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Storytelling Is the Talk of This Tennessee Town : 3,500 Make Pilgrimage to Jonesborough for 13th Annual Tale-Spinning Event

Times Staff Writer

Coming here is like coming home. Even if you’ve never been to the South, even if you don’t have an ounce of Southern Comfort in your blood--people come here and feel like, well, this is what life’s all about. Or what life should be about.

It’s all this autumn, the endless green of rolling hills topped with trees turning red and yellow, the air brisk, yet popping with sudden warmth as the sun dances between the clouds.

Friendly Residents

It’s the residents of this little community in Eastern Tennessee, shopkeepers and waitresses and people in rocking chairs on their front porches, who say “Hi, how ya doing?” and “Where ya from?” and ramble on about the time they visited your hometown and guess things have changed a lot since then and “Do you really like Tennessee? Whyn’t you move here?”

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And of course, it’s the occasion: the National Storytelling Festival, now in its 13th year, three days in early October when some 3,500 people from all over come to Tennessee’s oldest town. They come to listen and they come to tell--stories, wonderful stories, some funny, some sad, some true, some older than the wind.

Storytelling. It’s as old as humankind; but it’s also as new as the Swatch watch. It is one of those arts, or maybe one of those habits, that sort of faded away as people started watching television and going to movies and giving less time to each other. In just the last few years, though, storytelling has seen a revival. Suddenly it’s being intellectualized and studied, recorded and filmed. Storytelling workshops, competitions and festivals are springing up around the country like winter crocuses. It’s like a giant secret that’s being whispered faster and faster--hey, this is fun, this is magic.

And eventually, say people who’ve discovered the secret, you come to Jonesborough. For what New Orleans is to jazz, Sedalia, Mo., to ragtime, little Jonesborough is to storytelling.

Spoke in Thick Brogue

“It’s the big time,” said Wanna Zinsmaster of Pasadena, a member of a San Gabriel Valley storytelling group and a creative drama and storytelling teacher at Cal State Los Angeles. Earlier that day, she’d stood up in the grassy meadow known as the Swappin’ Ground and related in thick brogue an Irish folk tale called “The Boy Who Had No Story to Tell.”

“This is my third time at the festival,” she said, still exhilarated from her seven-minute moment in the sun, “but the first time I’ve told a story. I’ve told stories at other festivals and, of course, in my class. But today, I don’t mind saying, I was scared. You see, you come here, and this is where the big ones are.”

“You get into storytelling and you just have to come here,” said Syd Lieberman, a high school teacher in Evanston, Ill., who’d happened onto storytelling four years ago while looking for an outlet for stress.

“It’s like a pilgrimage to Mecca.”

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“You must be the storyteller,” the little boy said.

“Yes, how’d you know?” Jon Spelman responded.

“Well, look at you. You’re three stories tall.”

Storytellers are as different as the stories they tell. Some tellers are best enjoyed with your eyes closed, the teller just standing there straight, unreeling a story like a movie in your imagination. Others move and gesture, enveloping their audience with the size or the sound of what’s happening. Their voices cajole, roar, sing, purr, somehow mesmerizing the audience into seeing in them all the characters, all the action.

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And the people who listen to storytellers, they’re librarians, teachers, ministers, engineers, business people and computer scientists. They’ve come to the festival in their preppie khaki and pastel sweaters or in layers of turtlenecks over long peasant skirts or in polyester pant suits or in parkas and jeans. On their feet: L. L. Bean hiking shoes or thongs or penny loafers or maybe no shoes at all. Some have brought their children, others their dogs. Some sit all day on folding chairs in the bright-striped circus tents where the featured tellers are doing their thing. Others roam from one tent to another, stopping a spell at the Swappin’ Ground, strolling down the street for a waffle ice cream cone or some funnel cake and fresh-made cider.

There’s a lot of talking here; not just the weaving of great yarns, but a lot of visiting, laughing, hugging people not seen since last year and, hey, glad you made it again.

There’s also a bit of theorizing about what’s happening with storytelling and about why it’s happening. Pick up on this at the Swappin’ Ground--that’s where anybody can get up and tell a story, though there’s a 10-minute limit and in the past few years, there have been so many ready to tell that now names are drawn.

Rooster-Sultan Tale

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Just finished with a story--a tale about a little red rooster and his confrontations with a Turkish sultan over a diamond button--was Sharon Butler, 33, of Washington, D.C., who was standing apart from the action with Jean Alexander, 54, Bob Ravinsky, 39, and his niece, Heather, 9, who just moved to Potomac, Md., from Walnut Creek, Calif. Heather played the part of the rooster in Butler’s tale. The adults all are members of Voices in the Glen, a Washington, D. C., storytelling group.

Butler stumbled onto storytelling several years ago while pursuing an interest in folklore and “it was like I found my life.” It wasn’t easy, she said, telling at the Swappin’ Ground. There were no microphones and there were a lot of distractions, but what storytelling is all about--the connection between the audience and the teller--that was still there.

“Even more than dancing, singing, the theater, there’s a sense of personal connection between the storyteller and each member of the audience,” she said. “There’s just a sense of intimacy.”

Backlash to Television

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Ravinsky suspected that storytelling was in someways a backlash to television. “For many of us, there’s a need to produce in our internal imagination.”

A few minutes later, a rangy 15-year-old in a black satin Vanderbilt college jacket ambled in front of the Swappin’ Ground crowd and, hands in the pocket of his jeans, drawled a Br’er Rabbit story. He was Robert Clarkson of College Grove, Tenn., and he came to the festival two years ago and told a story then too, he said later. It’s his stepmother who really tells the stories, he said, looking at his feet now that he was being asked about himself. The first time he came to the festival, he met Doc McConnell and Ed Stivender, both veteran storytellers who are on the festival staff, and “well, I knew I had to tell one here.”

Was he nervous?

“Yeah.”

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Why’d he feel he had to tell a story?

“Well, I love talking a lot.”

What was it like standing in front of all those people?

A grin. “Neat. I sort of watch the audience, see how they zero in on me.”

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Tom S. Galt was on a roll. He’d just finished a tale, “long ago and far away . . . " at the Swappin’ Ground and now, standing by the festival eating area, taking in the fruity aroma of hot apple cider, he couldn’t stop. He was Pecos Bill, old and weathered and out of the Wild West; he was an English lord, his short legs bouncing like a frog as he recited Kenneth Grahame’s “Toad of Toad Hall”; he was a merrily mischievous leprechaun, his brogue thicker than Irish Mist; he was wary and fearsome, his voice menacing, as he switched to James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie,” “an’ the gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out.”

Reality was only a brief intermission between personalities. Yes, it was true, he was 46 and just last March he’d quit his job as a bank computer specialist in Seattle, Wash., making $28,000 a year, to become a professional storyteller. Next St. Patrick’s Day was already booked up. He’d never studied storytelling as some do, gathering tales, perfecting his technique. “My memory is my hearing,” he said. “The voices, they just come. They always have.”

Jimmy Neil Smith knows what people must think and he’ll say it once again. He’s not a storyteller. He’s a producer. When it comes to telling stories, “I’ve got the spirit. I just can’t do it worth a hoot.”

Smith is the former mayor of Jonesborough and the person everyone credits with thinking up the festival. There’s a story here of course, except Smith, 38, doesn’t embellish it the way a true teller would. Instead, it’s just a simple anecdote of how Smith, a high school journalism teacher, and some of his students were driving over to a meeting at another school, listening to the radio. Grand Ole Opry’s Jerry Clower was telling one of his long, involved, outlandish tales and “we were slapping our knees and laughing so hard.”

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Festivals have been born from less. But Smith’s timing was serendipitous. Here was Jonesborough, settled in the 1770s and in the 1970s revitalized and declared a historic district, just looking for something to attract tourists.

Drew 100 People

The first festival drew maybe 100 people, seated around a wagon, listening to some of the local spinners of yarns. But it was a good time, so everyone decided to do it again. In 1974, a few more came and Smith, who’d become the first chairman, started getting organized. They’d found something here--the storytellers were out there, they just needed to be pulled in. The National Assn. for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling was formed. Smith became its executive director. Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan-Blake, cousins and former Asheville, N. C., librarians, got involved. They’d been storytelling in tandem for years.

Now look at them. There’s Smith standing outside the resource tent, where NAPPS volunteers and staff are selling NAPPS mugs and T-shirts and tapes and workbooks. NAPPS, after all, is about preservation and it takes money to put out a newsletter, catalogue, directory and keep an archive. He waved to Doc McConnell, who was wearing his storytelling red shirt and jacket and was headed over to the Swappin’ Ground, and greeted an elderly couple from Savannah, Ga., who came last year, all the while talking with Peter Bieler, an independent producer who just flew in from Los Angeles to collect some ghost stories for a possible television show.

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Smith likes to say it might have been rather presumptuous to take the name the National Storytelling Festival, but what the heck, “with our festival, we created a new appreciation of storytelling as a art. (We) served as an impetus for this national renaissance of storytelling, a revival as it were.”

Syd Lieberman had collected a crowd. He was just going to do it for his family and a couple of friends, a story he wrote called “The Italian T-Shirt.” But there he was under an oak tree, his face alive with expression as he told how he’d had this really rotten day--as rotten as it could possibly be with everything in the house breaking down, his kids bawling and misbehaving, his wife out on errands, then coming home and blaming him for things going wrong--so he goes out and takes a walk. And while walking along feeling sorry for himself, he glances in a store window and sees an Italian T-shirt.

The imagery is so clear. Lieberman has everyone set up. Here he is, 41, short, losing his hair, cute, maybe, but sort of like a teddy bear. And the Italian T-shirt, why, that’s what the Italian guys wore in school, guys like Jimmy Navagatto, the original Fonzie. You wore an Italian T-shirt and you became tough, irresistible, a real man. Lieberman buys the T-shirt in the story and he puts it on.

Seeing the Scene

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No one takes their eyes from Lieberman. They can see the whole scene, especially as Lieberman goes home in the story--Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone rolled into one cute, middle-aged man wearing a white Italian T-shirt.

It’s a good story. And Lieberman is good at telling it. He knows this, just as a person knows he can write or act or if he’s a natural athlete. “You approach it as a skill, but you learn it as an art form, " he said later, watching his daughter, Sarah, 11, run off to a doll shop and 9-year-old Zack head off with his mother for some lunch.

“You have to have some kind of talent. But then you have to work.” Lieberman had attended some workshops and conferences on storytelling. That’s the way you pursue interests when you’re a teacher, a graduate of Harvard University and a Peace Corps veteran. But still, he said, “it’s in my blood. Most of the stuff I do is Jewish. It’s the way I move, it’s my story. Being Jewish is my well. My style is very active. And going to workshops, I haven’t changed it, I’ve just refined it.”

He grinned, audiences in Jonesborough are so receptive. They sit there just waiting for a great story. “You really can’t figure audiences,” he laughed. “If an audience has just had a big meal and it’s in a huge hall, it’s going to be a lousy situation. Though sometimes it can be real good. But if people actually come for the stories, you can do no wrong. Sometimes they laugh so hard and you feel so good.”

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A long time after Little Red Riding Hood had grown up, she moved to Dallas, where she had a job as a telephone operator and lived in a singles apartment with her friend, Debbie. One day, Little Red and Debbie were going to the Safeway store to play Bingo. As they walked along, a young wolf pulled up. Since Little Red had been through this before, she pulled a gun out of her purse and shot the wolf. Except there was a struggle and by mistake, it looked like she shot Debbie. So Little Red is taken to jail. There she’s visited by her Granny. “Now don’t worry about anything,” Granny says. “I’ve brought the Visine.”

“That’s real kind of you, Granny,” says Little Red. “But how will that help me? I’m in jail.”

“Why Granddaughter, it says right here on the label. Use Visine in your eyes and get the red out.”

--Little Red Riding Hood II, written by a little girl name Elizabeth and told by Jon Spelman.

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If you do the festival right, you sample all the tellers--at least all 15 who’ve been invited to be featured storytellers. They came together only once, on Friday night of the long weekend, in an orgy of storytelling. Each was allowed 10 minutes. The next day, they’d each have an hour’s solo performance and several other performances in tandem, moving among the four tents, occasionally stopping in to listen to each other.

But this first night was the Olio, where it all would begin. Two tents were set aside with the tellers going between, a story at each. Both tents filled early, folding chairs saved with hats, jackets, latecomers leaning on tent poles, sitting in the aisles or on blankets just outside. Everyone was ready.

The contrasts were astounding. First, Jay O’Callahan, tall, lean, bearded, from Massachusetts, nationally known. He’s the master, Syd Lieberman whispered as the story began, his daughter Sarah sitting on his lap. It’s a favorite, “Orange Cheeks,” a funny, sweet tale of a little boy’s first trip alone to stay with his grandmother.

From New Mexico Pueblo

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Then came Simon Ortiz, raised in the Acoma Pueblo community in New Mexico. He barely moved as he talked about a mystical Indian spirit, one of those tales that “I heard from my sister or my mother, but is really the voice of my grandmother.”

Jon Spelman, who created a children’s storytelling TV show in Washington, was reminiscent of Garrison Keillor or maybe Robin Williams, taking the microphone off its stand and moving around the stage as he told his version of Shakesphere’s “King Lear,” which involves a frog and a magic string and a princess who wants to avoid commitment so she keeps escaping her prince when he goes to the punch bowl.

Mary Carter Smith, a striking black woman in African dress, told a strange story of love, violence and murder. She is from Baltimore. Peninnah Schram, who learned Talmudic and Midrashic tales from her father, a cantor, while her mother shared the proverbs and folk tales of the Jewish people, is warm and comfortable on stage like someone you’ve known a long time. She’s an associate professor of speech and drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University in New York.

Audience Participation

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Lynn Rubright worked her audience, demanding participation. They joined her, echoing in a grim steamy whisper how a little rabbit got “sooooo hot.” She’s another professional, based in St. Louis, Mo., where she teaches storytelling as an educational tool and also performs.

Connie Martin from the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State told a classic fairy tale, “Ringrake,” using masks for the various characters. Alice Kane, a retired children’s librarian from Canada, stood quietly erect on stage almost as if she were bedside, lulling you to sleep with an Irish wonder story, one of those tales with weird riddles and great accomplishments.

Robert Creed, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, would be performing the Old English epic of “Beowolf"--in the Old English. He is convinced this is understandable and during the Olio, he recited a few stanzas. It seemed strange, but later Ray Hicks--the only storyteller who’s been invited to perform at every festival--would fill a tent for two hours telling Appalachian Mountain tales in a North Carolina accent so thick it seems almost as unpenetrable as Old English.

India Folk Artist

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Seleshe Damessae, who was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, shared a rambling story of how friends say goodby to each other in his country. It ended with music. Purna Das Baul, a folk artist from India, sang in a high-pitched voice and had a translator who explained the literal and religious meanings of what was being done.

Heather Forest also sang, but hers are traditional story songs with some narrative. This night it’s a funny tale of a lord who tries blackmailing a young woman into marrying him and, through strange circumstances and perhaps a little bullheadedness, nearly weds her horse.

Then there’s Spalding Gray, a New Yorker, sophisticated, an actor who most recently appeared in “The Killing Fields.” His stories are more monologues, funny, acerbic, like one-sided conversations. Finally, Jackson Gilman from Portland, Me., tall, thin, gliding over the stage like a dancer. He had a poem, which he accompanies with the sign language of the deaf.

It was an evening that went on. And on. And nobody left or even seemed restless. It’s shortly before midnight when the last story is told. That’s when Laura Simms, a Brooklyn-born storyteller who’s serving as mistress of ceremonies for this tent, announced that the shuttle buses have never shown to take people back to their hotels.

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“You’d all better become friends,” she said blithely.

So that’s what people did and, as it turned out, there were more people offering rides than needing them.

The shuttle buses were canceled for the rest of the weekend.

The Saturday night walk to the Jonesborough cemetery is ritual. It’s really too crowded; some people in the back can barely see the campfire. But still they go, blankets on the ground, huddling against strangers as the cold wind brushes their face.

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They go to be scared, good and scared--of things that go bump in the night, of deepest, darkest most fearsome demons that live only in the imagination.

And they know the stories are going to be good when Jay O’Callahan walks up to the microphone, his manner so deathly silent that even the air stops moving, and begins, “Old Man Danniger loved Halloween too well . . . .

Nobody wants to go home. They trickle into town on Sunday, their bags packed and in the trunks of their cars or arrangements made for a lift to the Tri-Cities Airport 30 minutes away. They figure on staying just through the Sacred Gathering, religious stories, parables, stories that make you reflect. This day, coincidentally, is World Peace Day and somehow that seems appropriate.

The featured storytellers who could stay through the entire weekend are at various tents and people wander over. Just one more story and then we’ll go.

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Doc McConnell has an afternoon in the park going, lots of the featured storytellers from past years are on stage: Jackie Torrence, who’d ended the ghost story telling with “The Monkey’s Paw,” Barbara Freeman, Donald Davis, Doug Elliott.

A Well-Fed Lot

Chuck Larkin, with his wild waxed mustache, is holding court over by the Swappin’ Ground, glancing around at his well-fed companions and quipping, “there’s more pounds of storytelling here than anyplace in the world.”

Visitors wander about: in and out of the tents, down Main Street to buy some gourds, a dried corn arrangement or a piece of Appalachian folk art, then back to the festival food area to see if there’s any more shrimp gumbo before they head for home.

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Still they stay, late into the afternoon, saying goodby to each other once, then again. Just one more story, they laugh.

Among the lingerers, Elliott Zucker of Glenham, N.Y., who sat on a hillside with Martha Lee of Chattanooga, Tenn. and Margaret Beaumont of Tracy City, Tenn. Running around with an assortment of dogs, are their various five children. All are somehow related, but distantly.

‘A Time for Bonding’

Lee and Beaumont have been coming to the festival for the last five years. It’s become a family tradition, they say. “It’s an opportunity to get the kids together. It’s a time for bonding,” said Lee.

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“I like the time of year. I like to tell ghost stories. I like the way it’s outdoors and everybody feels so good,” said Beaumont.

How about Zucker? This was his first time at the festival. Would he come down from New York again next year?

He laughed and let his head fall back on the grass so the sun could hit him full on the face. “Of course, I’m coming back,” he declared. “It would be much too expensive to stay here and wait.”


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