Once upon a time in the small, historic Tennessee town of Jonesborough, Jimmy Neil Smith had an idea. So on one crisp autumn day, he and a small group of like-minded individuals rolled an old farm wagon onto the courthouse square in the middle of town. Then one by one, Smith and his friends took their turns standing on the wagon with one simple purpose. To tell a story.
That day, through those stories, the National Storytelling Festival was born. Out of this humble idea from a former journalism teacher came a spark that ignited a revival of one of the most time-honored traditions not just in the South but around the world. Every year since, award-winning storytellers from around the world have gathered in the tiny mountain town to regale listeners with tales of every kind—from the tall tales that leave an audience to wonder to narratives passed down through generations of a family.
Storytelling is as old as language itself. Its purpose among many things is to educate, to entertain—to remember. A well-told story is an art and a means of cultural preservation. In 1975, just two short years after the first festival, Smith took another step in preserving the oral tradition by founding the National Storytelling Association, now the International Storytelling Center. Based upon a firm belief in the power of storytelling, the Center was established to bring about a positive change in the world through listening to one another’s stories.
And as the self-proclaimed “Storytelling Capital of the World,” Jonesborough has plenty of stories to tell. Both the amateur storyteller and the seasoned professional have numerous platforms in which to share their tale. Every Tuesday evening members of the Jonesborough Storytellers Guild meet at a local theater to share stories with the public. But professionals aren’t the only ones recounting their days for open ears. Thanks to yet another one of Smith’s projects through the Center, Telling Jonesborough’s Stories, the youngest to the young at heart can have their moment as well in the town built around stories.
More than forty years have passed since that October day in 1973. Since that day storytelling festivals have sprung up across the nation from California to the Carolinas and everywhere in between. That one humble idea continues to reintroduce an ancient tradition to new generations. The idea that there is power in storytelling. The idea that despite age, economic, or cultural background, whether on the front porch or a stage in a small mountain town, everyone has a story to tell.