Do you know a good storyteller? She’s the life of the party. The one who gets everybody rip-rolling, turns us deathly silent, then provokes a tear or two. We gather around. She regales us.
Now, imagine 25 of the most amazing storytellers you’ve ever met gathered in the same square mile, performing to circus tents full of 500 enthusiastic listeners. But it seems like they’re talking straight to you. That’s the National Storytelling Festival, in its 39th year.
I spend the weekend in Jonesborough, Tennessee — the oldest town in the state. It was founded in 1779, before the Volunteer state became a state. Almost 8,000 people prowl the town with me, on the hunt for stories. It’s like a film festival, only better. Tellers duck and weave by synapse and whim, bending narratives in response to giggling children, passing trains, or thundering applause.
It’s “night at the improv,” but better. David Holt plays 10 acoustic instruments; Bill Lepp gives me cramps as he invents insane tall tales; Elizabeth Ellis slows it down – I shed a tear. Antonio Sacre is energetic, yet tender. Clare Murphy is protean, spinning morality tales from the dawn of time. Donald Davis pays homage to Kathryn Windham; Holt remembers Ed Hicks. Tellers know they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.
Billed as “One festival, three days, a world of stories,” it was much more. A time to reflect on the nature of stories themselves, and how they move and sustain us.