It’s story time again

Some folks already know about the magic of storytelling. They know firsthand how it feels to be enlightened, entertained and held spellbound as a skillful teller weaves together strands of experience, history, folklore — or even nonsense. They know that live storytelling connects us to our past, our humanity, and each other, in a way that nothing else does.

But some of us haven’t yet experienced the magic. Maybe we read stories to ourselves, but by and large, we skeptics tend to think of the oral storytelling tradition as a primitive throwback, or as some kind of highly suspect, New Age nonsense. It’s all right to tell stories to children — either around a campfire (to scare them), at bedtime (to soothe them), or in the school library (to give the teacher a breather). But it’s not something serious-minded, intelligent, modern adults would seek out.

Those of us in that latter camp have forgotten, I guess, that we hear and tell stories all the time: in churches and temples, in therapy and AA meetings, on the radio and television talk shows — and, quietly, to each other when we want to get better acquainted. The fact is, storytelling is a pretty integral part of being human.

So next week, when the seventh annual Tell It in the Mountains storytelling festival comes to downtown Asheville, leave your skepticism behind, pick an event or two [see sidebar for schedule], and prepare to be pleasingly and deeply touched.

A big change this year — aimed especially at ambivalent locals — is the option of paying for individual storytelling workshops, single days, single evenings, or a special dirt-cheap $2 family story hour on Saturday, instead of having to buy a pass for the whole three-day shebang.

“When people aren’t into storytelling, and don’t know its power and its joy, they might be intimidated by a whole weekend [and its price tag],” festival organizer (and nationally known teller) Connie Regan-Blake told me over the phone. “But at $2 — a third of a movie — we’re hoping that people will give it a try.”

The festival was started in 1991 by two members of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry who had attended the annual National Storytelling Festival, just over the mountains in Jonesborough, Tenn. ABCCM provides various local crisis, prison, shelter and medical ministries — and, in the course of that work, a lot of stories are told and heard.

Inspired by Jonesborough’s example, these folks figured that an Asheville storytelling event would tie in well with what ABCCM does, make the organization more visible, and maybe generate some much-needed funds. This year — thanks to sponsorship from BO EST (a Bojangles franchise), Ingles, the Radisson Hotel Asheville, and the Asheville Parks & Recreation Department — every dollar spent at the gate goes directly to fund the organization’s worthy works.

Despite its avowedly Christian nature, ABCCM makes it a point to include traditions as diverse as possible. This year, in addition to Ms. Regan-Blake, featured tellers include Patrick Ball, who weaves Irish folk tales with brass-strung Celtic harp music; former soap-opera star Bill Mooney (he played Paul Martin on All My Children), whose repertoire embraces biography, history, folk tales and ghost stories; Joyce Grear, who tells African, international, and sacred tales, as well as original and classic children’s stories; and Jim May, who connects ancient myth with personal, family and cultural experience.

Beech Mountain, N.C., native Ray Hicks — an 80-plus-year-old, eighth-generation mountain storyteller, celebrated master of “Jack” tales, and national treasure, who has been profiled in The New Yorker and on PBS — will make the latest in his unbroken chain of appearances at Tell It in the Mountains, one of only two festivals that he regularly does, these days.

And, in a special Thursday night workshop, Belden C. Lane will illuminate human experience with the sacred light of stories taken mainly from the Bible. “Belden is a Jesuit priest,” explains the Rev. Scott Rogers, ABCCM’s executive director. “One of the things we’re really excited about is having something special for our mainline church constituents, to introduce them to the storytelling tradition. [Of last year’s attendees], about 55 percent were out-of-towners, and 45 percent were local. We want to be sure we’re expanding locally at the same rate we’re expanding regionally and nationally.”

“This year, we’re really getting the word out to local folks,” agrees Regan-Blake. “I like the idea of folks coming from other places, but ABCCM and all the volunteers [who] work on this festival … we do it as a gift to the community, and I really want everyone to know about that gift and take advantage of it.”

“Folks always talk about how inspirational the stories are,” she continues. “They say, ‘I haven’t told stories to my grandkids — and, by golly, I’m going to fix that.’ Most of us try to hide our struggles and the lessons we’ve learned. But our experience — the ways we’ve solved our problems — are some of the greatest treasures we have to give to the next generation.”

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