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- November 17, 1997
- Vol. 48
- No. 20
Weaving a Spell
When Autumn Comes to Tennessee, TVs Go Dark and Old-Time Storytellers Revive a Nearly Lost Art
But a big-time trial is not what brought news crews and some 12,000 visitors here to the foothills of the Southern Appalachians. The big draw in little Jonesborough (pop. 3,500) this week is the 25th Annual National Storytelling Festival and the 40 yarn-spinners, tale-tellers and raconteurs that Smith, the 53-year-old executive director of the National Storytelling Association, has invited to perform.
"Before this festival, if somebody said 'storytelling,' people either thought you meant lying, or they thought of librarians reading picture books to children," says Donald Davis, 53, a former Methodist minister who now spends 300 days on the road each year performing comic monologues about his North Carolina boyhood. "This festival began to create an adult audience for storytelling that has just boomed and spread."
Audiences for stories have existed since our days in caves, of course. But in this century, as the picture tube replaced the porch swing as the family's after-supper gathering place, old-fashioned storytelling began to vanish like writing in sand. This three-day gathering, and the 200-plus similar events around the U.S. it has inspired, signal "a cultural movement, a renaissance," proclaims Smith grandly.
Thus, on Saturday morning, Ray Hicks sits down before a microphone and a crowd of 1,500 in one of the seven big performance tents set up around town. Wearing bib overalls and a work shirt, he has come from the rustic, mountain home in Beech Lake, N.C., where he was born 75 years ago and has lived his entire life. Hicks is the acknowledged master of Jack tales—homespun, often fanciful morality stories ("Jack and the Beanstalk" is the best known) that have passed through generations of his family.
Seated on a folding chair, his thin arms gesturing constantly, he charms his audience back to the Appalachian hollows where his stories take place. Because of his family's isolation in the hills, Hicks's language still bears traces of his early Scottish and English forebears. Some have likened his speech to that of 16th-century Elizabethans, and, mixed with his backwoods slang, it makes him almost unintelligible at times. "I think he forgot his teeth," confides one woman as Hicks churns cheerily onward with his tale. But those present know they are seeing the real McCoy, a living link to an endangered tradition, and when his hour is done, they rise in a standing ovation.
They will do so again and again this weekend for other "tellers" as well: for Jay O'Callahan, 59, from Marsh-field, Mass., who has performed everywhere from New York City's Lincoln Center to Dublin's Abbey Theatre; for North Carolinian Jackie Torrence, 53, who has passed along the Br'er Rabbit stories learned from her grandfather to children in 50 states; for Doc McConnell, 69, a veteran medicine showman whose tall tales of life in rural Tuckers Knob, Tenn., will leave audiences weary from laughter—and make Jimmy Neil Smith a happy man once again.
Raised in Jonesborough, Smith was a part-time high school journalism teacher in 1973 when he turned on his car radio one day and heard country comedian Jerry Clower telling a yarn about 'coon hunting. That story, he says, "triggered the concept" that would change the fortunes of Tennessee's oldest town.
Jonesborough in the 1970s was rich with history—Davy Crockett was born nearby, Andrew Jackson fought his first duel here, and Daniel Boone trapped in the nearby woods. But the town also had an economy in free fall. Within months of the radio broadcast, Smith went before the town fathers with a plan "to build our future upon our past" with a celebration of storytelling. "We looked at ourselves and said, 'Our sidewalks are cracking, our streets are crumbling, our stores are empty,' " he recalls.
On a Saturday night soon after, more than 1,000 people crowded into the Davy Crockett High School gym to hear Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, the Avery County Cloggers and Jerry Clower himself, who had come up from Yazoo City, Miss. The following day would set the pattern that Smith would follow over the next quarter-century. With an outdoor audience seated on funeral parlor chairs beside the courthouse, five storytellers, including Ray Hicks, stood in the back of a farm wagon and did their bits. "There was probably 35 total people there, including the Cloggers," recalls Doc McConnell.
The following year, Smith expanded. Kathryn Windham, a longtime newspaperwoman living in Selma, Ala., remembers getting a phone call, and "this unfamiliar voice said, This is Jimmy Neil Smith in Jonesborough, Tenn., and I want you to come and tell stories at the National Storytelling Festival.' I really thought it was one of my friends playing a joke," she says. "You know, Smith, and Jones-borough. It was just all too much."
Windham, now 79 and one of the festival's featured tellers, still fondly remembers the gathering's no-frills early years. "We told stories on people's porches," she says. "We'd sit in the swing and in the rocking chairs, and the listeners were on the steps. The people who owned the houses would come out and give us teacakes and lemonade."
Now, a $10 million storytelling complex is in the works, complete with an interpretive center, library and archives. To help fund the association's day-to-day expenses, this year's three-day festival will take in $1 million, more than $200,000 of which will come from profits at a "Storytelling Store." There, between performances, fans clutch $19.95 tote bags filled with CDs, videotapes, cassettes, sweatshirts and other souvenirs. Among the mountains of books stacked on tables are collections of stories for adults and children; folktales from Ireland, Turkey, Africa and elsewhere; even a workbook-size guide with storytelling tips "for the classroom, boardroom, showroom, podium, pulpit and center stage."
Despite the ringing cash registers, however, and the fears of people like Kathryn Windham that size and commerce are "robbing it of its personal touch," the art form still seems to have its soul. After his first show, Ray Hicks passes up lunch and finds a place to sit by the side of the Jonesborough Presbyterian church. There, settled in a straight-back chair with matches, rolling papers and a tin of Velvet tobacco in his lap, he starts up another Jack tale for a few people nearby. After a while, Rosa Hicks, his wife of 49 years, comes over.
"Time you went up and got some-thin' to eat," she says.
"I'll go when I finish this story," says Hicks.
But he won't, and one hour later he is still going strong. There is, after all, still another Jack tale to tell, and someone who wants to listen.
ROGER WOLMUTH in Jonesborough
January 31, 2015
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