Make-believe Comes Alive at Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival
Robber kings. Talking gophers. Rodeos inside churches. Elephant-sized horses.
On a normal day, it would all seem too strange, but normal days just don’t happen at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough.
The festival completed its 41st edition recently, and by now the international cast of yarn spinners and storytellers has tall tales, timely sidelong glances and gut-busting punch lines down to a supreme art.
If Brazilian-born teller Antonio Rocha isn’t stomping like a giant on his way to knock down a village, then homespun humorist Tim Lowry is growling like a big, bad wolf in pursuit of pigs with a make-believe grandmother.
Make-believe is plenty big in Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee, where enthusiasts from around the world flock for fun and entertainment the second weekend in October.
Just about the coziest village to be found in the Appalachian hills, Jonesborough offers a downtown that’s a perfect backdrop for storytelling. A walk on Main Street, with its flags, pumpkin displays, colorful storefronts, cafes, and craft shops puts you in a real-life painting of everybody’s dream hometown.
The performing artists make themselves right at home here. They take turns on stages in five big white tents at locations behind the Washington County Courthouse and just off Main Street. But, you’re just as likely to find someone spinning a tale to three people who have stopped them on a sidewalk for chitchat. Even when the train rumbles through downtown blasting its horn, the storytellers find ways to work the deafening sound into their performances.
After 41 years, festival organizers know how to handle the crowds. Parking is plentiful and easy to find. The event tends to draw a slightly older crowd so chairs and golf cart “taxi” service are available at just the right spots. Restaurants and food courts offer prompt, friendly service and a full range of meals.
And, the stories you’ll hear are unforgettable. Joseph Bruchac weaves wooden flute music into a native American tale of birds and open sky. Donald Davis, who has a background as a Methodist minister, recollects defining moments of family life. Charlie Chin, dressed in the garb of classic Chinese storytelling, explains how acupuncture can change people’s personalities.
Performer Shonaleigh follows the Yiddish oral tradition with tales of castles and princesses. As the tale meanders to and fro, she pauses and says “But that’s another tale …” to which the crowd responds impromptu “for another time.” Yes, many folks have been here before. They wear their official festival pass, a quilt fabric square, on their hats and collars. Seasoned attendees display passes from previous years too. One couple with more than a dozen told me they come from California every year.
The stories are often funny. Syd Lieberman reveals how he tries to stay sexy at 60-plus, by pointing out his nearly non-existent similarities to actor Sean Connery. But, stories can also be poignant. By the time Diane Ferlatte finishes relaying the true story of how her mother-in-law warmed up to her son’s interracial marriage, many listeners clearly comprehended the message of embracing love and family connections.
Totally untrue but impossibly hilarious are the performances of Bil Lepp (pictured in the top photograph). He’s the five-time champion of the West Virginia Liars’ Contest and is just about the funniest human I’ve ever encountered. I laughed until it hurt. I’d tell you some of his punch lines, but I couldn’t deliver them with his skill. So, for now you’ll just have to consider it “another tale for another time” and plan on attending next year’s festival.
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