Like a captivating story, Connie Regan-Blake is subtle and grounded. She maintains a balance, as good storytellers do, between what is the larger story — the setting — and what part of it belongs to her, ever mindful of her responsibility to both. With an Appalachian accent as soft as the Blue Ridge, she weaves a tale from Haiti, or Japan, or Banner Elk and in each one brings home the meaning of being human.
This has been Regan-Blake’s purpose for decades. “I’ve never had any other job than storyteller,” she says. For Regan-Blake, the call of story arose through the voices of her family.
“My family loved to tell stories. Sometimes when relatives were visiting from Tennessee, a breakfast could stretch on for hours, with all of us still sitting at the table when lunchtime arrived! And looking back on it, I think my early training came from listening — listening to all those stories, the images and words transporting me to a different world when my parents were children.”
The story of story
As one of Regan-Blake’s tales recounts (about how tall the telling could get), her cousin once said to her, “I’ll blow out the lamp under the water if you shave 10 pounds off that minnow.” The line speaks to a story’s ability to stay with us long after the telling’s done, and the power of some images to stir, trouble, inspire and change the way we not only see the world but how we live in it.
The word “story” has expanded in applications over the past few years. “You have to tell the story,” come the words from marketing managers as well as climatologists. Events like TedX and IgniteAsheville are defined by strong narratives — people speaking to people listening.
It was in the age of disco that Regan-Blake and her cousin, Barbara Freeman, first hit the road in a yellow truck, telling stories around the country as a touring act. While Studio 54 spun a cultural mirror ball above the world far beyond New York, these two women from the hills did things like call Maurice Sendak on the phone to ask for his blessing to tell Where the Wild Things Are to a coffeehouse audience. The spell of the story had them; the authenticity of a story told well started to weave its own influence across America. In the early 1980s, Good Morning America announced that Regan-Blake and Freeman had started a kind of revival, or national-scale introduction, which today now encompasses more than 100 festivals around the country and the world.
The first was just over the pass in Jonesborough, Tenn., in 1973. Regan-Blake was there, and she is the only teller who has been on Main Stage every year since the National Storytelling Festival’s inception. Also there was her mentor, friend and teacher, a man named Ray Hicks, standing 6 feet 7 inches, wearing bib overalls and speaking into a microphone for the first time.
Among tellers, “Ray Hicks” is synonymous with the mountain folk tales. The real deal. The original item. An individual so deeply rooted in the story of story that the Smithsonian featured him on the cover of its magazine, naming him a National Treasure.
To further attest to Hicks import and mysterious ability to pierce the blinding shimmer of ‘70s nightlife with an earthbound, time-halting Elizabethan dialect, Johnny Carson wanted him to appear on the Tonight Show. In complete counterpoint to Burbank show-biz hustle, Carson couldn’t reach Hicks by phone — because Hicks didn’t have one. It’s important to note that a his Jack Tale, passed down through the centuries, could not possibly have fit into an eight-minute set. It would have taken the whole show (and much of whatever came after) to tell of Jack’s encounters with the king, the giant, the king’s daughter and whomever and whatever else befalls Jack’s path.
When one of Carson’s men arrived at the generations-old, tin-roofed cabin set in the Appalachian sward above the treeline, Hicks reply was simply, “If Johnny wants to talk with me, you tell Johnny to come up here and I’ll tell him a story.”
To speak is to listen
This is what Regan-Blake and her many stories are all about — here is the loamy soil under the rhododendron thickets of the Blue Ridge. It is at a cold mountain top in Ethiopia where a young boy watches a fire far below to keep warm. It is in the home of Namakasa Rose, a woman living with AIDS in Uganda, whose jewelry-making with nonprofit Bead for Life has brought her and her children health and hope. It is that place inside us that longs to tell and longs to be listened to. It is the place of the story. And, with all respect to the stories found in “Dancing Queen,” it has long outlasted disco.
Today, Regan-Blake travels the U.S. and beyond, gathering and telling stories while supporting new tellers through workshops with such titles as “Finding the Storyteller in You,” “Taking Your Story to the Stage” and “Hearing the Call.” You can note the lack of the imperative so often used in the naming of things. Storytelling is a process of being, rather than a matter of results or a plot resolution. The teller, she teaches, communes with story, self and audience at once, ready for any of these factors to surprise or be surprised.
While the term “storytelling” suggests an importance of voice, of “telling,” Regan-Blake reminds her students that telling stories involves a special kind of listening. Imaginative. Attentive. Participatory. The most successful tellers are like water-bearers, prepared to be splashed a little in the task. Being present in the moment without attaching so tightly that the story can't breathe — these are the tensions along which the story tells through the teller.
As storytelling's value rises across fields of science, commerce, law and medicine, Regan-Blake's significance increases as well. A hunger for context, a need for history stirs within the flash and dash of a digital age. Story fills our wish to slow down and fulfills our desire for something worth slowing down for: content, quality, meaning, all shared openly and well. This is what moves us now, and it begins here, in the mountains. A tin roof. A yellow truck. A story.
— Laura Hope-Gill directs the M.A. in Writing Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University. She works with Regan-Blake at Storywindow as co-explorer of ideas and the waterer of orchids.