Jonesborough, Tennessee is a town famous for two things. One: it’s the oldest town in Tennessee. Visit the town and you can’t avoid learning this fact, as it’s on every border sign and most streetside placards. Two: it’s the storytelling capital of America, and for one weekend in October, it hosts the National Storytelling Festival.
Sarah’s father is a storyteller by profession. And a widely revered one at that. He’s put out more records than most rock bands, been contracted to perform at bar mitzvahs and festivals, and been commissioned to tell the story of more than a few historical dramas. As such, he’s a frequent headliner at the Jonesborough festival. He was booked again this year. Sarah and I (and my mom) went down this past weekend to cheer him on.
Sarah also has a long history at Jonesborough. All the regulars—both tellers and visitors—know her as Syd’s girl and have seen her grown up, both in person and through Syd’s stories. They’ve also heard about me; four years ago, when Sarah and I were first dating, she went down to the festival. Everyone heard about this new guy she was dating, and guessed that he might be the one. Now we were showing up together to prove them all right.
The festival was pretty much exactly what you’d expect a storytelling festival in the rural South to be—down-home, home-spun, old-fashioned. Downhomefashioned. Storytelling by it’s very nature is imbued with a respect for the past, and the festival manifests this atmosphere quite naturally. And despite what you may have heard, it’s not a dying art. Sure, the median age of tellers and guests is a tad higher than the crowd at Lollapalooza, but there were a few young’uns in the line-up, and plenty of kids being dragged to the festival by their parents—kids who will grow up, reminisce about the good old days, and eventually do some kid-dragging of their own.
What I told Syd after seeing a day’s worth of performers was that I always knew he was good, but never realized how good. And it’s true, he kills up on stage. Few others can captivate the crowd like he can. No need to take my word for it; as a member of his posse—identifiable by huge I ♥ SYD buttons that Adrienne made up—I’d get stopped often and offered heaps of praise for the magic of the Syd experience.
The showcase of that experience occurred Saturday morning, when Syd debuted his new piece, never before heard by the public or even us: an hour-long story about his late father. I had heard a few of the Shmulky anecdotes over the years, but never all at once, and hearing them all woven together into a paean for the man was extremely moving. As I sat next to Sarah, held her hand and listened, I found myself feeling even closer to her than I already do.
Then, about halfway through the story, something hit me. This man we were hearing stories about—he was not only Syd’s father and Sarah’s grandfather—someday he would be great-grandfather to my own kids. Because of Syd and his efforts to perpetuate Shmulky’s memory, they’ll be lucky enough to feel like they knew him. I’m not sure how many kids will be able to say that. That’s reason enough to keep telling stories.