THE JONESBOROUGH EXPERIENCE: Tales told at national festival

Published 3:03 pm Saturday, October 13, 2018

A man sneezed. Another said “Bless You!”

“That reminds me of a story …” the man said as he pulled his handkerchief from his shirt pocket. The other man stopped to listen.

That’s the way it is the first weekend in October in Jonesborough, Tennessee – the home of the National Storytelling Festival. Everybody has a story.

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The festival celebrated its 46th year last weekend with 10,000 or more people in attendance. They came east from Washington and Oregon and west from the Jersey shore. They came from across the big pond, from the British Isles and from down under in New Zealand. And they all came to listen to stories.

Anita Morris drove alone 10 hours from Pennsylvania just because she had to be there.

“My friends couldn’t come this year and I could not imagine not being here,” she said. “I don’t know of any place I would rather be the first weekend in October than at Jonesborough.”

For 15 years, I have been making the annual pilgrimage to Jonesborough for the National Storytelling Festival. When the festival began 46 years ago, I was a young mother dipping diapers in the toilet and hanging them on the clothesline. Going to the grocery store was about as far as my going went. The only stories were those I told to my children about B’rer Rabbit and their imaginary friends, Freddie, Max, Tommy and Joe.

One day, I read about a storytelling festival somewhere in Tennessee and thought how wonderful it would be to sit back and listen to people tell stories. I grew up listening to stories, mainly from my granddaddy and the field workers who lived in the house just behind ours. But who in Tennessee tells stories to grownups?

For me, that question was not answered until many years later when finally a couple of friends agreed to go with me to the National Storytelling Festival.

I didn’t know any professional storytellers except Donald Davis and someone told me about Sheila Kay Adams. New to the festival, we didn’t know circus tents that hold 1,200 people would be packed like sardines. So we stood outside the tent in a cold, slow drizzling rain to hear Donald Davis. Later, packed in like sardines, we listened as Sheila Kay Adams stood on the stage and, with her eyes closed, sang a ballad, much like I had heard my granny sing so long ago. I knew that, from that day forward, Jonesborough, Tennessee is where, Good Lord willing, I would be the first weekend in October.

Last weekend, my friend Mernie and I made the journey to the mecca of storytelling. 

On Thursday night, we listed to a group of tellers sing fun and favorite songs on the plaza at the International Storyteller Center.  Then, we meandered the streets of Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee, stopping to chat with those we actually “bumped into” on the crowded sidewalks.

A couple of gentlemen gave their bench over to us and stayed around to share some of the history of the town … and the recipe for the world’s best pimento cheese. David Wise worked at historic Lavender’s Market for 29 years and swears by the market’s pimento cheese recipe –four kinds of cheese – sharp and mild cheddar, Colby and American, Kraft mayonnaise, and lots of pimento with the “juice.”

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the lineup of storytellers read like a who’s who and we made sure to hear the new voices as well as the “old warhorses” as the seasoned tellers like to be called.

“Magic” is what stories are and the hundreds of stories wove a tapestry of people, places and things. One tent would explode with laughter, while in another, there would be the quiet singing of a Pete Seeger song. Impromptu stories were told at different venues.

There was dancing on the streets and guitar strumming in the alleyways. Ghost stories were told under the dark cloak of late night. A sharp train whistle broke the silence as clusters of listeners, almost reluctantly, called it a day. But the experience doesn’t end there at the railroad tracks. It continues across state lines, along rushing rivers and over the distant ocean. In time, the remembrance of the experience will bring hearts back to Jonesborough, Tennessee on the first weekend in October, if only as a memory in time.