The Jonesborough experience

Published 7:11 pm Friday, October 9, 2009

On a bright but nippy Saturday morning in Jonesborough, Tennessee, Kathryn Tucker Windham closed her storytelling concert with a simple request.

“Will y’all sing ‘I’ll Fly Away’ with me?”

More than a thousand voices obliged her.

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There was not a dry eye in the tent.

In true Kathryn Windham fashion, the 91-year-old “legendary” storyteller had shared with the overflowing crowd how she had shopped for a coffin and finally decided on a pine box, which a friend has lovingly crafted for her.

She told about the comb concert she has planned for her funeral and how “I’ll Fly Away” will be her swan song.

After a pause and, almost as an after thought, she invited the audience to “sing with me.”

Such are the moments at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough the first full weekend of October each year.

This year was the 37th annual storytelling festival, which had its beginning on a warm, sunny October day in 1973.

A tall, gangly man from “off” Beech Mountain in North Carolina, “called” Ray Hicks told his now famous, Jack tales from the back of an old farm wagon. About 60 people were there for what was the beginning of the American storytelling renaissance.

The National Storytelling Festival was the brainchild of Jimmy Neil Smith, whose inspiration came from Jerry Clower, a country comedian whose humor made folks “from everwhere” fall in love with the rural South.

Over the years, people began to make annual pilgrimages to Tennessee’s oldest town for the National Storytelling Festival. They came from all across America and beyond. They became a part of the revival of the art that is as old as man himself.

Historians agree that man has not always enjoyed the advantages of the wheel, but he has always enjoyed the love of a good story.

And, that’s what Jonesborough offers each October – but not just a good story — a trailer truckload of good stories told by the masters of their craft. And, they come, those who love storytelling. They come ten thousand strong and more.

They speak in the dialect of the Yankee doodles, with the twang of the Midwesterners and the drawl of the folks from Dixie land. But they all listen with the same eager ears.

Caroline Newell is a regular at Jonesborough. Year after year, she drives down from Cincinnati to see her favorite tellers and to seek new favorites to add to her list.

“Donald Davis,” Newell said, with a smile. “He’s like a dose of medicine. I don’t care what my situation in life is at the time, he always brings a smile to my face. Donald Davis is the most amazing storyteller. He keeps you spell bound from his first word to his last. And, Kathryn Windham. It’s just an honor to be in her presence.”

Donald Hutchins hails from Pennsylvania and he comes to Jonesborough for R&R.

“When you’re here, the whole world is right,” he said. “You come into these huge, white tents packed with a thousand strangers and, in no time at all, we become one, woven together with storylines.”

Tim Sercy from Kentucky kidded Hutchins that he sounded like a storyteller himself.

“I’m just a sentimental old fool,” Hutchins said. “I’ve been coming to Jonesborough so long this place is a part of my soul.”

The odds-on favorites of the 2009 National Storytelling Festival read like a storytellers’ who’s who. Davis, Windham, Bil Lepp, “That lying rascal is a scream,” Sheila Kay Adams, “She’s so down to earth,” Barbara McBride Smith, “A ball of energy and that mammogram story was the funniest thing ever,” Gay Ducey, “She is the queen bee,” Willy Claflin, “Quick witted and amazing,” Bill Harley, “great music, great stories,” Syd Lieberman, “He made me laugh and he made me cry,” Roslyn Bresnick-Perry was “powerful” and John McCutcheon was “incredible” at the Midnight Cabaret. “What a musician.”

The Storycrafters were a whirlwind of fun and they bagged a lot of new followers. Among the new voices, Jennifer Munro, the Rev. Robert Jones and Regi Carpenter were the talk of the festival.

But Evelyn Sardinski hit the nail on the head.

“At Jonesborough, you are among the masters of the art of storytelling,” she said. “I could sit and listen to each one of them all day long. Because of time constraints, I didn’t get to hear all of them and, because of that, I know that I’m leaving having missed some wonderful stories. But, as long as I’m able, I’ll keep coming because there’s no place like Jonesborough, Tennessee on an early October weekend.”

Thomas Jackson from upstate New York was among the young people who journeyed to Jonesborough for the first time.

“I didn’t want to come because I didn’t really know what storytelling was all about,” he said, with a smile.

“Now, I don’t want to go home.”

Jackson said he’ll be back and bring friends with him.

“I may have to twist their arms to get them here but they will thank me for it,” he said.

Of the ten thousand or more people who were blessed to be at Jonesborough this October, it is doubtful that any one of them could explain the magic of storytelling. Not even, Kathryn Windham can do that.

“We’ve never really discovered the full power of storytelling – the beauty, the wonder, the laughter and the love that are wrapped up in stories,” she said. “

There’s no better way in the world to tell someone you love them than to say, ‘Come here and sit by me and let me tell you a story.”

That’s the Jonesborough experience.