When Asheville-based storyteller Connie Regan-Blake embarked on her career more than 40 years ago, there were only two storytelling festivals in the country. That was in the mid-’70s; “Now every state in the nation has festivals, and North Carolina probably has six ongoing,” she says. Even though the concept was a new one at the time, its impact was felt: “In many ways, I was so wide-eyed as I was entering the world of folk music, traveling full time and getting paid to tell stories,” remembers Regan-Blake. Still, “I definitely had an awareness that this is happening, people are loving it, it’s growing, and this is a movement.”
At the time, she and Barbara Freeman — Regan-Blake’s first cousin and the other half of the Folktellers, a duo until the mid-’90s — made the rounds of folk music festivals in Philadelphia, Vancouver, Winnipeg and San Diego. “I had a cassette recorder, and at jam sessions I’d record people,” Regan-Blake says. Sorting through boxes in recent years, she found those tapes and realized they contained vintage performances by tellers — some since passed away — who were famous in their fields. Regan-Blake contacted an acquaintance at the Library of Congress to offer the tapes: “He said, ‘We’ll put them in your collection.’”
That means that although this year marks Regan-Blake’s induction into the oldest federal cultural institution in the nation, the library was already aware of the local artist. Freeman had donated some of her ephemera to the National Storytelling Center, which shared the material with the Library of Congress — that’s how Regan-Blake’s file began. When the storyteller (who has produced videos for PBS and appeared on “Good Morning America” and NPR’s “All Things Considered”) offered to add to that collection, the Library of Congress associate said, “We’ll take anything you have. … What we’re wanting is your personal input into this journey of storytelling.”
Regan-Blake’s perspective on that evolution is unique because she was part of the storytelling revival, which followed the folk music revival in the U.S. “Sometimes in interviews over the years, people say, ‘Storytelling died, and here you are, one of the people who brought it back,’” Regan-Blake says. “It never died. Storytelling is such a part of who we are as human beings. It did go underground. When we turned to radio first and then television, people looked outside themselves for entertainment.”
But Regan-Blake took a circuitous route to the art form. “Looking back, I would think of myself more as a listener,” she says. “I wasn’t the one capturing everyone’s attention at the dinner table.” In her family, that role went to Freeman. The cousins grew up in different states (Regan-Blake in Florida and Freeman in Tennessee) but often visited. Regan-Blake entered college as a math major, intending to work for NASA. She ended up switching to political science “because I thought I’d be a lawyer — which isn’t too far away from storytelling.” At loose ends after traveling through Europe, her cousin helped her land a job at a library in Chattanooga, Tenn. The library had just earned a grant to hire a storyteller for nine months, something unheard of at the time.
Though Regan-Blake had little experience, the brief commitment was appealing, and soon she was part of an outreach program geared toward underprivileged children with limited access to books. “Within a short time, I knew I’d be telling stories for the rest of my life,” she says. Though even at that point, it was a career choice out of step with the era: “During the four years [I worked for the library], I never heard of another storyteller except for the old-timers. Ray Hicks was the master.”
The first National Storytelling Festival took place in Jonesborough, Tenn., in 1973. Regan-Blake wrote to the director. Happily, for the Library of Congress, she has a copy of his response to her. Today, she is a frequent host and featured performer at that annual gathering. “The idea grew out of the first and second national festival of it really being performance,” she says. “It’s not necessarily old-timers doing it. It was very clear then that it was a new thing.”
While storytelling as performance art is no longer a new thing, Regan-Blake’s enthusiasm for the craft remains fresh. She parlays her talents into workshops that share techniques for telling. “I feel one of the key qualities of a good storyteller is to be a good listener,” she says. “The goal is to be very present onstage.” Regan-Blake leads a one-day “Finding the Storyteller in You” workshop on Saturday, May 30, at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus, 36 Montford Ave. She also leads a weeklong retreat July 12-18 to help attendees “find their voice and gain the skills and confidence to tell their own stories.” For details, visit storywindow.com