It’s autumn, and that means storytelling season. And there’s no better place in the country for storytelling than right here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where the ancient stories have been kept alive and nurtured through generations. Today, mountain storytelling is enjoying a revival as impressive as what’s happening with mountain music.
Every year in October, the National Storytelling Festival takes place in historic Jonesborough, Tenn. (about 15 minutes southwest of Johnson City). The huge gathering (to be held this year Oct. 6-8) focuses international attention on tales and their tellers. Closer to home, members of the Asheville Storytelling Circle meet monthly to hone their craft and are now prepping their “Tellebration” event for Nov. 19, which will feature one of our own up-and-coming local storytellers, Douglas Haynes.
Improvisational storytelling makes for exciting theater — as fans of Asheville’s own audience-as-creator-troupe Playback Theatre know well. Even UNCA is officially entering the storytelling arena with its first festival planned for April 2001.
Stories are the primal way human beings communicate verbally, from jokes and water-cooler gossip to Star Wars-type epics to religious parables. In Celtic tribes, storytellers held a position of great honor and responsibility; the telling of tales could go on for days. Today, songwriters, novelists and filmmakers are often held up as storytellers — but generally, we think of storytellers as those who present their tales orally, with only the strength of their style to support them.
The shelves of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System are full of celebrated storytellers on tape and CD. For some odd reason, most of these audio volumes — even the ones marked specifically for adults — seem to be hiding in the children’s section.
Stories aren’t just for kids, though … at least not those that issue from the very best practitioners of the art. Storyteller Odds Bodkin, a “one-man symphony” with an endless repertoire of character voices and sound effects, is universally lovable on tape. Another talebearer worth frequent replay is North Carolina’s Jackie Torrence. Whether it’s her lump-in-your-throat childhood memoirs or traditional tales from around the world, Torrence delivers stuff you simply can’t get out of your head.
Another unforgettable voice belongs to Susan Klein, a Martha’s Vineyard-based storyteller. She tells personal stories so full of drama and detail that everyday musings transcend to the mythic. In The Spirit of the River, Klein relives her experiences staying in Eskimo villages, recalling why “all these people that I had only known for a week would be in my head forever.”
The reigning queens of Asheville’s storytelling community are Connie Regan-Blake and her cousin Barbara Freeman. They tell traditional tales in a simple, unadorned style that ranges from tearful to hilarious. Our storytelling superstar, meanwhile, is Grammy-award-winning musician/author/TV star and all-around ambassador of Appalachia David Holt. Though not always earth-shatteringly memorable, Holt’s stories are always entertaining, and they’re spiked by his wonderful musical riffs.
The blurb on the jacket for Pleasant Despain’s Tales to Tell From Around the World promises “folktales so easy to learn, you’ll surprise yourself.” And it’s true. This wonderful, Seattle-based storyteller has a charming, punchy style that’s easy to emulate, even for the beginning storyteller. I highly recommend any of his tapes, especially for busy parents who want to jump-start their storytelling expertise. (One tip that will make kids of all ages love your stories — put in lots of sound effects!)
As we gear up for Halloween and Samhain at the end of the month, our appetite for scary stories increases. I listened to dozens of tales on tape to find a few blood-chillers to recommend — but alas, though many tapes in the library claimed to be scary, none were. Amusing, enjoyable, well written and well told — but ultimately, not a spine-tingler to be found.
Which means you have to make up your own — or at least embellish on what’s already out there. My advice: Listen to several stories to find some that have “scare potential” for you. Appalachian tales, especially, are full of headless ghosts, avenging spirits and bodies rising from muddy graves. Then, adjust the story to your personal style, add the appropriate sound effects, plan some well-placed “all-of-a-sudden” plot twists — and go for it. (Don’t forget to turn the lights off.)