On a sunny October day in 1973 in Jonesborough, Tenn., a 13-year-old boy named David Joe Miller sat in the front row of the inaugural Jonesborough Storytelling Festival — and fell in love.
It was a makeshift affair. According to the website for the town’s International Storytelling Center, “A Jonesborough journalism teacher and his neighbors rolled an old farm wagon into Courthouse Square and, around that wagon, told stories. The festival was modest, but something happened … that has forever changed our culture, the tradition of storytelling, and this Tennessee town.”
Now in its 45th year, the festival continues to be a major cultural magnet, celebrating all forms of storytelling over the course of three days each October. And Miller, now in his late 50s and profoundly influenced by the spirit of the festival, has been working as a professional storyteller for 28 years.
His latest endeavor is the reintroduction of open mic night that will take place at Habitat Tavern & Commons on the last Monday of the month, starting July 30.
The event had a successful run at the now-defunct Buffalo Nickel in West Asheville — one open mic drew more than 80 people on a January night. Habitat has been Miller’s venue of choice for his ticketed Word events (which bring together professional storytellers from Asheville, Jonesborough, Chicago and elsewhere), so it seemed an obvious venue for continuing the open mics. Miller has lined up a bevy of hosts for each event, including himself, Chuck Fink, David Castel, Kathy Gordon, Debbie Gurriere, Pete Koschnick, and Rod and Gina Murphy.
All are welcome at the open mic — professionals and first-time amateurs alike, and everyone in between. True to the impression Jonesborough’s festival made on Miller all those years ago, he says he just loves hearing what people have to say. He only has two rules: Each performer gets 10 minutes, and everyone has to keep their clothes on. The October open mic will be focused on scary stories, but other months will have no set themes and no censor.
“I want people to have that experience,” he says, “to get onstage. To have their work heard by a live audience. To receive that live energy back, receive that feedback. To feel it, to see that their work is worthy. … It’s interesting to watch that transformation with people, because they’ll get up on the stage and share their work and the audience responds. You can tell they’re like, ‘Wow! Up to this point I thought I was the only one who liked this.’”
Though Miller grew up around stories, he never expected to become a teller himself. “My grandparents didn’t have a television,” he explains. “They didn’t listen to the radio. So when my mom and dad would drop me off at my grandparents’ house for them to take care of me, when I was a child, the only entertainment we had was stories. My grandfather would tell me scary stories. My grandmother would tell me historical stories — fairy tales or folk tales, things like that. It was really just a part of my life.”
Then came the festival in Jonesborough, and he knew he wanted to help it stay afloat. He began to volunteer and then took a job there in 1990, doing administrative work.
“One thing led to another,” he says. “I really enjoyed listening, and I enjoyed playing with stories. I tried it and determined I wasn’t bad, so I began doing storytelling for the festival, to help them raise money for their center that’s in downtown Jonesborough now: the multimillion-dollar storytelling center.”
Miller married and wound up in Charlotte, where he worked mostly with elementary schools, teaching teachers how to employ storytelling in their work. But when his wife got a promotion and they moved to Philadelphia, he found the local school system there wasn’t as interested in his use of storytelling. So he brought his skills into corporations, teaching them how to use stories to sell products and boost the companies’ internal relationships.
“The more you know someone,” he explains, “the better you get along with them.”
Indeed, storytelling has been a staple of life in lower Appalachia going way back to when families were isolated from one another along winding mountain roads. They used storytelling to not only pass the time but also to pass along information. Storytelling was entertaining and informative, and helped people to surmount struggles like family feuds and profound poverty.
Since moving to Asheville, Miller has been producing storytelling events and open mic nights focused on the spoken word, which he defines as storytelling, poetry, monologues, comedy and any other verbal artform. Miller knows well that cultural sharing in Asheville is much more focused on music these days, but he sees great potential for there to be interest in keeping the storytelling tradition alive.
“Stories guide people by teaching us where we’ve been and what we’ve learned in our history, our family, our genetics, our environment,” he says. “It’s how we relate, I think, not only to other people but to situations in our lives. To me, stories are a fundamental part of life. Without that guidance of your story and the permanence of our stories, I think our lives would be empty.”
WHAT: Open mic, storytellingcalendar.com
WHERE: Habitat Tavern & Commons, 174 Broadway
WHEN: Last Monday of the month, starting July 30, 7:30 p.m.