The National Storytelling Festival is held the first full weekend of October in Jonesborough, Tennessee at the International Storytelling Center. The National Storytelling Festival was founded by Jimmy Neil Smith, a high school journalism teacher in 1973. It has grown over the years to become a major festival both in the United States and internationally.
The National Storytelling Festival, produced by the International Storytelling Center, is the largest and most prestigious storytelling event in the world, and one that ignited the modern-day storytelling revival in America.
In our age of fast-moving technology, it seems unlikely that thousands of audience members could spend a weekend mesmerized by the voices of storytellers. But that’s exactly what happens in Jonesborough, Tennessee, every year during the first weekend in October.
In 1973, Jimmy Neil Smith, a high school journalism teacher, and a carload of students heard Grand Ole Opry regular Jerry Clower spin a tale over the radio about coon hunting in Mississippi. Smith was inspired by that event to create a story telling festival in Northeast Tennessee.
In October 1973, the first National Storytelling Festival was held in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Hay bales and wagons were the stages, and audience and tellers together didn’t number more than 60.
The National Storytelling Festival began in 1973 when 60 people came to hear a few Appalachian tales from the back of a hay wagon parked beside the town courthouse. In the decades since, those 60 people have grown to more than 10,000, and the hay wagon has been replaced by large, circus-like tents raised throughout the town. Those first mountain tales are now juxtaposed with an array of traditional, personal and contemporary stories from around the globe, spiked with the flair of poetry, blues, and ballads. The Festival encompasses a wealth of cultures, traditions and styles – a world of stories within one, historic town.
Two years after the first festival, Smith founded the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS), an organization that led America’s storytelling renaissance. In 1994, the name of the organization was shortened to the National Storytelling Association (NSA). Another name change occurred in 1998, when NSA “divided into two separate organizations, National Storytelling Network (NSN) and International Storytelling Center (ISC)”. Today, the ISC promotes the power of storytelling and the creative applications of this ancient tradition to enrich the human experience in the home, at the workplace, and throughout the world. The National Storytelling Network is a membership organization, “connecting people to and through storytelling”.
Produced by the International Storytelling Center, the three-day outdoor festival features performances by internationally known artists and has been hailed “the leading event of its kind in America”[this quote needs a citation] by USA Today. In existence for nearly 40 years, the Festival attracts more than 10,000 audience members to Jonesborough—Tennessee’s oldest town—from across the United States and world annually, including school groups whose students attend as an educational experience.
In venues ranging from an intimate theater setting to tents that seat 1500, festival attendees are treated to compelling performances from over 30 world-class tellers. These audience members include people from all walks of life, from all over the world.
As people the world over have rediscovered the simplicity and basic truth of a well-told tale, the Festival has become the flagship of a national movement that celebrates the rich history of American storytelling and the talebearers who share their stories. Its impact on storytelling as a major art form is acknowledged worldwide. And its impact on a small, rural town – now known as the storytelling capital of the world – is equally significant.
The town of Jonesborough is tucked away near the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Tennessee’s oldest town offers historic charm and small-town hospitality – a storybook setting for three days of storytelling festivities. This picturesque place is where the storytelling revival began, and where thousands return each year for the time-honored tradition of hearing – and sharing – stories at the National Storytelling Festival.
The festival builds on the Appalachian cultural tradition of storytelling. Held under circus tents scattered throughout Jonesborough, storytellers sit on stages or at the head of the tent to perform. There are usually five or six tents in close proximity so that festival goers can easily walk from tent to tent and from performance to performance.
Past storytellers include Pete Seeger, Carmen Agra Deedy, Jay O’Callahan, Donald Davis, Syd Lieberman, Andy Offutt Irwin, Sheila Kay Adams, and Kathryn Tucker Windham. The festival has expanded to include the growing ranks of Youth Storytellers, including showcasing participants and winners of the National Youth Storytelling Showcase. The festival influenced the development of a storytelling graduate degree program at the nearby East Tennessee State University. This is the only master’s degree program of its kind.
The International Storytelling Center, producer of the National Storytelling Festival, brings storytelling to Jonesborough in other ways, too. The May through October “Storytelling Live!” series presents a different storyteller every week for Tuesday–Saturday matinee performances and special workshops, children’s shows, and evening concerts. The Storytelling Theater (above), in Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall (right) on Main Street, provides an intimate setting, for both Storytelling Live and Festival theater performances.
The National Storytelling Festival is the International Storytelling Center’s signature program, but ISC is also active on the global stage, fulfilling its mission to enrich the lives of people around the world through the arts of storytelling. The Center’s goal is to inspire and empower people everywhere to capture and tell their stories, listen to the stories of others, and use storytelling to produce positive change.
Telling Stories That Matter
As a partner with the Washington, D.C. organization, Alliance for Peacebuilding, the International Storytelling Center reinforces the importance of sharing stories to build peace among peoples and nations. In this Shindig “Peace Call,” ISC director Kiran Singh Sirah and AfP director Melanie Greenberg share stories of peacebuilding and highlight this important partnership.
In March 2014 the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA launched a special web series that explores the ways in which storytelling can be used to promote world peace. The multimedia project features a variety of performances and perspectives collected from master storytellers participating in the ISC’s teller-in-residence program. Rebecca Popham, managing editor, Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA and director of the project, tells us that sharing oral traditions from all over the world illustrates how the art of storytelling promotes diversity and deepens understanding across cultures in the quest for peace across the globe. The project promotes the spirit of Ubuntu, a philosophy of human connectedness espoused by Desmond Tutu.
For more than a decade, ISC has worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) on high-profile space exploration projects. Focusing on education, ISC helped develop special programming for the general public (through storytelling performance), for schoolteachers (through regional workshops), and for JPL itself (by working with its scientists).
In 2004, NASA invited Syd Lieberman into the control room to witness the first Mars rover landing. Jointly commissioned by ISC and NASA, Lieberman later shared the story of that historic event with audiences in Jonesborough and beyond—the first in what would become a series of groundbreaking collaborations between prominent storytellers and NASA.
In a project funded by the US Department of State, ISC has been working with the National Museum of Comoros, in the African city of Moroni, since 2012. Together, the institutions are developing a community-based program that uses story collecting and storytelling to promote positive social change across the nation of Comoros.
The ISC staff, as well as ISC President Emeritus Jimmy Neil Smith, are working to establish the museum as a center for Comorian culture and a hub for storytelling and community conversation. Exhibits at the museum, as well as school-based curricula, will help teach indigenous history, traditions, and culture.
ISC is partnering with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage for a special workshop on cross-cultural empathy. The 2014 event will bring together cultural heritage professionals, peace-building professionals, educators, and programming specialists to explore best practices in cross-cultural documentary processes, public programming and interdisciplinary exchange.
While art and other cultural works are often viewed as a byproduct of peace-building activities, this workshop will support museums and other cultural organizations in using art and other culture work as a primary tool in resolving conflict.
National Storytelling Festival Digital Archive Development
In recognition of the national importance of ISC’s rich storytelling treasury, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and East Tennessee State University have partnered with ISC to digitize its extensive collection of National Storytelling Festival archival recordings. This ambitious project will make decades’ worth of performances from the Festival widely available for education and entertainment. Learners of all ages will have access to the archival performances as well as customized teaching materials that reinforce learning.
Since 2005, ISC has helped U.S. veterans heal and share their stories. In partnership with the Library of Congress, ISC produced a theatrical piece and a workshop as part of the Veterans History Project. ISC also mounted a special exhibit in partnership with the Smithsonian that local veterans attended. In 2008, ISC hosted a special performance by the internationally acclaimed director Armand Volkas, as well as a series of drama therapy workshops. These projects recognize and validate veterans’ experiences and help audiences better understand those experiences through storytelling.
Following a successful regional workshop, ISC launched a national leadership training initiative for the United Way of America in 2008. Leading a series of workshops at the Center in Jonesborough and in venues across the country, ISC trained United Way leaders in how to use storytelling to enhance the organization’s communications efforts, fundraising events, internal management, and impact on communities. The collaboration marked ISC’s first opportunity to use storytelling as a training tool within a national organization.