Storytelling Festival Keeps Mountain Tradition Alive

October 5, 2005

Long before the Internet, TV, movies, and radio, stories were told the old-fashioned way—around a fire. Now an annual Appalachian festival devoted exclusively to the art of storytelling is striving to rekindle the flame.

"We want people gathering again to share their stories," said Jimmy Neil Smith, president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

The center organizes the annual National Storytelling Festival, which takes place this weekend. Started in 1973 as a way to attract tourists to Jonesborough, the festival now attracts the world's best raconteurs to regale crowds of some 10,000 people.

The tellers come to tell generations-old folktales, legends, and myths; they recite written stories word-for-word; and they sometimes relate modern personal stories about their own life experiences, Smith said.

The listeners come for the chance to participate in the world's oldest collective activity, according to Bil Lepp, a self-described "liar" from Charleston, West Virginia, who is a featured storyteller at this year's festival.

"The media we have today—TV and computers—actually have made people more aware of how much we need to do something very low-tech and very collective," he said. "Storytelling is one of the most collective activities people can participate in."

According to Smith, modern forms of media are a distraction to the time-honored tradition of sitting around the family table long after the dishes are cleared to tell and listen to each other's stories.

He hopes, however, that a revitalized storytelling tradition will lead to better movies. "Great movies are built around great stories," he said.

Good Stories Well Told

While it is important to acknowledge that everybody in their own right is a storyteller, Smith said, performance storytelling is an art form just like acting, singing, or playing an instrument.

"It takes not only natural talent but also constant refinement of the art," he said. "The more you perform the more you refine the performance and, further, the more you refine your story."

Lepp got his start as a storyteller in 1990 at the West Virginia Liars Contest. The grand prize was a hundred U.S. dollars and a scale model of a golden shovel.

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