You have to experience Jonesborough

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, October 11, 2008

Several years ago, I stood in a huge meadow surrounded by majestic, snow-capped mountains.

I had driven back into the Colorado mountains as far as the road would take me. It was late September so I was there alone.

In an effort to capture the beauty around me, I began to snap pictures in every direction. Then, in sudden awareness, I dropped the camera in the bag. There was no way that I could capture the beauty and grandeur of the place on film. I had to experience it.

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For the next couple of hours, I sat on the stoop of a toppling shack and shared a “balonie” sandwich with a colony of ants that came silently begging. I experienced the Rocky Mountains.

That memory came back to me the other day when someone said, “Tell me about Jonesborough.”

I could no more tell anyone about Jonesborough than I could describe the majesty of the mountains. You have to experience Jonesborough.

For 36 years now, people have been making their way to historic Jonesborough, Tennessee in October for the National Storytelling Festival. It started rather small. A high school teacher, Jimmy Neil Smith, had been inspired by the tales spun by Jerry Clower and came up with the idea of a storytelling festival in sleepy, little Jonesborough. A few more than 50 people sat on bales on hay and told stories on an October Saturday in 1973.

On an early October weekend in 2008, more than 10,000 people from all across the country made their way to Jonesborough to hear master storytellers weave their magic with words.

Once again, I was blessed to be among them. We shared the Jonesborough experience.

I grew up listening to stories, mainly told by the “hands” on my granddaddy’s farm.

Mama always said, “Don’t let dark catch you.” On one late summer day, dark had caught me. I heard Mama calling me to supper but I was too caught up in Booley’s story to answer.

She met me with a switch and stripped my six-year-old knobby-kneed legs. “Where were you?”

“Just sittin’ there talkin’ to Booley.”

For me, Jonesborough is the chance to go back in time and “talk to Booley.”

Now, I’m not about to say that Jonesborough is for everybody. Some folks “just ain’t got no sense about ’em.” But most people with laughter, love and tenderness in their hearts just can’t help but be in awe of the Jonesborough experience.

The 36th Annual National Storytelling Festival was especially meaningful for me. As if just being there wasn’t enough, I had the opportunity to see history in the making. For one hour only, Ted Hicks sat on a brick barrier and told stories to a gathering of folks perched on bales of hay. I imagined it to be much like that first storytelling event in 1973.

Ted Hicks is the son of legendary storyteller, Ray Hicks, who was the patriarch of Jonesborough storytellers.

Ray Hicks was a teller at the first Jonesborough storytelling festival and there will never be another like him.

But his son might come close. Ted Hicks told the Jack tales that made his daddy famous in the same slow, mountain drawl that causes listeners to lean in with held breath and fall helplessly into the stories.

With Ted was his mom, Rosa Hicks, who stepped to the microphone as she had done so many times with her husband and sang their signature song, “I’m ridin’ on that new river train.”

What a thrill it was to be there in that moment. To experience a “first” in Jonesborough. Whether Ted Hicks becomes a regular at Jonesborough is yet to be known. But he was there for the first time and that time will never be again. What an awesome experience.

Hicks told his tales in the lengthening shadows of Doc McConnell’s Medicine Show wagon. Doc McConnell died in August. He was an institution at the festival and the wagon stood as a memorial to him and the legacy of love and laughter that he left. The festival won’t be quite the same without him.

The voids left by the passing of great storytellers will never be completely filled but the National Storytelling Festival is in good hands. Donald Davis and our own Kathryn Tucker Windham are the patriarch and matriarch of the storytellers. But few people who come to Jonesborough have favorites. They’re just all so good and so different that it’s impossible to single out one or even two or three.

That’s why every tent –and there are six circus-sized ones – is filled to overflowing at every set from 10 a.m. until midnight.

“I can’t believe that people from all over the world come to our backyard,” a Jonesborouogh resident and festival volunteer said.

“But it’s such a wonderful backyard,” a lady replied.

And, people do come from all over the world and, when they converge on “J’boro,” they are instantly embraced into a 10,000-member family.

The Jonesborough experience is tightly wrapped in the small historic town with specialty shops, outdoor “cafes,” horse-drawn carriages, impromptu sing-alongs and story swapping grounds.

Folks from South Dakota share their sack lunches with gals from Ala-bam and sophisticated women from Rhode Island chit-chat with Crockers from California.

It’s a mixed bag of folks who come to Jonesborough. All ages, from all walks of life. So different in every way except that they share a love of storytelling.

Kathryn Windham once said that it’s easy to tell a story but it’s very difficult to be a great storyteller. Jonesborough is chock full of great storytellers. And, it’s an odd thing. But even in a tent filed with a thousand listeners, each teller has the ability to bring the listeners into their stories in such a way that it’s as if the story is being told one on one.

As much as I enjoyed my “traditional” favorites, Donald Davis, Kathryn Windam, Bil Lepp, Carmen Deedy, Kevin Kling, John McCutcheon and Waddie Mitchell and, new to me, Onawumi Jean Moss and Michael Reno Harrell, the tandem tellers, Elizabeth Ellis and Tim Tingle, were the ones who made my heart sing.

Her voice is as smooth as silk and his, like a tumbling river. Together, they were magical.

They told the story of Cutshin Mountain that traced the life of an Appalachian boy to manhood. Listeners responded with laughter and tears.

The story was embellished with songs — old hymns and mountain ballads so familiar that the tent was filled with voices of those who couldn’t help but sing. “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace” and “Angel Band.” A thousand voices from north, south, east and west blended to one.

For the first time in many years, I heard the words sung to an old Shaker song, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.”

And, what a gift it is — that simple gift of storytelling on a cool fall day in a place called Jonesborough. A place where folks come down to where we ought to be.

As I walked from the tent with “Angel Band” still playing in my head, I knew that I was blessed to be there — actually twice blessed.

To paraphrase Jan Struther, I was twice blessed. I was happy and I knew it.