In October 1973, beloved Southern storyteller Jerry Clower took the stage in Jonesborough, Tennessee, before a crowd of about 100 people and captivated them with his traditional Appalachian tales. Together, they returned to a time when folks gathered on a front porch or around a hearth, recalling ancient memories around the simple power of listening to stories.
This first National Storytelling Festival was a modest beginning. In its fifty years since then however, the event has sparked revival and innovation of the ancient art form, forever changed the town of Jonesborough, and inspired other festivals across the country.
A Global Revival
This October, 10,500 guests from around the world marked the festival’s golden jubilee. Kiran Singh Sirah is the President of the International Storytelling Center, the nonprofit that now hosts the festival. While folk tradition is at the root of the event, its evolution toward a forward-looking perspective has kept it relevant. “Over the years, we’ve made the festival more inclusive, more diverse, and more encompassing of different traditions from across the country and around the world,” he said in an interview. Indeed, the 50th celebration included a Master Appalachian teller alongside a Japanese teller/mime and a Yu’pik teller/dancer from Alaska.
Sirah has an expansive view of what, exactly, story is. It spans ballads, poetry, other oral traditions, and even cultural expressions like food and craft, anything that “tells the world who we are and where we come from.” One year, the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, gave a presentation at the festival about the layered stories behind their famous quilts. Their creations are a testament to a homeplace and the complex history of slavery and reconstruction.
One of the “New Voices” at this year’s festival was Brigid Reedy. A veteran performer, this marked the first time she was billed as a storyteller. A musician raised on ranches in the Rocky Mountains, her repertoire is cowboy ballads and poems and her usual scene is the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. She shared classic poems, like Buck Ramsay’s “Anthem,” with listeners at the festival.
For Reedy, sharing western music and stories is part of a living rural tradition. She is a college student who is just as comfortable on a horse as on her own two feet. Her younger brother is a talented musician who performs with her. Her dad is a musician and poet who introduced her to the tradition. Her mom is a textile artist in a practice called hitching, where a few strands of horse hair at a time are braided into complex patterns.
“I am really of a place,” she said. “These poems are told first-hand from people working and living on the land, out of their interactions with the land and the animals. Great cowboy poetry transcends the genre to tap into things deeply true about human existence.”
Traditional folktales have long been ways people transmit information and societal values through entertainment. But modern storytelling, as seen on popular platforms like Storycorps and the Moth, often lifts up personal stories. It intentionally fosters social justice, connection, and healing. A variety of leaders share tales that help us understand our humanity and make sense of the world.
Sirah, for example, came to storytelling through peace-building. In post-9/11 Scotland, he connected with faith communities who were working to break down walls. As they shared their sacred objects, stories, and songs with each other, he realized the celebration of world faiths was actually a storytelling festival.
Sirah deepened that work through a graduate program that combined his passions for social justice, folklore, and conflict resolution. A scholarship for his studies brought him to the U.S. He has led trainings and workshops with health care workers, special education teachers, nonprofits, and the military. Collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management and grassroots communities, he helped uncover the unheard stories of some of our national lands. The goal was to foster inclusive, sacred spaces and to understand there is space for more than one story.
“It’s incumbent upon us to unpack stories about our collective heritage, and find ways to honor everyone without becoming defensive about traditions that no longer serve us as a society,” said Sirah. “Poetry and science both suggest story is the shortest distance between two people.”
A scientific entity across the country is proving this theory too. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) has had a long-term connection to the National Festival and to storytelling. The relationship began with the passion of one communications manager, Alice Wessen, who invited coworkers to the national event to experience the connection via story and to consider how that might impact their work for NASA. The organization has hosted a number of storytellers on-site, including Syd Lieberman who performed a commissioned story about the first Mars rovers.
From a business perspective, story development has proven a crucial tool in promoting JPL’s mission projects. They consider characters, plot, and potential outcomes. “A clear, strong, compelling story dramatically increased the number of JPL proposals accepted by NASA,” said Preston Dyches with JPL.
But stories have proven invaluable organizationally, too. The Veritas mission to Venus was up for final approval in 2020, and, as happened during the pandemic, a virtual presentation with the review board replaced the usual site visit. JPL leaders knew they had to curate an experience instead of a meeting. They developed the tools for effective communication with the mission leaders through a workshop called “credible messenger training.” It presents story at the core of authentic connection.
Through the class, the team heard each other’s why’s about the mission for the first time, even though they had been working together for two years. Their relationships deepened. “It was amazing,” said Paul Propster with JPL. “We had salty systems engineers crying and sharing their passion for Venus. They became a more human team that had each others’ backs.” The workshop had such an impact, they are investigating implementing this kind of story-fueled relationship-building process for every team.
“This is applied storytelling writ in a corporate, institutional font,” said Dyches. “Sometimes the corporate world misunderstands story. Our version is very much inspired by authentic human storytelling, and the real value is in creating connection with other people.”
Others are using stories to transform health care. Regi Carpenter is a professional storyteller and narrative medicine pioneer. In 2005, her brother was killed in an accident. Her grief prompted her to reach out to hospice and volunteer to do story programs for grieving families, then with sick children in hospitals. Her prescriptive storytelling chooses the right tale based on cues from her audience. “Each time I see the power of stories to bring healing,” says Carpenter. “They are medicine for things medicine can’t cure, like loneliness and fear.”
Carpenter was seeking her own healing when she began researching and writing a painful personal story. She had a severe mental illness as a teen and was institutionalized for a year. Thirty years later, she was still filled with shame and living the story. She began reconstructing events, requesting records, visiting the hospital, and writing down memories. After two years of full-time writing, she had composed an hour-long piece called “Snap.” It emerged not as a story of illness, but one of hope and recovery.
“Writing ‘Snap’ straightened out my mind and allowed me to re-story myself to not be a victim of my life,” Carpenter said. Now she works with others suffering from mental illnesses, guiding them in crafting their own narratives in a way that doesn’t reignite shame. The next step in her healing journey is becoming a certified chaplain and offering the spiritual power of story.
The storytelling tradition is not exclusively rural, but it is inherently so.
Carpenter grew up in a small town in upstate New York on the St. Lawrence River, which factors into her personal tales. “My rural background is front and center in stories, where everything is rooted in place,” she explains. “In small towns, where everyone thinks they know everyone else, stories can hold complexities that gossip can’t.”
Jonesborough, population 6,000, tucked into the Appalachian Mountains, is an intentional and integral element of the National Storytelling Festival. “Traditionally, the mountains (and more generally, rural communities) have been rich veins of preserved culture, due in part to their isolated geography,” wrote Sirah in a blog entry. “I sometimes think of these mountains as the Library of Congress of storytelling traditions.”
Founder Jimmy Neil Smith was inspired to establish the festival as a way to save his hometown. Jonesborough’s revitalization and blossoming into the “Storytelling Capital of the World” is a case study for place-based arts and culture development. The International Storytelling Center’s annual budget is $1.4 million and their financial impact on the community is $8 million. They have 11 staff members, and the festival funds their nonprofit work in the community offering arts and culture programming to underserved youth.
The national event has inspired smaller festivals in all 50 states. Brian Bemel is the founder of one in Ojai, CA, population 7,000. Smaller events have their own flavor, and Ojai is an intimate and beautiful setting. The festival has a specialty for everyone: 2,000 school students attend the outreach day, and those over 21 years old are able to join in late night naughty tales.
“Looking at the storytelling world, the successful festivals are in small, rural areas not in big cities,” Bemel said. “Like Timpanagos in Utah, Cave Run in Kentucky, and our Ojai festival, it just seems to work better.”
During the 50th National Storytelling Festival, Sirah experienced a particularly poignant moment. Storytellers Peter Chand, who is English of Indian descent, and Elizabeth Ellis, an Appalachian matriarch, improvised a session together. They each shared stories of magic, and the interchange flowed from one culture to the next, similarities laid bare.
“It was the first time a Punjabi storyteller reflected my own cultural richness in my more than ten years of leading the event, and he was completely embraced by the community,” said Sirah. “Storytelling is the greatest force to help shift our minds and hearts to save our planet, and our humanity.”