(This should take no more than ten minutes to read.)
This was my first time to visit the National Storytelling Festival, and my first visit to Jonesborough, TN. Leading up to the event, I was nervous as I was going to perform as part of the Exchange Place. This is where six storytellers got a twelve minute slot to tell a tale in front of a lot of people. The tent (one of five at the festival) holds 1,200 bodies. It’s been a while since I have been performing before so many people. The last time was back in my twenties when I was sat behind a drum kit!
After the meal held for everyone involved in the festival, from performers to volunteers, sound crew to organizers (thanks for making us first timers all so welcome and included) on Thursday night, it was off for a sound check. I had climbed on the stage and looked over the seats when I first arrived, but at the sound check reality sank in. Geraldine Buckley (our MC) was there to help us through the process and to give us tips, and helped us understand that everyone there from top performers to the audience all wanted us to succeed. Everyone kept telling us - “Just don’t suck! And have fun up there.” The sound guys did a great job.
The bonus of performing here at Jonesborough is that you get to see and hear people you might not normally get to see - like Donald Davis and Bil Lepp, Diane Ferlattet and Tim Lowry who rarely make to my neck of the woods. And there are people you might not think to go and see, which for me was cowboy singer and spoken word artist Andy Hedges, and be blown away by their talent. The list of performers at the festival is top notch and I wanted to see as many as I could.
It was suggested that I pick a tent and let the tellers come to me, rather than bounce around. That nearly happened! On Friday I saw Jennifer Monro and Donald Davis share the stage. Amazing. Everyone knows Donald is one of the best tellers of personal stories there is, and Jennifer Monro is every bit as good. Her story on parenting and pets was delivered in that wonderful dry British way she has and her choice of words, and delivery cannot be beaten! I then headed over to see Bil Lepp and Andy Hedges. Andy, the cowboy spoken word artist, singer of ballads and obscure ‘country’ songs and blues knocked my socks off. As did Bil Lepp. Again I moved tent to see my great friend Megan Hicks, and Donald Davis. I had to see Donald again! Megan was superb, of course. Witty, powerful and fun. Elizabeth Ellis, the MC for this performance, said of Megan - “…if you looked up the word ‘joy’ in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Megan so you would know it when you saw it.” I agree.
At this point I had lunch and got talking to other tellers and their partners or plus-one! I was going to head out to see Tim Lowry and Alton Chung and have to say I was so interested in the conversations going on over lunch I lost track of time and missed them. I then headed off to get ready for The Exchange Place.
I needed a shower as the weather was in the mid to upper 80’s and humid. I was also about to don my three piece suit and Converse low-tops. College Tent, when I got there, was filling up. Other storytellers were in the audience, along with a thousand other people. I saw friends, and people I know. Folks I have respect for, people I have not seen in ages. This was quite a crowd. Myself and the other tellers took another go at the stage to take it in, I stood beneath and looked over the faces before getting seated. Geraldine took the stage and began. First up was Willa Brigham, a sassy, take-charge teller filled with wit and full-on stage presence. She told a story about her passion of hats. This may not sound interesting, but it was so funny and lively she had the audience in her hand. Next up was my friend and colleague Rachel Ann Harding. She and I were telling folk tales and Rachel Ann told the most wonderful version of the Corpse Bride I have heard. Creepy in places, funny in spots and filled with compassion. Brilliant job. Nestor Gomez followed Rachel Ann with an impassioned performance about his coming to America as an undocumented child and becoming a citizen. I think it was one of the most powerfully told stories I saw over the weekend. This did not mean Jessica Piscitellli Robinson could not follow Nestor with her story. Oh no. Her personal narrative about overcoming fear and crappy boyfriends hit it out of the park too. Her story hit home. I followed with one of my favourite stories - The Song Unsung, Story Untold. I had had doubts about telling this story. It is a low-key story, a quiet story. Would this work at this event, especially fit between two personal stories? I had had a long conversation with another friend and colleague Sheila Arnold, a fabulous storyteller on the way down. With all the nerves I was having doubts and was thinking of switching stories. Sheila’s words were magic and I am glad I did not change plans. The story went down really well. Following me was the extremely funny and talented Paul Strickland. He tells wonderful tall tales, and is a natural liar - so it seems. He tells those tales that folks who love Bil Lepp enjoy and I loved his piece. Standing on the stage with all these folks was incredible and an honour. Especially when we got a standing ovation and could see the tent was filled to capacity. What a night. And it wasn’t over.
After changing clothes I rushed down to listen to Joseph Bruchac, Elizabeth Ellis, Bobby Norfolk, Anne Rutherford and Shelia Arnold tell ghost stories. What a cast, and what stories. Some were so creepy chills went up my spine, others made the audience jump, but Sheila Arnold’s closer was my favourite. She told an historical ghost story of enslaved people escaping a cruel master and the way things sometimes happen in a swamp. I get the shudders just writing about it.
A few folks met back at the hotel and hung out. More great conversations well into the night. I got to meet Bil Lepp’s kids and they have turned out alright! Megan Hicks and Donald Davis’ grown children were there and it was great to meet and chat with them and others who were there. Late night, early start on Sunday.
The tale I was thinking of telling instead of The Song and Story got told at the Swapping Ground where I heard three other funny tales before heading off to see Megan again. Her story Transformations about her mother was impassioned and beautiful. I stayed in the same tent to see Sheila Arnold present Locks Opened: Waterway Stories of the Underground Railroad. This was another impassioned story, and imbued with humour. I love these two women. They are so good at what they do. I caught a second helping of Andy Hedges, and then saw a remarkable set of stories told by Egyptian princess Chirine El Ansary. She grew up in France, so I had an odd idea of what an Egyptian accent was until I spoke with her afterwards! She is another incredible teller and told stories from A Thousand and One Nights, story within story, within story. It was great. Again a late lunch and lost time again hanging out with other tellers. It was beautiful. That evening I got my third helping of Megan, second helping of Chirine, and got to see Tim Lowry and John McCutcheon for the first time. This olio entitled Waging Peace was another great set of tales, and ended on another impassioned performance, this time by John. Wow. What a night.
Because I came with my wife and daughter (the latter has totally fallen for Bil Lepp) we left early Sunday morning. We headed to Asheville and explored there for a while before heading to Charlotte. Our trip to-and-from Jonesborough found some good eating places. One on the way there was a great little spot in Hickory, NC: a cafe/bar filled with great art, and fabulous food - a great mix for meat-eaters and vegetarians - Crescent Cafe - look them up. And in Asheville we found this great little ice-cream shop called the Golden Cow, all homemade. To say I am full of stories is an understatement. To say I met some wonderful people and had a great time would also be an understatement.
If you have thought about this festival but have not gone, make the effort. It is an incredible event, and the food vendors have a very wide range of very good food for many dietary needs and food choices. It’s not just hot-dogs, but from good Mexican food to tasty Indian meals.
Thank you to Krystal, Susan, Kiran, the sound guys, food peeps, and volunteers of the festival. Thanks to all those wonderful shop-owners we met in Jonesborough and all the other people we chatted with and met. Thank you Jonesboro, TN. I hope to see you again soon.