Sunday, March 31, 2013

The National Storytelling Festival at Jonesborough, Tennessee

Jonesborough, TN.  First Light

Morgantown, WV.  3/31/13:  On the first weekend in October--every year for the past forty--the oldest town in Tennessee is magic.  Suddenly, thousands of people from all over the country..the world..are there with happy grins on their faces.  I'm telling you this now so you can make arrangements to join them.

  Jonesborough is host to the National Storytelling Festival each Autumn.  The very best storytellers go there like singers go to the Grand Old Opry.  This is the big one..where they want to be seen and heard.  And the audience is always willing.

  You can get 400 to 600 people on folding chairs in a tent like that one (right). There are five set up around the town and people get there early to fill them.  Storytelling starts at 10 every day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  On two of those days, it goes to midnight.  

  The whole thing started in the courthouse square on a hay wagon where an old mountain man told "Jack Tales" to a crowd of about 150.  And it snowballed.  The organizing committee started on next year's show..word spread..invitations to professional "Tellers" went out..and the rest is history.  Mary Alice and I started going there in the late 80s and never missed one.  I'm going back with my kids and a bunch of friends this fall, and so merrily we roll along.


     Donald Davis (below) is the undisputed "Dean" of the tellers.  His specialty is 
stories about his family in western North Carolina.  His characters are richly drawn, the stories are warm and usually hilarious.  

  Donald writes numerous books and records stories, but there is absolutely nothing like watching him in person.  He lives the stories and the audiences love him.  I have seen them pick up their traps and follow him from tent to tent.

  One of the amazing things about these folks is their depth.  Tellers are not allowed to repeat a story during a given festival, so they always bring a big selection since each is scheduled several times a day.

  Just picture..a bare wooden stage in the front of a tent, a microphone and a stool. That's all. These people light that up.

Bil Lepp

     Bil Lepp (right) is known as the Grand Champion Liar of West Virginia.  He won the title five times in a row at the state's annual Vandalia festival.  His brother won it five times before him.  So who's going to argue?

   The stories Bil spins are about his teen years with his friend Skeeter in Half Dollar, WV.  I don't think there is a Half Dollar, but it sounds like a lot of little towns in the southern part of the state and what he claims they got into raises a lot of guilty memories in anybody who ever was a teenager with a buddy.  The stuff is waaay out there and funny, Friend.  He writes books and does recordings, too..but anybody who ever saw a 17 year old with a ball cap on the back of his head, hands in his hip pockets, one hip thrust to the side..knows where Bil Lepp is coming from.  And you want to be right there with him.

  This is Barbara McBride Smith, Oklahoman raised in Texas.  A librarian in her other life, Barbara rocks audiences with stories about ranchers and, believe it or not, Greek Gods described in a western accent.  

  Wonderfully talented and warm, she's been a star at Jonesborough from the beginning.  One of her favorite things is talking with fans between shows..and they flock to her.

  She does records and has written books and there is a tent at Jonesborough that sells them.

  That's just three.  There are many, many more..and after you've heard them once or twice, they seem like family.


     As I may have mentioned, it's a beautiful little town.  Daniel Boone had a place near here when that street was just a stage coach road. 

    If you decide to join us this fall--and I hope you do--start hunting a hotel right now.  You'll have no trouble getting tickets to a full weekend of shows--you register up near the library--but hotels are something else, as you can see by this sign posted on one of them downtown.  I think people pass along hotel reservations to their heirs like others pass season football tickets.

   You should bring a seat cushion with you, bottled water, and probably a light jacket, just in case.  A heavier jacket in the trunk of your car is probably not a bad idea, either.  But percentage-wise, we've usually found gorgeous autumn weather there.  

   I can also say that we have rarely, if ever, found a grouchy person in Jonesborough.  They all come for just one thing..and it's not to watch TV.

   There's an ice cream shop on the main street, places that cater box lunches and others that have full sit-down meals. There's a tent with everything from pizza to roast beef.  But don't miss the hot-dog stand up the alley.

Waiting to go on.

It's just wonderful, and I wouldn't miss it for (almost) anything.