“Having heard so much about the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, I was absolutely thrilled at the chance to visit in person this year. When I discovered this was the 50th anniversary, and the first time the festival had been able to be held in person since the pandemic, it felt even more auspicious to go. Like many, I’ve joined in online experiences over the past 2+ years, but there is no substitute for being there in person, when your carbon footprint allows.
As is legendary, I was absolutely knocked out by the size of the marquees! Five massive marquees are positioned across the town – the largest seating 2,000+, and even the “more intimate” Creekside marquee upwards of 800 by my count. The festival also takes over the International Storytelling Centre which operates year round in the town, and nearby parklands, including two nights of ghost stories, appropriate complement to the brilliant Hallowe’en designs around the town. These events are ticketed separately and pull in attenders from the surrounding area, as well as the festival crowd.
As I’d heard from others, the majority of the festival programme is drawn from personal stories –but there was definitely festival variety – the UK’s own Peter Chand offering a series of wonderful Indian folktales which were much appreciated, including in a fabulous duo session with Elizabeth Ellis who told an Appalachian version of Cap of Rushes. Charlotte Blake Alston shared legendary myths from Ghana, encouraging a capacity audience to sing in harmony together, and a meticulously researched US history of the Six Triple Eight, the first all-Black WAC battalion to serve in Europe in the Second World War. Both outstanding! And another major highlight for me was the brilliant Kevin Kling – an hour spent in his company disappeared in an absolute flash, so much insight and wisdom wrapped in story and laughter. Across the weekend there were many opportunities to enjoy the range of festival special guests, as well as one-off story slam and festival exchange tellers, and I loved meeting some of the friendliest and most generous storytelling audiences around. What an experience.
After this, I travelled by train to New York and was lucky enough to stay with storyteller Laura Simms who gave me the insider guide to the city. One evening, we met up with Joseph Sobol for a trip to The Moth. This sold out story slam took place at Housing Works bookstore, a social enterprise that also offers healthcare and advocacy services. The seats were packed, the balconies stacked, as 10 tellers drawn from a hat shared 5 minute stories on the theme of ‘Costumes’. While the scoring remained, an enigma wrapped in a mystery, this night of entertainment was relished by the young, cosmopolitan crowd – and it left me reflecting on the pull of authentic shared experience, in our time of change and challenge.
As I finished up my trip, I was grateful to get a small insight into contemporary Native American artworks, on display in the Smithsonian Museum of Native American history (housed in the Alexander Hamilton Custom House, a call back to earlier in my trip) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Contemporary commissioned works sit side by side with historical pieces, and the layers of detail and artistry are astonishing – the jingle dress, made entirely from notepaper as a homage to indigenous writers, whose names are inscribed on each jingle – and a dress designed using Adobe software, mirroring the historical dress in the cabinet next to it. The interpretation panels point towards value systems in which time doesn’t flow in a straight line, where objects made hundreds of years ago are still doing the work their makers intended touchstones to reflect on, in continuing to support the sharing of stories passing through into the future by being told in the now. Time to head back to the UK, with thanks to everyone who made this trip possible, here’s to next time.
Naomi’s research was supported by NAS & Derby Museums UK Creative Cultural Fellows programme, funded by Arts Council England and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Thanks to National Storytelling Festival Jonesborough
You can access the Virtual version of the National Storytelling Festival Jonesborough from October 28th. LINK – https://www.storytellingcenter.net/festival/virtual-festival/