jonesborough’s first festival in 1973 and has since been performing, in one way or another, every year since 1974.

“As many different stories as there is,” McConnell said, “there’s almost that many different kinds of storytellers. There’s people who just tell cowboy stories. There’s people who just tell fairy tales. And there’s folks who just tell stories of the South and stories of the Mississippi River and stories of the Civil War. And animals. And so they all have kind of a niche.”

Still, storytelling can mean much more than entertainment, McConnell said.

“It’s been used as a medical therapeutic tool in counseling,” McConnell said. “It’s been used in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and in the courtrooms during the week. And, people sell pickup trucks with it. There’s some people that tell stories one way and some people who tell stories another way … I think everybody can tell a story.”

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