In 1977, Doug Elliott trekked up to Jonesborough, Tenn., with a possum named Blossom on his shoulder. He was 30 then and looking to spin a few yarns at that year’s National Storytelling Festival.
“I figured they had to let me tell some possum stories,” says Elliott, a naturalist and nationally acclaimed storyteller. And that he did. According to a New York Times archive, “Elliott … recounted possum lore, such as the fact that a possum’s brain cavity will hold only 25 dried beans to a raccoon’s 125, and that a possum does not play dead, it simply overstimulates and passes out.”
Today, 40 years later, Elliott continues to craft these signature narratives. His stories, complete with an Appalachian drawl, backcountry myths and the occasional marsupial, will speak for themselves at Asheville’s TELLEBRATION! on Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Folk Art Center.
Founded in 1988 by the late J.G. “Paw-Paw” Pinkerton, TELLEBRATION! is a trademarked event that invites guilds from across the world to host a celebration in their own city the weekend before Thanksgiving. Elliott will be joined by Asheville Storytelling Circle’s Chet Allen, Lee Lyons, Mary White and Becky Stone.
A longtime force in local storytelling, Stone says when her family moved to North Carolina in 1978, the artist community was very small. “Everyone knew each other,” she remembers. It didn’t take long for her to bump elbows with Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan-Blake. Best-known for their two-act play Mountain Sweet Talk, these tellers encouraged the then-newcomer to North Carolina to join them for the National Storytelling Festival.
First organized by high school journalism teacher Jimmy Neil Smith in 1973, the National Storytelling Festival is often credited with sparking a storytelling revival of sorts. Back in 1977, when Elliott made his debut, 400 guests gathered to hear about man-eating hogs and hoop snakes (“the poisonest thing there is,” according to a presenter). More than 10,000 attend the festival these days.
Over the years, Stone has watched Asheville’s storytelling scene grow, too.
“It’s a privilege to have known people as they were just getting started,” she says. Stone rattles off a few North Carolina-born tellers who have garnered national acclaim: Sheila Kay Adams, David Holt and Joe Penland. “I’m probably missing some,” she acknowledges.
These household names have made Western North Carolina a magnet for aspiring tellers. For eight years, Mimi Shackleford and Leslie Anderson even organized Tell It in the Mountains, an annual festival that beckoned performers such as the late Ray Hicks, a Watauga County man known for his Jack Tales, and Glenis Redmond, a renowned poet from Greenville, S.C.
Though Shackleford and Anderson no longer produce their event, similar events have cropped up. In 1995, for instance, Sandra Gudger founded the Asheville Storytelling Circle. ASC now sponsors shows such as Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch and, of course, TELLABRATION!
“I might tell the story of how I was able to read God’s handwriting on the back of a trout or about the time I got banned in California,” Elliott says, musing about his headlining performance at this year’s TELLABRATION!
Both he and Stone agree that storytelling has gained ground over the past few decades. But they also note that the stories have changed.
“Traditional storytellers have always told traditional stories. A while back, a lot of us started thinking, ‘What’s more interesting than our own tales?’” says Elliott. “It’s a movement now.”
The campaign he’s referring to — a shift from old wives’ tales to personal narratives — is evident in “The Moth”-style story slams. Regularly hosted at The Mothlight or The Odditorium on Haywood Road, these stage shows are open to anyone with a five-minute story relevant to the night’s theme. Prompts like “beauty” and “lies” have elicited unexpected and introspective pieces in the past.
Still, Stone prefers more conventional storytelling. She thinks it’s important that kids are familiar with Aesop’s fables and Greek mythology. “These cultural tales have lasted for centuries because of what they bring to the listener,” she says. “I don’t want us to lose them.”
And so, for TELLEBRATION!, Stone might spin “Fat Cat,” a traditional Danish folktale in which a ravenous feline swallows everything in sight. She might also present “The Crooked Mouth Family,” a quirky Appalachian yarn, or Ovid’s “Echo and Narcissus.”
“Whatever it is, it’ll come from my heart,” says Stone. “They aren’t great tellings unless they come from the heart.”
But when asked what else makes a lasting story, she’s at a loss. “I’m really not sure,” says Stone. She pauses before surmising, “It’s just like you’re visiting with a friend.”
WHAT: TELLEBRATION!, ashevillestorycircle.org
WHERE: Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 382
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 19, 3 p.m. $10