Jonesborough TN Storytelling Center

The Flounder at the Festival

by Loren Niemi – October 16, 2022

The Christine and I brought the American School of Storytelling to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. It was her first time, and my … well, at one point I was asked if it was my first Festival and I told the bright young ETSU student who asked the question that I came to my first festival in 1979, quite likely before her parents were born. 

I mention this because in the 50 years of the Jonesborough Festival I have been in the tents for at least 40 of them and as such, have had the opportunity to see how storytelling has changed. In the early years (AKA the “Ray Hicks Era”) traditional stories dominated. They had moments of humor but many were sparse and dark variations on their European roots and the hard-scrabble life of Appalachia. If you heard Ray offering a Jack tale, his dialect and accent were so localized you could be forgiven for needing a translator. It was a glorious introduction to a storytelling that would soon pass out of fashion.

At this year’s festival personal and humorous stories dominated. That transition began in the mid-’80’s when Donald Davis went from telling his versions of Jack tales to telling the stories that have been his bread and butter – his childhood. Soon he was joined by Andy Offut Irwin, Bil Lepp, and in a nod to the “not Southern”, Kevin Kling and Bill Harley. 

I have no complaint about the dominance of humor, as clearly the audience appreciates it, but rather that on the whole, the Festival telling feels ”safe”: risk averse and predictable. I suppose risk and unpredictability are what Fringe Festivals are for. After all, Spaulding Gray was on the Jonesborough stage in ‘85 and it was a mismatch of epic proportions. But I, for one, loved the contrast between his neurotic Yankee autobiography and the Southern Baptists trying to make sense of “public confession”.

In my view of storytelling, there is room for it all- traditional and personal, light and dark.

What I appreciated the most about this gathering of the storytelling tribe in the post-pandemic world (are we actually there yet?) was the hugs and greetings, the genuine pleasure in seeing one another in the flesh and not on a digital square. The energy in the tents was palpable and appreciated. Conversations, whether short or long, were punctuated by glimpses and greetings. The prevailing mood was, we are still alive and glad to be in the company of our ilk.

And true it was and is. 

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