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Tall Tales, Poetry with a Purpose, and Songs to Stir the Soul:
The National Storytelling Festival

By Jakob Esaw



 

With the weather cooling down and the trees of the mountains painted with colors more vibrant than those of any fire, autumn is a great time to let the mind wander through the world of storytelling. One of the most famous storytelling events in America (and beyond) is the National Storytelling Festival, which since 1973 has been bringing together featured storytellers from many different places. This year’s lineup includes a diverse cast of tellers, poets, and folklorists from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, as well as places much closer to home (if not closer in time) like the old Cowboy West and Southern Appalachia.


Waddie Mitchell

Waddie Mitchell says he belongs to the last generation of people who grew up without the benefits of many modern conveniences, a world where community was king and the great wide open still stirred a boy’s imagination. Mitchell has a distinctive (one might say a folksy or an old-timey) way of talking, and his fans have embraced the novelty of watching a man in a cowboy hat with a bushy handlebar mustache reciting poetry and spinning yarns. “We’ve got to label everything we do,” says Mitchell, with a bit of good-natured sarcasm in his voice, “and they do actually call what I do ‘Cowboy Poetry.’”
 
Waddie MitchellMitchell believes the art of storytelling still holds a powerful place in our society, though he concedes that storytelling has a hard time competing with the electronic devices that barrage our senses. He also sees the Festival as a chance for people to come together as a community through stories. “What this whole weekend does is celebrate that … One guy with a clever vocabulary and a likeable personality can take 2,000 people in a tent and he can stop telling his story and you can hear a pin drop. It’s that enchanting. The audience has learned over the years that they don’t want to miss an utterance. And it’s a magical thing as a performer to be up there.”
 
Waddie Mitchell’s website is here.


Eth-Noh-Tec

The idea that storytelling is a thread that ties a community together is a common refrain among the tellers coming to the Festival. Building community by telling stories, say Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo and Nancy Wang of Eth-Noh-Tec, is an act woven into who we are as humans. “I think genetically we’re all wired for stories,” says Nancy. She says movies and plays are still relevant to people for that exact reason. “Storytelling is the first form of story,” she says. “It’s because we all, at one point, sat together, probably in Africa around a fire and started to tell stories to each other. So when we say, or anyone says, ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘A long time ago, in a far and distant place,’ you should see what happens to the audience. It’s almost like they’re in a trance, almost immediately, hearing those words.”

Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo of Eth-Noh-Tec

Stories are different from movies in various ways, she says, but especially because the fourth wall does not exist in storytelling, which creates an immediate link between the storyteller and her audience. “Because there’s no fourth wall,” says Nancy, “the relationship is immediate between the storyteller and the story listener. And because they’re all together in this—it’s almost like the fourth wall is wrapped around the back of the audience, and we’re one community in this thing together. And then at every festival, you get to talk about what just happened.”
 
“Art needs to shake people up,” says Robert who admits sometimes they get nervous when they’re telling a story dealing with heavy topics such as social justice and racism against immigrants. Saying that they are “truth seekers,” they understand that people might be uncomfortable or even offended by the conclusions they draw from Eth-Noh-Tec’s performances. He thinks their newest performance, “Red Altar,” asks those difficult questions. “It’s an American story,” says Robert, “of immigration, survival, and ingenuity, amidst the ethnic cleansings. It’s about racism and racist policies.”
 
Robert says their main goal is to make audience members ask questions, and if they’ve done that, then they’ve done their jobs. “The offense that they take is nothing compared to the lynchings and the robberies and murders and ethnic cleansings—if you weigh the two together, being a little embarrassed is light weight compared to what happened.”
 
Nancy agrees. “And it’s still happening today to other groups. So it’s not like we’ve learned what we need to learn. There’s still racism. There’s still people talking about how we need to stop letting people into this country and how people like me need to go home to where we came from, but, you know, we’ve been here since 1850.” In other words, for people whose ancestors once came to this country seeking a better life, as most of our ancestors did, this country is home.

Eth-Noh-Tec

Click here for Eth-Noh-Tec’s website.
 

Donald Davis
 
Donald Davis, an Appalachian storyteller from North Carolina, agrees that storytelling is just as relevant today as ever—maybe even more so, now that we’ve entered the electronic age, stumbling around looking for connections. “It’s stronger because we get more and more lost in all the electronic stuff because it’s not real. So when we’re looking at telling a story with real people, we’re back in the world of reality again and people are using their own imaginations instead of what somebody else is saying.”
 
Donald DavisStorytelling, Davis says, is just as relevant today as ever, in particular because of its uses in social justice. He echoes the other storytellers who argue that stories have a certain magical way of connecting people.
 
“Oh yeah, because we can go to a place in a story that we can’t go to in reality,” says Davis. “We can meet people in a story that we’d never have a chance to meet. We can travel timewise in a story. So I can take you through an important time. Historically, I can take you to meet somebody very, very important. I can do all kinds of things that I can’t do in reality because we can’t travel in time, but we can in a story. I can pick up a whole tent full of people and take them to a place when I’m telling them a story that we can’t actually load up in a bus and go to. The teaching possibilities are just enormous.”
 
Donald Davis’ website can be found here.
 

Noa Baum
 
Noa Baum, an Israeli-American teller who sees storytelling as integral to her Jewish identity, calls it not just an art form, but also a tool. Instead of debating where we try to take opinions away from others, Noa says storytelling allows us to “add another perspective to the world” without necessarily taking any away. Building bridges instead of walls can be very helpful in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which strong opinions and heated debates oftentimes shut down constructive dialogue.
 
Noa BaumA work she will be presenting at the Festival is called “A Land Twice Promised,” which she says is an autobiographical story about her friendship with a Palestinian woman she met in the U.S. As many of the other storytellers have noted, her story transcends time and place. It will, in Donald Davis’ words, lift a tent full of people up and transport them from this little town in Tennessee to an entirely different place: Jerusalem. “It’s not there to solve the Middle East problem,
 says Noa. But it’s a way of just opening people up to the stories that are behind the headlines and behind the rhetoric and behind the slogans and the sound bites.”
 
Noa says storytelling draws diverse people together because “storytelling is universal. Human brains think in stories and look at the world through stories. It’s connected to the deeper sorts of who we are as humans.”
 
It’s a great paradox of our age: this unlimited connectivity provided by technology actually disconnects us from one another, and Noa Baum sees this as why storytelling is as relevant as ever. “I think there’s a huge hunger for it. I think that the technology is advancing at a far faster pace than our DNA can evolve. I think of humans—we evolved for connection; we’ve evolved for tuning in for nonverbal language, to voice, to facial expressions. ... And nothing in our technology can replicate that. And nothing in our technology can give us the type of satisfaction that that being in the same place at the same time, having that human connection with another human intelligence, can give. There’s nothing to replace that.”
 
That’s why stories have such a huge role to play, Noa says. “I think as storytellers, our function in society is to help people reconnect with that basic need, with their basic humanness, and also to reconnect with their imagination, with their creative force, to help them reconnect to who they are. I think storytellers have a huge role in helping both communication and healing in our societies.”
 
Noa Baum

For more information about Noa Baum, click here.
 
***
 
The National Storytelling Festival is a chance for lovers of a good tale to break away from the hectic day-to-day and come back to an older time and let the magic of storytelling wash over them. Waddie Mitchell, who’s been coming to the Festival for about 30 years, remembers his early Festival years fondly. “After the first one, I told my family that if I’d have come back and the dog had been killed and the milk cow had got out and the roof had got struck by lightning, I’d just have gone, ‘Oh,’ because I had no more emotion to give. They had completely drained me that weekend.” He believes everyone who attends the Festival, either as newcomers or old-timers, will have this exact same reaction. It’s too good to miss.
 
The National Storytelling Festival is October 2-4, 2015, in Jonesborough, TN! Don't miss it! Also check out the 
Knoxville Mercury, Knoxvilles voice for independent journalism, for an article about the president of the International Storytelling Festival, which puts on the National Storytelling Festival each year. 



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