Words by Christine Van Dyk
Photos by Jay Huron, Tom Raymond
It all began with a story about raccoons.
It was 1973 and Jimmy Neil Smith was a high school teacher returning from a field trip to the Grand Ole Opry when he heard a tale about ‘coon hunting on the car radio. Riveted, he convinced the storyteller to visit his small town of Jonesborough, Tennessee and share a yarn or two. That was the first ever International Storytelling Festival.
“Back then listeners sat on bales of hay or in the beds of pickup trucks,” Angela White, Communications Associate for the festival, said. “Around 60 people showed up to enjoy the power of a simple story. That was 50 years ago. Now we sell 10,000 tickets a year.”
Maybe it has something to do with the way the mountains insulate the town, preserving the spirit of the place. Perhaps it’s the long drawls and lazy vowels of the Southern accents. Either way, the tales seem to come to life with ease in the “storytelling capital of the world.”
“Storytelling is imprinted on this culture,” Angela said. “For generations people have sat on front porches listening to their grandfather tell stories that his grandfather told him.”
Today, alongside the mountain folklore, there are new voices from around the world. Tellers offer all manner of stories—from native fables to historic retellings and even cowboy poetry.
Sarah Brady is one such voice. At last year’s festival she recounted the story of The White Rose, an anti-Nazi movement led by a group of students and a professor from the University of Munich. What started with some anonymous leaflets eventually led to the arrest and execution by guillotine of a brother and sister named Hans and Sophie Scholl.
When she began the story, Sarah had an idea of where she thought it was going. But unlike a story written with letters across a page, a tale told out loud shifts, expanding and contracting with each telling. Eventually, the end became her new beginning.
“Storytelling is a distinct art form,” Sarah said. “It’s not for the eyes but for the ears. And the way each listener hears a story is different; it changes moment by moment and place to place.”
The story she first told in a pub in Cambridge eventually found an audience in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. On that day, thousands gathered for the International Storytelling Festival beneath the pleats of a circus tent. Aware of the audience, the stage, and her racing heart, Sarah began to speak:
In the summer of 2018 my family and I had the immense privilege of spending a single day in Munich, Germany. And on that day, the first item on our itinerary was to locate number 13 Franz Josef Strasse. . . . .The weather was unseasonably cold and there was an intermittent spitting rain, but we were determined to follow the path that Hans and Sophie walked on February 18, 1943.
Stories are powerful no matter where they’re from, but there’s something magical about hearing them spoken beneath a blanket of stars with the Appalachians rising in the distance.
“Jonesborough is the quintessential small town, the oldest in Tennessee,” Angela said. “And like most small towns, it goes all out for autumn.”
Festival goers are welcomed with hay bales, pumpkins, and the changing colors of the mountains. And inside the storytelling tents an even greater sense of wonder awaits.
“The energy is electric in the best possible way,” Sarah said. “There’s a hum and an excitement that comes from being in this place.”
People from all walks of life make their way to this corner of Tennessee where they gather on street corners, relax on folding chairs, and listen to tales told over cups of coffee. There seems to be a story for everyone.
“There are tales that make you laugh and others that make you want to cry,” Sarah said, “true stories that touch your heart and tall tales. And whether they’re told on front porches or big venues, the audience is vital. We’re in a partnership; the listener impacts the teller and the telling.”
On the first weekend in October the International Storytelling Festival draws a crowd, but it’s not the only reason to visit Jonesborough. There’s a country music museum and the Appalachian Trail, white water rafting, plus antique shops and restaurants. And if you decide the story that interests you most is a bit more personal, you’ll find workshops, story slams, and classes to help you craft something all your own.
So, if you ever find yourself near Jonesborough, Tennessee, in the fall, take a minute to stop and hear a tale or two, because as the saying goes: A good story never dies if there’s someone willing to listen.