We chose the day the eye of Opal passed to ride into Johnesborough, Tennessee. Mostly wind until we left the National Storytellers Festival registration for our campground and then rain hit hard.
The electricity has been out here all day. We could find only one place, a convenience store, who would sell us food for the night. Nobody’s cash registers work, and most of the restaurants and stores just gave up and shut down. The two women at the convenience store used a hand-held calculator to do a booming business in food and drinks. It was funny watching people try and get gasoline out of the electric pumps, and then their frustration turn to helpless anger, “But I HAVE to have gasoline! You HAVE to give me some! I’m empty!” Petrol withdrawal symptoms. Most people are truly helpless without their cars.
Not us. The rain stopped and we rode off to our campground.
Claire spent three days immersed in storytelling. I went to some of the venues, but mostly wrote in the tent or sat under a favorite tree at the main intersection people-watching. Very productive.
I tried to get Claire to sign up to do spontaneous storytelling at the spontaneous storytelling tent, but she wouldn’t. Is it spontaneous storytelling if you have to sign up for it?
I think she was in awe of the professional bent of the participants. Many of them are professional actors. I had envisioned the festival would be lots of old Appalachian men and woman telling stories of coon hunts and sorghum making, practical jokes and ghost stories. There was some of that, but not much. There were lots of fancy costumes and makeup. I don’t know.
Estel paused in his story, leaned back in the porch rocker, then forward quickly and shot a stream of tobacco far out over the yard.
“Missed ‘im,” he said of the honeybee he had targeted on a clover blossom, and went on with his story.
“They was other things ‘bout that coal minin’ business I didn’t like much, t’other’n it bein’ so dark. I jus’…”
He paused in mid sentence, leaned forward on the rockers, looked at the sky and stopped chewing.
“Yep.” He shaded his eyes with a tobacco stained hand, squinted hard. “Yep, that’s one o’ mine.”
“One of your what?” asked the gullible five-year-old that I was then.
“One o’ my aireoplanes, of course!” he pointed an arthritis-bent finger at the sky where a silver speck of a Constellation droned it’s way from somewhere, maybe, Cincinnati to Washington, D.C. or New York, high over Tornado, West Virginia.
I looked doubtful, and he looked as if I’d hurt his feelings. Then he began a long convoluted story about how he come to own an airline and how it just ran itself and all he had to do was collect all the profits at the mail box.
I became a little doubtful. I knew Estel lived with my grandfather, who’d had a stroke at age 90, and that Mother took them both their meals each day. Estel helped my grandfather, and he got room and board and a little money every now and then for tobacco. It was the way poverty was taken care of in our neighborhood before the War On Poverty.
Anyway, I was pretty sure that Estel didn’t own a bunch of airplanes, but as he continued a very convoluted story line, in great detail, about his airline and all his employees, I began to believe. I began to see all the pilots and the mechanics working on the airplanes, and Estel showing up every now and then, and him ordering people around, and waving at them on takeoff. I even believed that all the airplanes that flew over my grandfathers house were his, there so that he could count them and make sure they were all working and making him money.
I went home and excitedly told Mother about Estel’s airline. She was not pleased. She told me that I was not to believe Estel’s stories anymore. As I remember it, I didn’t ever really believe again, but I didn’t stop enjoying them. And, I was smart enough not to tell her when he gave me a sample of his plug chewing tobacco!
I remember other storytellers. My father, telling me about beginning work at a sawmill when he was twelve-years old, as soon as he’d finished the eighth grade, about winters when the river froze solid and he ice-skated to school. My favorite was his description of how he walked miles every Saturday and again on Sunday, crossing the river twice in borrowed rowboats, to come courting my mother. It was seven years before he had the money to ask her to marry him. All his stories were true, but told with fond memory that enlivened them.
When I was an adult, Luster Coakley, told me stories about surviving on nothing most of his life, how to cook opossum and make a black snake a pet. In the middle of that story, he handed me a black snake. I trusted him and took it. He also told me stories about prison life that curled my toes, and I didn’t want to hear twice.
The farmers sitting around the pot-bellied stove at Buck Harper’s store in Mouth of Seneca, West Virginia, telling stories of mauled sheep and bears killed for it after a night of running hounds over the crags and through the river. I could hear them, over beneath the big cliff, singing at the night sky, hot on the trail. I can smell the sharp tobacco scent of the spittoon warming beside the stove.
Larkin Ours served in the West Virginia Legislature for 20 years and he told me many stories about political victories and losses, successes and failures. But my favorites were the tales of hunting turkey and deer that were told with such color that I remember flinching when he pulled the trigger, expecting a loud bang. Now that’s a storyteller.
Claire is involved in storytelling at home, and the National Storytelling Conference was along our route, so she was excited to attend.
Since Jonesborough is in the middle of Appalachia, I was expecting to find lots of Estels and Lusters and Larkins, sitting on porches and under trees, spitting tobacco and spinning yarns.
Most of the storytellers were very talented actors who have turned their attention to the art of storytelling in recent years. One of the tellers once played a part on the Soap Opera, All My Children. These new storytellers use microphones and large speakers, musical instruments and all manner of props and costumes, to perform before groups of hundreds of people.
There was even a Tennessee college advertising a masters degree in storytelling.
Storytelling is serious business now.
This was not Larkin, pausing for a drink of ice water and a fresh chew while we picked corn, trying to teach me the art of turkey hunting, entertaining me with a story as good as the hunt itself.
When it comes to storytelling, there’s the new way, and the old. Myself, I prefer the old way.