National Storytelling Festival, Day Two

by Karen

The first day of the story telling festival was the short program presented in sets of two stories per hour with half hour breaks between sets. It acquaints listeners with a variety of tellers. The second day is the long program where there is one story teller per hour, with half an hour break after every teller. On day two listeners can settle in with tellers they would like to know better. Some tellers tell a single long story, many tell two half hour stories. This is the big day. People who are attending only for a single day come for Saturday.

It is hard to decide where to go. All tellers are good, but we did discover some favorites on day one. An Irish teller, Niall de BĂșrca, was very animated on stage. One teller, Willie Claflin, used a puppet sometimes, but this weekend used music as the primary backdrop for his stories and his son Brian was with him for a special performance. They sang with the most beautiful harmony. Donald Davis told stories that made me think about my southern country roots. Many of the tellers have been featured on National Public Radio, but somehow I had missed those performances and most of these people were previously unknown to me.

As a first time attendee, I was definitely in the minority. Some people have come every year since their first year of attendance and for a lucky few that meant they had been coming since 1973. Many more people have come as often as they could. The festival is a gracious celebration of story telling and all of the tellers encourage those in the audience to tell their own stories. Though story telling is a natural part of all our lives, this was my first serious look at it as an art form and I was fortunate to experience that at the Mecca for story telling. Many in the audience come to learn from the best how to perfect their craft. Some tellers weave the telling of lessons into their stories, all include the life lessons they have learned in some form, often with humor and it is almost always moving.

I learned that our own Kennesaw State University has a story telling group, The Kennesaw Tellers, naturally. They were in attendance, participating at workshops and volunteering, all while wearing t-shirts advertising the February Festival.

Through talking to different people during breaks I understood that story telling like many of my other interests does, to some extent, defy categorization. In some universities it is studied in the English department, in others it is listed as historic in nature, in other it is a performance art. Some story telling is therapeutic and some is not even labelled as story telling. For someone trying to find the correct department in a college, the search can be trying as was confirmed when I was looking for the best link to provide information about the KSU tellers. Even as an attendee who was interested in the subject, my definitions were narrower when I arrived than when I left. I recognized that my favorite pastors over the years were the ones who were gifted story tellers, whether telling the stories straight from the book or stories of their own creation. There were other connections. For example, I enjoyed the story telling through music, but I did not anticipate it. I had been thinking of ballads as songs and forgetting that they were also stories.

Our day had the perfect October ending, scary stories in the park and then “home” to warm our hands and our marshmallows by the camp fire.

National Story Telling, Festival Day 1

By Karen

I am writing about my first day at the National Story Telling Festival on battery power by flashlight, firelight and moonlight at my campsite picnic table beside the Nolichucky River in Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park. We chose this campground because it is closest to the festival, but the whitewater view out our tent window doesn’t hurt!

We started our morning by sleeping through the alarm, but we we able to get out nearly on time regardless. As we drove to our first day of story telling I was looking forward to hearing Kathryn Tucker Windham. She is the only story teller I was previously familiar with. I heard her tell ghost stories at Calico Fort, an art festival in Fort Deposit, AL when I was a child.

As we drove along the road into Jonesborough we passed a man driving a red truck. He was wearing a straw hat and eating what looked like a breakfast biscuit. He pinched off a piece for his dog, a happy, energetic mutt. After they were done eating he sped up a little and then he passed us. It was easy to appreciate small things like this and the mountain view with faint fog lifting over the river as we eased on in to town. We were glad that we had arrived early to check things out the day before, but the crowds were well managed not so bad as I feared. The streets were closed to vehicle traffic and open to walkers, official golf carts and handicapped scooters. Around every corner there was a beautiful home or church and a bake sale.

I enjoyed every story teller that I heard today, but of course I enjoyed the one teller I already knew the most, Kathryn Tucker Windham. A story, like a song, is better once you know what inspires it well. Mrs. Windham tells stories of a south where I grew up. She has known it longer. Her small town and her small town church were smaller than mine (a rare thing), but the sound was familiar just the same. Today she told a story of growing up in her church and the way she amused herself while sitting through sermons. It really took me back. I remember the musings that I wandered through as a child only half aware of the sermon. There were many similarities. We both knew a pair of sisters. In her church both were hard of hearing. In mine only one. We both knew who would sleep through the sermon. It is good to go home every now and then, and good to go with someone who’s been there in spirit.

For lunch we went a little further than most places, we walked a block away and up a hill to have soup and cornbread with homemade dessert at the Mustard Seed Meeting House. It was a delicious and friendly break.

This was the first time that I enjoyed story telling as a large scale formal performance and the event does cause one to explore the importance and value of story telling, as an art, as therapy as song, as history and culture. It is a defining part of our lives. My father is the primary teller in our family. He can get so excited that the tears roll down his face while he leads the room in laughter. Family stories remind us who we are. I think that story telling is where Russ’ Alabama family culture and mine overlap in the most comfortable of ways. Today was a pleasant new experience and a trip home at the same time. I look forward to the rest of the weekend.