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The National Storytelling Festival
in Jonesborough, Tennessee
by Chris King

Everyone loves listening to a good story. If you want to hear the best of the best stories and storytellers, sign up for the National Storytelling Festival held annually the first weekend of October in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

I just returned from the 29th Festival - my 11th in a row - and I don't know of a more delightful and exhilarating trip and event.

The National Storytelling Festival was created in 1973 by Jimmy Neil Smith, a former journalism teacher and mayor of Jonesborough. His inspiration, quite simply, was a well-told tale heard over a car radio - a story told by Grand Ole Opry star Jerry Clower about hunting in Mississippi. Why not a storytelling festival? Smith wondered.

For the first event, about 60 people gathered behind a wagon that served as a stage to listen to stories. Today, more than 10,000 people gather in gigantic tents for three days of practically non-stop storytelling.

That first National Storytelling Festival, then the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, ignited a renaissance of storytelling that is, even today, continuing to sweep the globe. People across America and the world are rediscovering the simplicity and basic truth of the told story.

This year's event was even more needed and welcomed than ever following the September 11th tragedy. I know that I laughed harder and cried harder than ever before throughout the listening and the sharing of so many wonderful stories, and I returned to Cleveland feeling refreshed, relaxed, and ready to get down to business.

Story lovers, listeners, tellers, librarians, teachers, youngsters, and oldsters listen to worldwide folklore, hilarious tales, myths, personal stories, cowboy poetry, stories from many cultures, stories set to music, and more, from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon.

The tellers come to Jonesborough from all over the world and each has his or her own unique approach to storytelling. If you want humor, you will find humor. If you want seriousness, you will find the serious. If you want music and rhythm, you will be singing, clapping, and tapping your feet. If you want scary, ghost stories, you'll hear them in the dark of night, and if you're looking for late night adult fun, you will find it at the Midnight Cabarets.

Besides the storytelling, you will also be enthralled by the quaint town and the wonderful residents of Jonesborough. Located in the natural beauty of northeastern Tennessee between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee's oldest town offers a combination of historic charm, modern services and small-town hospitality that provides a storybook setting for the Festival.

The churches offer a pancake breakfast, a bean and corn bread feed, and parking in their lots. The stores along the main street are brimming with antiques, crafts, art, and more food, and there are daily carriage rides up and down the main street for those with weary feet.

The brand new International Storytelling Center on Main Street will be completed in May 2002, so will welcome all of us for next year's 30th Anniversary Festival. This has been the dream and project that is the culmination of Jimmy Neil Smith's vision.

The other arm of the Festival is the National Storytelling Network ,the membership organization for storytellers, story listeners, and story lovers. Visit both of their websites for additional information about storytelling and registration for next year's Festival.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the beautiful trip to and from Jonesborough. It is lengthy - eight to nine hours - but a breathtaking drive through the mountains of West Virginia at the time of year when the colors of fall are beginning to peak. It is almost Route 77 the whole way from Cleveland to Whytheville, where you turn toward Bristol and on to Jonesborough.

One word of warning. If you take the plunge and attend a National Storytelling Festival, you will be hooked for life. I make my reservation for the next year's event every year when I check out of my motel on Sunday morning. How else do you imagine that it has grown from 60 to 10,000 people?




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Chris King

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