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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Storytelling Festival is filled with history

Historic downtown Jonesborough, Tennessee, is home to the National  Storytelling Festival. (Photo by Tom Raymond, Fresh Air Photographics)
Historic downtown Jonesborough, Tennessee, is home to the National Storytelling Festival. (Photo by Tom Raymond, Fresh Air Photographics)

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | September 26, 2018

In Jonesborough, Tennessee, the storytelling capital of the world, tickets are on sale for the National Storytelling Festival, an annual gathering of some of the world’s top talent. The oldest and most prestigious festival of its kind, NSF offers one-day and weekend passes for regular programming, as well as one-time admission to special events.

The three-day celebration of oral traditions from around the world is the flagship event of its producer, the International Storytelling Center. The festival runs Oct. 5-7, with regular programming scheduled from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday. The autumnal celebration of the world’s oral traditions has been an annual tradition since 1973, when the first National Storytelling Festival spawned the American storytelling revival.

It all started with a story on the radio. Jimmy Neil Smith, a high school journalism teacher, and some students heard Jerry Clower tell a yarn about coon hunting. Smith began to wonder about having a storytelling festival in Northeast Tennessee.

The first National Storytelling Festival was held in October 1973. The stages were hay bales and wagons, and if you’d counted the audience and the tellers, you might have reached 60.

From those beginnings, the festival has become one of the Top 100 Events in North America, helped the resurgence of storytelling nationwide and has a permanent home at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Smith and other lovers of tales founded the National Storytelling Association, which continues to serve as the center of the storytelling movement. It has led the way in teaching healthcare workers, therapists, executives and others to make storytelling a part of their work and personal lives.

As time passed, news of the festival spread on television and in magazines. Stories appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Reader’s Digest, People and Smithsonian.

Why did a story on a car radio and a small festival lead to national news and ignite a national storytelling movement? The storytelling center’s website has a theory.

“Did the story get told again and again because people like stories about innocent beginnings, or because they like to marvel at what can happen with the serendipitous timing of a good story and a carload of receptive listeners, or simply because it’s a colorful tale? No matter the reason, it’s a classic example of how a simple story breathes life into information people want to share with each other. As millions of story lovers all over the world already know, there is no substitute for the power, simplicity, and basic truth of the well-told story.”

Tickets for the National Storytelling Festival can be purchased online at, at the International Storytelling Center in downtown Jonesborough or on the festival grounds.

For more information, call 800-952-8392, ext. 221.

Festival features international line-up of tellers

Topics: Storytelling