Jonesborough, TN

Local Festival Celebrates Semicentennial as People Come to Hear from Around the World

John M. Dabbs
Ray Hicks, storyteller -- National Storytelling Convention, October 1999Tom Raymond/Library of Congress

The National Storytelling Festival began 50 years ago. The festival returns to Jonesborough, Tennessee this weekend - October 7-9, 2022. You can find this year's schedule here. The first storytelling festival held in Jonesborough came to fruition through the work of Jimmy Neil Smith, who was a teacher and served as the Mayor of Jonesborough in the 1970s and 80s.

The festival began with an audience of less than 100. Today, the festival is one of the largest in Northeast Tennessee, bringing in more than 10,000 attendees each year. The National Storytelling Festival is also one of the world's premier storytelling events. It also provides millions in economic impact to the region.

Partnering with The Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for Humanities, Rotary International, the United Nations, and many other organizations, the International Storytelling Center (ISC) was born out of the works of the National Storytelling Festival. Smith was president of the ISC until retiring in 2012. His successor as president of ISC is Kiran Singh Sirah.

Singh Sirah says Smith was a visionary. The ISC is home to the largest collection of American Folk Tales outside of the Library of Congress because Smith recorded them at the festival.

Singh Sirah was asked if she planned to change the festival, but assured the ISC she was not changing anything that works. Singh Sirah has added many new nuances to the National Storytelling Festival, making it more ope and accessible than ever before. Adding live-stream options in 2014 was brilliant and layed the foundation for distance attendance during the pandemic when the festival was only virtual. Even post-pandemic, the virtual demand remains, according to Singh Sirah. The virtual option will remain.


The National Storytelling Festival may not have caught on and grown as it has if it had been held anywhere else. A larger city may not have embraced the heritage, and the event could have been overwhelmed by the many other attractions a large city offers. The history and culture found in Jonesborough is unique. The town and it's people have a culture that has cultivated the event and nurtured it throughout the years.


Every culture and people have told stories–at home and at work. These deal with the daily tasks each endures, and the extraordinary events which hold their place in time. By telling stories we pass down this bit of knowledge and history to our people. When people were telling their stories, so too were the bards and the minstrels, the griots, and troubadours, who were the poets, singers, and scribes.

Today, we still enjoy stories just like our ancestors. The stories demonstrate how our lives are interwoven in the world, almost magically. Telling stories in a memorable way is an art. Without it, they would lose their significance and be lost.

According to the International Story Telling Center: ...during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there emerged throughout America a realization that we were losing our connection to the genuine one-on-one communication of the told tale. The seeds for a reawakening of interest in the oral tradition were being sown. And in 1973, in a tiny Tennessee town, something happened that rekindled our national appreciation of the told story and became the spark plug for a major cultural movement–the rebirth of the art of storytelling.

It began serendipitously in Jonesborough, Tennessee, a 200-year-old town in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. On the second Saturday night in October 1973, Jerry Clower, a Mississippi coon hunter, and storyteller leaped to the stage in a hot, jammed high school gymnasium and told tales to more than a thousand East Tennesseans. They had come for some side-splitting humor in the tales that had made Clower a household name throughout the Deep South. The crowd stomped and cheered and didn’t leave disappointed. The next afternoon, under a warm October sun, an old farm wagon in Courthouse Square served as a stage. And the storytellers were there—a former Arkansas congressman, a Tennessee banker, a college professor, a western North Carolina farmer. They told their tales and breathed life into the first National Storytelling Festival.

Something had happened, and even as people sat listening, they knew they would return the next year and the next. It was as if an ancient memory had been jogged–of people throughout time sitting together, hearing stories. They were taken back to a time when the story, transmitted orally, was all there was.

Every October since 1973, thousands of travelers have visited Tennessee’s oldest town. They come for one purpose–to hear stories and to tell them at the National Storytelling Festival. This celebration of America’s rich and varied storytelling tradition, the oldest and most respected gathering anywhere in America devoted to storytelling, has in turn spawned a national revival of this venerable art.

But of course, there have always been storytellers–solitary tellers–telling stories, keeping them alive. They were inspired not by a groundswell for storytelling, but simply because there was within them a need to tell. They are the storytellers who have been at the vanguard of the cultural movement that is sweeping through America. They are the storytellers who were among the architects of America’s storytelling revival. Single voices at first, they soon were joined by others who were also attracted to the power and humanity of the storytelling art. Today, there are hundreds of professional storytellers traveling throughout the United States, sharing their timeless tales. And yes, thousands more who are teachers, librarians, ministers, lawyers, salesmen, therapists, and others who use storytelling as an integral part of their lives and work.

Since its beginning in 1973, the National Storytelling Festival has become America’s foremost storytelling showcase and it has nurtured and nourished a national rebirth of storytelling. And as more of us discover and tell the stories in our own lives, the connection–the genuine one-on-one communication of the told story–will allow us to give back to our world something as precious and treasured as life itself.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN

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