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National Storytelling Festival Provides Living Bridge Between Generations

  • Kevin Jones

It's far more than just a ritual of children's bedtime. Storytelling can be a living bridge between generations and cultures, as Kevin Jones discovered recently at the National Storytelling Festival (October 1-3) in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

"Once upon on a time there was a hunter called Quo. Quo was one of the most respected hunters in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Whenever Quo went hunting and came back to the village he was so good and shared the meat so well that the people, that's you, would clap their hands and the people would sing..."

Jan Blake has her audience singing and clapping as she takes them along with her on a story of a hunting trip in West Africa. It's a scene repeated often under the huge tents of The National Storytelling Festival.

Horse-drawn carriages carry visitors slowly down Jonesborough's Main Street. The storefronts are decorated for the festival in the brilliant colors of fall. Floppy scarecrows have been propped up on lampposts along the sidewalk, surrounded by red, orange, and yellow flowers. Carriage drivers describe the history of the town for their passengersas they pass a small log cabin, an old cemetery, and crowds gathered on the steps beneath the gleaming white courthouse clock tower.

"Old King Midas, I'm happy to say, learned a very important lesson that day, gold and silver don't matter that much, compared to the lives of the people we touch."

During Festival weekend, Jonesborough is filled with the sounds of impromptu stories and music from performers on the street.

At the first National Storytelling Festival in 1973, only 60 people stopped to listen to a handful of performers who stood on the back of an old wagon. Today, 22 storytellers from around the world spent three days in Jonesborough, weaving tales and adventures for more than 11,000 visitors.

That magical atmosphere has drawn Bill and Loma Murphy here from Michigan for the past seven years. They echoed a sentiment heard from many others: if you come to the Storytelling Festival once, you have to come back. "We came even when it's hot like today, we came the year it was so cold, we were sitting in our coats, hats and gloves," he says.

"Both my parents grew up in the Depression, which meant that behind our house when I was a child, we had a gigantic garden, we could have fed six families out of what my mother canned every year - she didn't can, she jarred," reads Donald Davis, who has been performing at the festival for twenty-four years. As a professional storyteller, he travels around the world to share his memories about growing up in rural Appalachia.

After a late-Sunday afternoon performance at the Festival about the fun and misery of going to an orthodontist to get braces on his teeth, he was approached by an elderly woman who said she went to the same orthodontist. "And now she's starting to think about all this stuff, how she used to go and everything that happened to her and she's going to tell her kids all about that, and she's never told them about that before," he says. "So I'm really trying to do stories about things that are so simple and common and ordinary that instead of saying 'Wow!' people will say, 'I did something like that or I knew somebody like that.'"

And that's his goal: to have people relate to his stories, and start telling their own. "I work with original stories completely. What I'm about is helping other people see that we all have stories and the way you do that is not by telling them that they have a story, but by telling them a story that reminds them of something that happened to them," he says.

Many of the stories told here in Jonesborough evoke the past.

"So we walked out into the starry September night, we took a flashlight and there was no bear to be seen..."

As tall, gray-bearded Bryan Bowers softly strums his autoharp and tells about where he was on 9/11, everyone in the audience remembers where they were on that day. "We ran up the path and we got in the house, come in there and she's looking stricken. We say 'What, what?' and she said 'Look!' and she pointed at the TV. And we looked at the TV and there was the smoking World Trade Center standing there, and she said 'We've been attacked.' And as we stood there watching, the second plane smacked into the second tower," he says.

With her soft gray hair, long flowing skirt and gentle southern voice, 86-year-old Kathryn Windham looks like the grandmother she talks about, sitting on the front porch swapping stories and sipping iced tea.

For 28-year-old Kim Miller, it brings to life memories of her grandparents. "It reminds people what it was like when they sat around the table and your grandfather told a story and the TV wasn't on and the games weren't on and you actually sat there and it was interesting just to hear him talk and to tell a story."

According to Festival founder Jimmie Neil Smith, whether it's a personal experience in the Appalachian Mountains or a fable from Africa, storytelling serves a universal human purpose. "Anytime that we can sit down and talk to each other and share our stories, we're building a platform for understanding, and what we're doing here is getting people to share their stories so that we can create a meaningful relationship," he says. "Who can hate a person whose story we know?"

"The tortoise pulled its head out the shell and sang..."

Jan Blake's African tale is of a hunter who finds a beautiful singing turtle in the forest. He believes that capturing it will make him wealthy and famous. The turtle's song is about humility, but in his greed the hunter fails to listen and suffers the consequences. Ms. Blake's engaging presence and lilting voice can carry this simple but powerful moral lesson about pride across any cultural divide.

"Trouble does not go looking for man, man goes looking for trouble. The tortoise is still out in the forests of Africa and that is the end of my story."

And like the tortoise, the storytellers are still 'out there,' telling their tales in other cities and towns, leaving the streets of Jonesborough quiet, …until next year's National Storytelling Festival.