Courtesy of International Storytelling Center
“It doesn’t matter if they want to hear it or not. Tell it to them anyway.” — Storyteller Donald Davis
Listening to family stories has always been part of Sheila Kay Adams’ life. Some she heard freely, saying “Daddy and Mama were always telling stories about family members.” Other times, she would press her ear to a pipe running straight down from her bedroom to the kitchen and she could hear every word her parents said.
Adams has lived her entire life in Madison County, N.C., a place she refers to as “paradise.” She’s an accomplished storyteller, ballad singer, old-time banjo picker and author, and she recently was honored as a 2013 National Heritage Fellow.
Adams knows how to keep a crowd entertained whether she’s telling a tale, singing or strumming, but she claims a go-with-the-flow attitude when she hits the stage, saying she never knows exactly what she’s going to do before she does it.
“All I do is get up there and talk,” she says. “I walk out there and just open my mouth.”
That sounds simple enough, but it’s important to keep in mind that Adams is backed by years of experience and dedication. She keeps fans coming back, again and again, to hear her stories of growing up in the Sodom Community, because she’s so carefully honed her craft and grown into the confidence that allows her to hit the stage without pre-planning.
She’s also telling stories about the people and places she loves, so the words flow easily from her heart and mind.
“Kids today are socially awkward,” says Adams. “When we were growing up old folks put us outside and we weren’t expected to come back until dark. Today’s kids have trouble dealing with the real world, but that’s where storytelling comes in—hearing stories of ‘don’t do that again.’
“I think the tradition of storytelling will survive,” she says. “I don’t ever see it dying out.”
A good storyteller can take just about anything that happens and include it in the framework of a larger story designed to provoke reactions from the audience.
Donald Davis first heard the pleas “tell it again, tell it again” in grade school as he would repeat tales his grandmother had told him and classmates would beg for more. The chant grew even louder by the time he was in college. Telling stories that made friends laugh or get a lump in their throat ultimately catapulted him into a career as a professional storyteller.
He’s a retired Methodist minister (yes, he has some hilarious tales about funerals and weddings) and serves as a featured storyteller at festivals around the globe. He’s a prolific author and master teacher of storytelling courses and workshops.
There’s a careful cadence and rhythm to Davis’ stories. He knows how to command an audience’s attention, when to pause and how to precisely deliver a punch line that brings howling laughter or quiet reflection.
But perhaps more importantly, Davis understands an audience isn’t really listening to a good story. Instead they’re seeing the story in their own mind. A good storyteller chooses words and descriptions in such a way to paint a vivid mental picture.
“People don’t realize how much work storytelling is. It’s an all-the-time type of thing for me,” Davis says.
Davis often draws upon real life events for his stories—the “first time” his father died being one such example. The death was a mistake, the result of a mixed-up phone call. After what Mark Twain would call “greatly exaggerated” reports of his death, Davis’ father went on to live another 23 years.
The experience taught Davis an important lesson. He needed to ask more questions, get more details about his family. It’s advice that he passes on to every storyteller.
“There’s only one rule of family storytelling and it’s this—it doesn’t matter if they want to hear it or not. Tell it to them anyway,” Davis says.
Stories permeated his life from as early as he can remember while growing up in Waynesville, N.C. His grandmother, who he visited often at her home in Fines Creek, was always talking about what “Jack” had been up to lately. Davis didn’t even realize what he was listening to was part of the Jack Tales tradition continued in the Southern Appalachian region by Scotch-Irish, English and German immigrants.
In his book, “Southern Jack Tales,” Davis writes: “there was a time I was convinced that [Jack] was a boy who surely lived just around the mountain from my grandmother’s house.”
Instead, Jack was a representation of values and culture.
“The hero in these tales is clever and lucky. He can stand up in situations where people may be trying to take advantage of him and that’s Jack,” says retired Appalachian State University English Professor Thomas McGowan.
McGowan has spent time working with authentic Jack Tale teller Orville Hicks. Orville is a cousin to the late Ray Hicks, a master teller of Jack Tales and other stories, and who was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1983.
“The Hicks, Harmon and Ward families of Watauga County and also Avery County were notable tellers who liked Jack Tales. The tradition continued because of the commitment of people within families to keep telling them,” says McGowan.
While some point to Hicks’ distant relations as being the ones to bring Jack Tales to American, American folklorist Richard Chase helped make the tales famous when he visited the Hicks, Harmon, and Ward families in Western North Carolina’s remote high country in Watagua and Avery counties and recorded their storytelling.
“I’m not sure how he wrote it down,” McGowan says. “I’ve heard there was a stenographer with him who recorded some of the tales. “
Chase’s book, The Jack Tales, first appeared in hardcover in 1943 and has gone through repeated printings throughout the years—it’s popularity just as sound as it was originally.
There are some scholars who claim people read Chase’s book and that’s how the stories continued, but McGowan isn’t sold on that—other people, like Davis’ grandmother—were telling Jack Tales elsewhere in the Appalachians.
“My grandfather in Kentucky was a wonderful storyteller,” says Elizabeth Ellis. “I heard stories in the Jack Tales tradition, but he was often called ‘Little Nippy’ instead of Jack. I never heard him called that anywhere else but Eastern Kentucky.
“They are elaborate tales with intricate plots,” she says. “They often deal with Jack being clever and overcoming great obstacles with his cleverness. He’s not always a good role model. Sometimes he steals and takes advantage of others like in the story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ where he takes things from the giant. It depends on which version you hear.”
Along with Jack Tales, Ellis tells “Jill Tales.” While Jack represents the common male folk hero, there are also stories with strong female characters, she said.
“The stories tend to be about the youngest daughter who has a big obstacle to overcome,” Ellis says. “She is courteous of her elders and willing to help others, and she is rewarded for that. In every culture, the folk tales will tell you what that culture values. The theme is often the same—if you treat other people with respect then good things will come to you.”
Take for example the young woman named Mutsmag. Mutsmag and her two older sisters are walking a path, and an old woman tries to capture them. Along the journey the girls are given opportunities to help others. The two sisters refuse, but Mutsmag always takes time to do what is asked of her.
When she passes an apple tree, the tree asks her to pick some apples because they are weighing down a branch to the point of breaking. Mutsmag obliges. She passes a cow that says it is in pain from not being milked. She stops to milk the cow. Then she comes across a loaf of bread baking in an oven. It asks her to pull it out so it won’t burn, and she does.
Because Mutsmag had been so helpful, in return the tree, the cow and the oven help her by sending the old woman on a wild goose chase so Mutsmag can get away safely.
Ellis encourages parents and grandparents to tell stories to their kids as a way of teaching them compassion and empathy for others.
“Children need to hear stories,” she says. “Their moral imagination needs to be developed and that needs to happen at home. It doesn’t happen through TV or video games. It happens between the living breath of the storyteller’s mouth and the child’s ear and heart. We are growing more people in our culture who have never developed compassion or empathy and without it civilization is impossible.
“Storytelling is like going to the gym for the imagination,” she continues. “What we use expands and grows. What we do not use begins to atrophy. When we don’t use our imaginations enough, it begins to atrophy. A vivid imagination can show you there are multiple ways to respond to whatever problem you have.”
Jonesborough, Tenn.’s storytelling festival
The quaint town of Jonesborough, Tenn., is the site of the National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center.
The first festival took place in 1973, the brainchild of Jimmy Neil Smith who was a Jonesborough mayor and journalism professor. He rolled an old farm wagon into courthouse square, and a modest crowd gathered to swap stories. Ray Hicks was one of the tellers at the inaugural festivals and helped ignite a renaissance of storytelling.
Two years later, the National Storytelling Association was founded in Jonesborough, and it paved the way for the current organization, the International Storytelling Center to stake its claim as a premier organization to promote the legacy of creative storytelling.
Smith retired from the center in December 2012, and folklorist and museum manager Kiran Singh Sirah took over. Originally from Scotland, Sirah earned a master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He’s personally interested in the connection between the Scotch-Irish ancestry through much of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee and the stories that continue to be told.
“When I hear stories here, I hear the linkage between the ballads and stories I heard in Scotland,” Sirah says.
Sirah not only wants to compare the links between the traditional and old stories, but to take a look at the contemporary and modern stories emerging in the region as well as the stories being told today in Scotland and Ireland. The reshaping of stories and telling of new ones is part of what draws people to the National Storytelling Festival again and again— continuing the tradition.
“We’re opening opportunities for younger storytellers to come to the festival,” Sirah says. “We engage with schools, and we ask the question: how do we pass on these stories to a younger generation? The festival actually enables the older people to talk to younger people. It’s a way of embracing the past and enables young people to make sense of the stories. It’s something we’re very interested in.”
Along with the yearly festival, the center offers storytelling programs throughout the year including a resident storyteller program featuring a variety of tellers who spend a week at the center offering performances and workshops.
Sirah also hopes to find ways to engage a worldwide audience through digital media and social media as well as developing new international partnerships. A new one that’s currently underway is a joint project with the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation.
“We will allow people to submit stories in creating a more peaceful world,” he says.
It’s easy to assume that the younger generation—the generation geared toward electronic communication versus the spoken word—doesn’t have an appreciation for storytelling. However many storytellers say this just isn’t the case, even though this particular festival does draw a predominantly senior audience.
“A storytelling festival is an artificial construct,” says storyteller Elizabeth Ellis. “It costs a lot of money to go there and stay there. A storytelling festival represents a small picture of what storytelling is and whom it appeals to. It draws those with disposable income and disposable time.”
Storytelling also happens at schools, churches, community centers, prisons, battered women’s shelters, and within groups like scouting and boys and girls clubs. It also takes place inside homes, among family and friends. A T-shirt at the festival sums it up well, saying, “The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
Storytelling becomes the vehicle within a community to share the collected wisdom of the world. Many stories illustrate how pitfalls have been avoided or new choices made to live a more successful life. Stories can be humorous or serious, but they bond the teller with the listener and help reveal a universal truth that the listener recognizes.
“All 12-step programs are based on telling your story, and in the telling of it and listening to other people’s stories, you begin to see that you can make different choices,” Ellis said. “It holds out the idea that if you don’t like the story you’re currently living, you can change the plot.”