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National Storytelling Festival Jonesborough, Tennessee

I knew that there would be something that would make The National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee unlike anything I had ever seen before by the way my storyteller friends would get all dreamy and tongue-tied when I told them I was going to be a featured teller there.

“Jonesborough.” They would say the word as if when spoken it released a euphoria serum into their brains. And then these people, who have dedicated their lives to verbal communication, would become uncharacteristically inarticulate. “Don, you’re going to love it there.” Yes, I would reply. Everyone says that. But as I would stand before them awaiting elaboration they would walk away in some sort of intoxicated dream state without telling me why.

Looking back, I think the best way to communicate the effects of this event on the uninitiated is through what it did to my wife. My wife is cool. I knew it when I met her in tenth grade. She dressed cool. Her musical tastes were cooler than everyone else. After high school we hitch hiked around North America for three years seeking out the most interesting little groups of non-conformists the continent had to offer. If something is fake or artistically insincere she sees it right away and has no patience for it and no desire to spend an extra minute in the presence of it. She has the most finely calibrated BS meter of anyone I ever met.

It has been ten days since the festival. She hasn’t stopped talking about it. She/we were completely blown away by the level of talent. We discuss it at length and with reverence every day.

Picture a sleepy town with five BIG tents strategically placed throughout – the smallest holding 700, the largest holding 1700. Picture eleven thousand people invading this town, paying over one hundred dollars per day to listen to storytellers.
Picture all five tents filled to capacity at the same time. It’s hard to believe, right?

The audience is as attentive as any you will ever find. But … and this is something I would say to anyone who was performing there for the first time, they are attentive, supportive and polite but DO NOT mistake their good manners for a lack of knowledge. These people know exactly where you stand in the hierarchy of every storyteller who ever lived within six minutes of hearing you speak. It is an astounding and intimidating thing to know about an audience that you are obliged to entertain.

For a person who has always been obsessive about the minutia of storytelling, Jonesborough put me for the first time among audiences and performers who all suffered from my life-long incurable disease – the compulsive fascination with language and story. I learned something new about how to approach a story from every performer I saw. I couldn’t possibly list all the extraordinary storytellers that I saw during the festival but these are two that I would enthusiastically recommend:

Donald Davis. I never saw anyone use the space between sentences like this gentleman. The silences in his stories were as or more articulate than the parts with words. It was masterful.

Bil Lepp: One of the greatest performers I have ever seen. I wanted to grab the people beside me in the audience by the shoulders and say, “Do you know how hard it is to be this funny with this level of story telling precision? What this guy is doing is almost impossible.”

I want to thank Program Director Susan O’Connor for the opportunity of a lifetime.

Big thanks to Bill Harley for advocating on my behalf and helping to make this possible for me. And to Judith Black and Tony Toledo who brought my name up for consideration to the festival over the years.

( . . . . . . )

The space between these parentheses is where I had hoped to sum up my experience at Jonesborough with words so eloquent that you would be compelled to make the journey there next year. But, like all the people who tried to describe it to me before I went, I’m just sitting here all dreamy and tongue-tied.

You’re going to love it there.

Don White

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