National Storytelling Festival Turns 40

The popularity of radio shows like PRI’s “This American Life” and groups like The Moth has put the art of a good yarn on the map for a wide, national audience. In urban centers like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., it’s just as easy to find storytelling open mics or slam competitions as it is to find events devoted to poetry or acoustic music.

But before this surge went mainstream, so to speak, the number of organized public gatherings of that kind was rather small. Access to great stories was limited to those who lived nearby storytellers in local communities, libraries, schools, porches at sunset.

It was in the town of Jonesborough, Tenn., in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains, that the first festival dedicated specifically and exclusively to the oral tradition got started in 1973.

National Storytelling Festival founder Jimmy Neil Smith wanted to create a space for the community to come together and share traditional tales. “We had our own mountain culture and our own reservoir of mountain stories,” Smith said.

During the early years of the festival, these traditional folk tales dominated the performances. There were Jack tales, grandfather tales, ghost stories, myths and legends about folk heroes, mixed in with ballads sung and accompanied by harmonica. These stories embodied the Appalachian spirit and identity, which is extremely strong for those raised in the mountains.

Present at the first National Storytelling Festival, Ray Hicks was already an icon, one of the most popular Appalachian storytellers to perform. In the clip below, he tells the story of “Jack and the Giant.” Jack tales are a well-known type of story in Appalachia. They feature the same Jack from “Jack and the Bean Stalk” as their protagonist. Audio courtesy of the American Folklife Center.

Now in its 40th year, the National Storytelling Festival expects to attract nearly 10,000 fabulists and attendees from throughout the country and around the world this weekend. The three-day event will include performances by 24 featured storytellers, two ghost story concerts at night and midnight cabarets. Though not all of the festival’s stories are told by Appalachians or are about the area, there’s still a large contingency of people who come because of the regional tales and storytellers, who play a dominant role each year.

Connie Regan-Blake and Hannah Harvey are two of this year’s featured storytellers. They both use the historical and cultural past of Appalachia in their stories, whether fictional or autobiographical.

Harvey grew up and still lives in southern Appalachia, right on the border of Tennessee and Virginia. As a child, she believed that she was part of a lineage of natural raconteurs. Her grandfather told her, “We’s a kinda storytelling people.” For Harvey, telling stories and being from Appalachia were one in the same.

Describing Appalachia, Harvey acknowledged that even today, many people from outside the region still believe Appalachians to be backwards people from the hills, “country dupes.”

Many traditional Appalachian folk tales, ballads, legends and myths also play off of this stereotype, even embracing the false perceptions of Appalachian people. Harvey spoke with pride when she said, “We know how people can perceive us, and that’s okay. Because we know who we really are.”

One of Harvey’s favorite stories to tell, and that demonstrates the character of the Appalachian people, is about a folk hero named George Buchanan. Buchanan is perceived as slow. In fact, “He is this very clever man, but people take him to be a fool in public,” she said. By the end of the story, Buchanan defies public perceptions to become the tutor to the king.

“There is a way that Appalachian people can take that hillbilly identity because they know,” Harvey said. “We know we’re not that ignorant. We know that we are really smart.”

Regan-Blake said the Appalachian stories tend to share elements of “hard living.” For many Appalachians, the edge of poverty and survival was never farther away than one drought or harsh winter.

“We use our stories as a way to make our lives better,” Regan-Blake said. “Maybe if in the stories, the characters have even more struggles than we do — maybe there are giants or people who are going to cut your head off — if their lives are harder than ours, then it makes our living just a little bit easier.”

The story in the clip below is an excerpt from “A Mine,” an hour-long set of stories performed by Harvey. The stories are about contemporary coal miners, based on the oral histories of the more 20 men and women miners that Harvey collected from 2003 to 2008:

As storytelling has become more popular, Regan-Blake said Appalachian identity in modern stories remains strong at the festival, even as storytelling trends have shifted from folk tales to personal stories about contemporary Appalachians. The struggles that plagued the region have also largely been wrapped up in Appalachian identity, but as Harvey said, connecting to a personal struggle as an audience member is universal.

Regan-Blake is also just as happy that storytelling everywhere continues to grow. As the National Storytelling Festival has expanded, so too has the diversity of storytelling traditions and types of people who choose to tell their stories. She sees groups like The Moth and others as “breathing new life into the old stories, so that hopefully in 20 years and 100 years, people will still be going to storytelling festivals.”