Friday, 31 August 2012

Tall Tales in the Tennessee Woods

Jonesboro, Tennessee

What is hot and stuffy, perfectly happy, and has 400 wildly clapping hands?

Answer: The 200-plus early birds who crammed themselves into the local Methodist Church here recently for a sample of the story telling to come at the Fifth Annual National Storytelling Festival. For one weekend a year this 1,700-strong community is the “world” capital of the tall tale.

The audience itself was astonishingly ecumenical; on my left were the vice-president of the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) and the founding director of the Southern Folklore Association; on my right, two public librarians from Santa Rosa, California; in front of me, backpacking hippies from Oneonta, New York.

What, one might well ask, has such heterogeneity in common? Simple: a flair for natural foods. Folk tales are the home-baked loaves of our Wonder Bread era.

Another riddle: What has 600 umbrellas, a collective look of pure contentment, and doesn’t want to miss a thing?

Answer: The augmented crowd of folktale hearers on the main rainy day of the festival. They gathered casually at “Swappin’ Place,” a tented-over area where anyone with a tale to tell could try it out on an audience, which alternately thrilled at the skills of a score of professional storytellers and scrunched sympathetically at the tyros who were trying out their acts—off, off, off Broadway.

Within the space of a drizzly half-hour, I relished Doc McConnell’s complex fib about boys who couldn’t go into town till they built two miles of fence, cutting corners by putting frozen snakes into the ground for posts (all went swimmingly until the Tuesday thaw!); a young woman’s tale about an oyster fisherman off Long Island in the winter of 1977; North Carolina librarian Jackie Torrence’s traditional East African tale about the limits of bravery, which she ended with a positively levitating group chant of “Down By the Riverside.” The easy give and take between the skilled and the neophyte, the compete absence of competitiveness, the sheer collaborative joy in one another’s well-doings, were to me a parable of American openness I have been mulling over since.

Demographically, the biggest surprise to me was the high incidence of elementary schoolteachers and librarians. Richard Chase, the wintry yet magically warm doyen of the professional tale-telling fraternity (an inept term since there were so many first-rate female storytellers there too), came early to the festival so he could visit the town’s Boone Elementary School.

The popular conception of the tall tale spinner is the twinkly-eyed backwoods farmer. Only North Carolinians Stan and Ray Hicks, who farm in the western part of the state, seemed to fit this image.

My favorites of the festival were the winsome duo of Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan. Never have your National Endowment for the Arts dollars been better invested. I can hardly wait to see them in a whole concert. The next day, Barbara Freeman rolled us helplessly in the clay-floored aisles with her cautionary tale about getting peanut butter off the roof of your mouth “wiff a thpoon.” It sticks in your mind, that kind of nonsense.

Where did this all come from? (I’m glad you asked, because it’s a tallish tale in itself.) Once upon a time there was a slightly (make that hugely) dissatisfied English teacher at nearby Johnson City’s Science Hall High School. His name was Jimmy Neil Smith. He was taking his journalism class to an out-of-town conference—the kind that is supposed to broaden the students’ horizons but which is really set up to keep English teachers of a certain kind from going bonkers.

On the car radio they heard a Mississippi tale teller. They were enchanted. “Teacher,” they said, “why don’t we have a bunch of those funny folks come to Johnson City?” “I was hoping you would want that,” their teacher replied.

That was in 1973. One thing led to another, and in a triumph of American volunteerism, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling was born and the Tennessee Arts Commission primed its pumps with a modest subvention.

This year, however, the association was proudly, if somewhat shakily, on its own for the first time. Mr. Smith guessed that at 400 admissions ($10 for the weekend) it would break even. It got its numbers.

The group’s plans are a plausible mix of utopianism and practicality. Knowing they do not stand a chance against the maxibudgeted state universities with their huge staffs and roving collectors, Mr. Smith’s bunch decided to go audio-visual. They have six staff members and immense reserves of goodwill, which seem to be expanding exponentially. For instance the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) video staffers were there on their own time, audio taping the festival for the association’s “archive”—a homely cluster of second-floor offices next to a Jonesboro laundromat. For $3 you can get a tape of the highlights of the storytelling festival. Write the librarian (another defected English teacher), Brad Harrell, Box 112, Jonesboro, TN 37659.

Riddle: Who is 50, completely ignorant of folklore, yet already planning to attend next year’s festival?

From The Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 15, 1977

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