National Storytelling Festival 2010

Storytelling is not just for kids but for all kids at heart. I’ve been a fan of storytelling off and on for 30 years, and wish I could point to the first time I heard a story told and say something like “the first time I ever heard a storyteller…”, but I can’t. Of course, it doesn’t really matter when I first heard a story other than those told by my uncles on Sundays on the porch between church and dinner. It only matters that I discovered the world of storytellers and the absolute, hands-down, no doubt about it,  best can be found in Jonesborough, Tennessee during the second weekend of every October.

Even though I am passionate about storytelling, and have a desire to learn how, it seems I only get to the festival every ten years or so. This year marked the third time I attended in about a twenty year time period. I was as excited about going as a kid going to Disneyland.

The first day is filled with storytelling “samplers”, where they have all of the weekend’s tellers “tell” for about 30 minutes each. This way you can decide who you want to see do a full 1-hour show on Saturday or Sunday.  So I dragged my husband from tent to tent until dinnertime, and returned that night for “ghost stories” where I found myself shivering… not from the stories but from the cold mountain air. The next morning found us in the local Walmart buying long-johns and gloves so we’d be ready for the Saturday night shows.

The most amazing experience was sitting in a tent with 1000 people   all captivated by the teller of the moment. Every member of the audience was so enthralled that you could have heard a pin drop except we were sitting on chairs on the grass under a tent. There’s no clear demarcation between storytelling, stand-up comedy, and musical entertainment, because all of those were on display. Many of the storytellers played musical instruments like Bill Harley and John McCutcheon and most everyone told jokes.

In the bustle of our daily lives, we get little chance to laugh like a 4-year old which is just one of the many things that makes the festival so special. It is three 10-hour days of non-stop laughter sprinkled with tears brought about by the common understanding of the human experience. As one teller put it… a great story occurs where the story intersects with our personal experience.

Stay tuned

Small Town Living

Last weekend in Jonesborough Tennessee, confirmed my belief in the niceness of Americans. My husband and I attended the National Storytelling Festival, which had over 10,000 visitors in 1999 and probably double that now. The people were scary nice. Being a northener, I was on guard and expecting someone to pick my pocket while being distracted by the nice person. When people ask “how ya’ll doing”, they really want to know and wait for an answer. All weekend we were honeyed, darlinged, and sweathearted everywhere we went. Even policemen would look you in the eye and say hello. The festival gatekeepers apologized when asking to see your ticket… as if anyone would attempt to sneak into what was described as “the biggest nerdfest in the country”.  Even though the town was packed, no one was in a rush. It was like Pleasantville, USA. You could ask a stranger for directions, and it would turn into a conversation that lasted a little longer than desired, because we were northerners and hadn’t adjusted to the pace of small town life.

While attending one of the shows, I stepped on lots of toes on the way to my seat, but everyone was embarrassingly nice and helpful. I experienced this again on a day-trip to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, which bills itself as “the countries first spa”. I will admit there seems to be more niceness in the small towns than in the cities, but that’s just a function of size.

The grandest display of niceness was found at the Cranberry Thistle Café and Coffee House  with great country music  in Jonesborough, TN, population 4,100. Coming from the big city of Washington, DC with a population of 600,000, I am used to making reservations at popular restaurants, but I know that if I don’t show up on time, then 10 to 15 minutes after the reserved time, I will lose my reservation. Not so in small town America. They have this idea that if you reserve a time, then you intend on showing up. At the Cranberry Thistle, they actually put your name on a card that is placed on a table reserved just for you. They were more concerned with serving their customers, even those too rude to cancel, than they were with  following the standard restaurant rules about turning the tables as frequently as possible.

We saw people get turned away, because tables were reserved. We also saw those tables sit empty for the entire hour that we were there. From a business perspective, this makes no sense at all, but from a southern perspective, you made a commitment to show up and they committed to keeping a table for you. On Sunday afternoon, our third visit in three days, they were supposed to close at 2pm, but the last festival event was just letting out so they stayed open to accommodate the late comers. In the big city, they would have barred the door, because the staff wanted to go home.

Americans are all nice, but just a little nicer in the small towns.

Stay tuned