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 tales 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). This huge gathering, held the first weekend of the month, focuses international attention on tales and their tellers. Closer to home, members of the Asheville Storytelling Circle meet monthly to hone their craft. They are now preparing for their “Tellebration” event (scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Folk Art Center), which will feature up-and-coming local storyteller 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 — its first festival is planned for next April.
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, though, 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 delivered by the very best practitioners of the art. Storyteller Odds Bodkin, a “one-man symphony” with an unlimited 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.
And then there’s the unforgettable voice of Susan Klein of Martha’s Vineyard. 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 consistently 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 for even beginners to emulate. 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: Use lots of sound effects!)
As we gear up for Halloween and Samhain this week, our appetite for scary tales increases. Everyone loves a horror story — even if it’s only for the relief we feel when it’s over. 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 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 arising 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 off the lights.)