National Storytelling Festival Turns 40

PBS NEWSHOUR (Washington D.C.), October 5, 2012


The popularity of radio shows like PRI’s “This American Life” and groups like The Moth has put the art of a good yarn on the map for a wide, national audience. In urban centers like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., it’s just as easy to find storytelling open mics or slam competitions as it is to find events devoted to poetry or acoustic music.

But before this surge went mainstream, so to speak, the number of organized public gatherings of that kind was rather small. Access to great stories was limited to those who lived nearby storytellers in local communities, libraries, schools, porches at sunset.

It was in the town of Jonesborough, Tenn., in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains, that the first festival dedicated specifically and exclusively to the oral tradition got started in 1973.

National Storytelling Festival founder Jimmy Neil Smith wanted to create a space for the community to come together and share traditional tales. “We had our own mountain culture and our own reservoir of mountain stories,” Smith said.

During the early years of the festival, these traditional folk tales dominated the performances. There were Jack tales, grandfather tales, ghost stories, myths and legends about folk heroes, mixed in with ballads sung and accompanied by harmonica. These stories embodied the Appalachian spirit and identity, which is extremely strong for those raised in the mountains.

Now in its 40th year, the National Storytelling Festival expects to attract nearly 10,000 fabulists and attendees from throughout the country and around the world this weekend. The three-day event will include performances by 24 featured storytellers, two ghost story concerts at night and midnight cabarets. Though not all of the festival’s stories are told by Appalachians or are about the area, there’s still a large contingency of people who come because of the regional tales and storytellers, who play a dominant role each year.


Subjects Covered: storytelling festivals

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