Despite her obvious proficiency at yarn-spinning, Western North Carolina native Sheila Kay Adams didn’t consider herself a storyteller until recently.
“I was a ballad singer,” she explains. Adams was born into a family of traditional singers in Madison County. She’s able to trace the family penchant for balladry back to the 1830s, when the local sheriff documented having to return to the jail late one night because one of Adams’ kin, locked up for counterfeiting, was singing at the top of his lungs at 2 a.m.
“Along with the singing, most of these people would tell stories,” Adams remembers. “Not formal tales, just stories about the family. I never looked at that as storytelling, just shootin’ the bull.” Even when Adams, a former public-school teacher, began performing her ballads professionally, she was surprised when audiences asked her to tell stories about where she was from. “I hopped into the natural flow of things,” she says. “It became important to share the memories of the people I grew up around — that became as important as singing my songs.”
And though Adams has been making a living as a performer for a decade now, she still considers her indoctrination into storytelling a fluke.
It’s no fluke, however, that the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. has become the biggest event of its kind and that, this year, the festival celebrates its 30th anniversary with 30 Listener’s Choice tellers handpicked by past audiences.
“There’s enormous growing interest in storytelling around the country,” says festival creator Jimmy Neil Smith. What started as one teacher’s idea to bring a few storytellers to Jonesborough to inspire his students — a small event with an audience of 60 the first year — is now a weekend-long extravaganza showcasing the talents of the country’s best tale-tellers.
This year, Smith expects an audience of 10- to 12,000.
Historic Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town, is a sleepy place populated by less than 4,000 residents. The first periodical devoted wholly to the anti-slavery cause — The Emancipator — was established by Quakers there, in 1820.
“Jonesborough is the same size it was 30 years ago,” Smith points out, “so there’s pressure on us to make sure everyone who comes [to the festival] is taken care of.”
While festival organizers provide lodging information to visitors — accommodations in town are limited and fill quickly — Jonesborough residents extend their hospitality in other areas, providing dining options ranging from cafe meals along Main Street to all-you-can-eat bean feeds and pancake breakfasts at local churches.
Despite the festival’s ever-increasing size, though, Smith and other planners strive to preserve a quaint, low-key atmosphere. “We use almost the same format today as in the beginning,” he says. “We still use tents, just more of them, and larger ones.”
Indeed, nearly the entire festival is held outdoors, and some events, such as the Ghost Story Concerts, are ground-seating only.
“We thought at first that having larger tents and more seats would diminish the intimate effect of the early years,” Smith admits, but he believes that it has not.
“I’m the only storyteller who’s been at all 30 festivals and has been on-stage at each one,” boasts storyteller Connie Regan-Blake. She was working as a storyteller in the Chattanooga Public Library when she heard about the first festival, so she headed to Jonesborough.
“On Sunday there were about 60 people there and they asked for volunteers to come up on stage and tell stories, so I volunteered,” she remembers. “That experience is what shaped it. It wasn’t about big-time storytellers.”
When Smith and other coordinators decided they should more-strongly emphasize “regular people” as featured tellers, Regan-Blake was invited back for year two.
The second festival proved fateful. By the end of the weekend, Regan-Blake and her cousin, Barbara Freeman, had decided to quit their jobs, form a duo — The Folktellers — and take their act on the road. “We thought we’d waitress here and there if we had to,” Regan-Blake recalls, “but we never had to. For 20 years we made a living as storytellers, and now we both have solo careers.”
Regan-Blake spent 10 years as the artistic director of the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival, and watched the event grow over the decades. “I used to ask people to go home from the festival and tell their best friend about it, but not to tell all their friends, because we didn’t want it to grow too much,” she laughs. “But people are really stirred by it, and you can’t keep something like that from people.”
Smith goes a step further, suggesting that storytelling is a necessary art form. “We’re all hungry for connection, for better relationships,” he says. “Through the power of stories we can understand each other better. … The world is a very fast place. Why shouldn’t we want to search back for that most basic form of connection: stories. That’s the counter-balance to all this technology.”
With increasing popularity comes a price, however — and the $110 ticket might sound a bit steep. Smith is quick to point out that the weekend package includes more than 25 hours of storytelling, so the cost isn’t much per hour. Revenues pay for staff, overhead and storytellers, as well as sustaining the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. “You can attend the festival for as little as $10,” Smith clarifies. “Special events such as the ‘Ghost Story Concerts’ and the ‘Midnight Cabaret’ [the only event where you can catch Sheila Kay Adams this year] are individually priced so those with smaller budgets can still get a taste.”
As always, Deep South ghost stories and Southern Appalachian tales will be in good supply this year, but “don’t neglect the new voices!” urges Adams. “The young storytellers are great too, like Bil Lepp, who tells stories about growing up in the ’80s.”
Smith adds, “It’s best to hear stories at your grandfather’s knee … but if you can’t do that, then this is definitely the next best thing.”