Captivating Crowds With a Rollicking Tall Tale
Storytelling festival has brought prestige to the age-old art
JONESBOROUGH, TENN. — The man onstage looks as though he just popped from the pages of an especially creative children's book. Balloons are attached to his arms. A brightly colored sunburst cap covers his head. Bells jingle from fingers and ankles, which also sprout torrents of curled confetti. Blue butterflies are painted on his hands and face.
But he isn't an imaginary storybook character. A wide sash over his pink and aqua jacket proclaims his profession: Brother Blue, storyteller.
"I began storytelling in 1967 or '68," says Hugh Morgan Hill (a.k.a. Brother Blue) of Cambridge, Mass. "Nobody was doing it then."
Three decades later, the glib-tongued yarn-spinner is no longer alone, thanks in large part to the influence of the National Storytelling Festival, based in this tiny hamlet, Tennessee's oldest town.
Since its founding in 1972, the festival has spawned similar celebrations from Alaska to Texas and Denmark to New Zealand, and encouraged thousands of people to become full-time storytellers.
This year's 25th anniversary event, held Oct. 3-5, offered more than 30 hours of top-notch tale-telling. Ten thousand listeners were spellbound by fables from ancient Africa, retellings of native American legends, hilarious chronicles of childhood misadventures, and rollicking anecdotes of mountain life.
People of all ages crowded under tents, in some cases approaching storytellers with reverence usually reserved for famous athletes or musicians.
Junior high boys chortle until tears run down their faces as they listen to Jay O'Callahan's original yarn about a worm and a caterpillar. Although the tale has been turned into a picture book, they're not the least bit self-conscious about enjoying a story for "little kids." After all, no one could be shy when loudly singing, "I'm Herman the wormin', and I like my squirmin', and I like being close to the ground, boom, boom!"
A grandfatherly figure with a wispy white beard and a blue smock, Mr. O'Callahan captivates the crowd as his voice rises in excitement, then dips to almost a whisper. He wiggles one eyebrow for comic effect. He howls and waves his arms.
When people get caught up in a story, he says afterward, they're transported to a magical world. "All the concern that kids and adults have about people looking at them melts away. You're imagining, and that means you're very much involved."
Many of today's best-known tale-weavers grew up around storytelling. "I come from a family of storytellers," says Jackie Torrence, who has appeared on the stages of Lincoln and Kennedy Centers. "My mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncles, and my aunts. You could not spend a Thanksgiving, a Christmas, a funeral without hearing stories."
When Doc McConnell was growing up in the rural South, there were no computer games, no television sets, no magazines or newspapers in his home. What he remembers most are the family stories that were told and retold, and listening to old-timers swap tales at the country store. "Mountain people are born storytellers," he declares.
Ray Hicks is probably the most famous of that breed. Since 1951, he has been publicly passing along Appalachian tales. He dresses in overalls and still lives in the same house in which he was born. Someone said that being introduced to Mr. Hicks is like meeting Rip van Winkle.
According to storyteller Jim Mays, "Ray has been studied by scholars who believe that his particular dialect is closest to the Elizabethan English that we still have among living people."
Appreciating a performance by the man who's hailed as the patriarch of storytelling, the large crowd hangs onto every word - most stretched into several syllables (hee-ut for hit, kee-ud for kid, way-lll for well). They roar delightedly at a tale about outsmarting a city slicker.
Not all story swappers at Jonesborough are old pros. At the Swapping Ground, anyone with courage to stand before a mike can spin a yarn for folks sitting on bales of hay.
Many praise the festival for bringing storytelling back from oblivion. But Connie Regan-Blake, a founding member of the National Storytelling Association, doesn't see it that way.
"Storytelling is what's the same about all people, all cultures, all times. From the beginning of time, we've always told stories and listened to stories. Storytelling didn't die; we just turned away from it for a little while. Now we're turning back."
Brother Blue agrees. "There will be more and more storytellers. Telling tales is definitely an art," he says. "You can paint the Sistine Chapel with words."
* For more information about the National Storytelling Festival, call 800-525-4514.
Weaving a Web: Storytelling on the Net
It may be an ancient art, but in keeping with the times, storytelling has gone high-tech. Thousands of Internet sites are now devoted to all aspects of tale-telling. Through the Web, you can locate storytelling organizations worldwide, find the dates of upcoming conferences and festivals, and get advice on how to capture an audience's - or your four-year-old's - attention with a tall tale. Most popular, though, are the sites that offer traditional or original stories that can be read online, printed, or downloaded to be heard through RealAudio or wav software.
Here's a sampling of what's available:
Aaron's Storytelling Page
Art of Story Telling
Hasidic Stories Home Page
Jonesborough Storytellers Guild
National Storytelling Association
Norwegian Association of Storytelling
Tales of Traditional Wisdom
Other Storytelling Festivals
Oct. 17-19, Missouri River
Storytelling Festival, St.
Charles, Mo. 800-357-7014.
Oct. 25, Eth-Noh-Tech
Festival, San Francisco.
Oct. 26, Jewish Storytelling
November, The Month of
Storytelling in museums, parks
and theaters, Houston.
Nov. 7-9, Hudson Valley
Storytelling Festival, Poughkeepsie,
N.Y. (914) 452-7555.
Nov. 13-16, National Festival
of Black Storytellers, Cleveland.
Nov. 22, Tellebration, a
network of storytelling events in
35 states and five countries.