Toby Keith's declaration has been echoed with deafening tones in the storytelling world. "I wanna talk about me!" I remember sitting with a revered teller, seeking his advice, and seeing him shudder. "Why does an audience need to hear about my life? Why on earth would they want to hear about little old me? I'm a classicist, Layne. I want to tell them a story, not a life sketch."
Forgive my own bits of self-indulgence. When re-reading these dissertation entries I've cringed, wondering why I felt the need to tell so much of "my" story. But I cannot change the study, nor what I wrote, except to see it in today's eyes; you know, revamp the study and alter it to fit a revisionist view of the historical study--but I shy from doing that. I prefer to let the past speak.
So here comes the next installment. Enjoy it if you can, critique it if you cannot, and if you can do neither, at least forgive those bits of self-indulgence.
PERFORMANCE OF ANTIQUITY
Part of the storytelling festival’s magnetism lies in its non-sterility. Ten thousand visitors flock to Jonesborough, and then spend all weekend in the liminal position of not being indoors, nor yet being outdoors. They are both. And neither. They are covered, yet subject to the elements. To fully explain this paradox, I will first describe what I mean by sterility (and non-sterility). Second we will look at the festival set-up to ascertain how it achieves non-sterility. Third, we will see how this blend of human and nature feed into the performance of antiquity.
We Americans live in a very sterile world. We buy groceries in sparkling clean supermarkets that are surprisingly reminiscent of hospital corridors. Business areas are cleansed daily. Homes are cleansed daily. Except for our “outdoor adventures,” we secrete ourselves in sterile environments. Some medical theories (see Carpenter) suggest that our sterile environment may have caused an increase in the number of adults with asthma. Put simply, we don’t let children eat dirt anymore. When children don’t eat dirt, facets of their immune system—dedicated to the fighting of dirt germs—are not allowed to work. Later, when that child reaches adulthood, the latent immune system hyper-reacts to foreign obstacles, and voila! You have asthma.
This sterility manifests itself through our entertainment. Movie viewing takes us into heated or air-conditioned theaters (depending on the season), where we sit in plush comfort, secure from the natural elements of rain, wind, sun. We also install home theater systems, and view movies and television programs without even having to step outside into a car, let alone braving the elements on the way to the cinema. Aside from the occasional outdoor production, musical concerts and theatrical plays are all performed indoors. Even professional sports events like baseball and football have slowly migrated towards covered arenas, where spectators and players can be free of snow, sleet, hail, wind, and the other natural elements.
In contrast, the storytelling festival puts its audience in the middle of the elements. Listeners listen to the storytelling concerts in tents—not buildings. If sunshine fills the day, tent flaps on all three tent sides are rolled up, exposing listeners to the sun and gentle breeze. When rain falls, the tent flaps drop. Despite this, rain still seeps into some tents, sliding down the grassy slopes under the chairs to create mud. At times, and in some places, the mud and water gets so slushy that no one sits there—even though the chairs offer a prime view of the stage. At night, crickets vie for attention, playing their moonlight serenades. Those attending ghost storytelling at Mill Spring Park are completely exposed to nature; not even a tent top covers their heads, and the little limestone creek provides marshy ground near the Mill Spring Park gazebo.
Exposure to the elements causes its share of discomfort. People shiver in cold tents. At times they see their breath. On sunny days the number of bodies in the tents creates stifling heat. Yet comfortable or not, exposure to nature becomes part of the festival culture.
Nature (weather, trees, grass, sun, wind) feeds into the festival’s aura of antiquity, creating not only a liminal space where festival-goers are indoors and yet not-indoors, but also a space where they are in-the-present and yet not-in-the-present. David Miller, a regular festival patron from Atlanta, said the festival is “Like I’ve stepped back in time to a simpler time.” Two words here illustrate the festival’s liminal space: back, and simpler. For David and others who echoed his statement, the festival is a living time machine. It takes people back in history, back to another age, back in time. But the festival does not just take us back in time. It takes us back to a simpler time. “The magic of the festival, and what people get from that, is rooted in its simplicity,” commented Susan O’Connor, Festival Director. And this simplicity, she said, is something that people “step into.” Her words are eerily reminiscent of David’s. One does not show up at Jonesborough and the festival. One steps into another time, another age.
Most of those I spoke with did not identify nature as a contributing element to the culture. Rather, nature acted as a silent partner to the antiquity, just as the audience represents the twelfth player in a football game, or the sixth player in a basketball game. Roxanne Erickson, for example, did not pinpoint nature as a direct contributor to the festival, but strongly alluded to it. Roxanne, who traveled from Belgium “just to attend the festival” (she said), spoke of the festival as nature-like.
I go to other storytelling festivals, but in general the storytelling is . . . well, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a form of communication, and it’s something that you can communicate with the story on levels that you can’t communicate on if you had to put everything in words. [This festival is] like beauty and nature, or something, that, you know, you . . . you need to experience. You can’t really explain.
According to Roxanne, the National Storytelling Festival transcended other festivals, though she could not explain why. However, she did say it was like “beauty and nature.” She offered a clue as to why the non-sterility works at the festival when she said: “you need to experience” the festival.” The festival, like nature, is an experience. It is not something to observe idly, as a bystander. Instead, the festival is an immersion experience.
During my second festival venture I immersed myself in the experience, and therefore felt acutely attuned to nature. I wasn’t sure why. It was like reliving my childhood, though I dislike that metaphor because it connotes regression, a relapse. What I felt embodied the wonder of childhood, and my fascination with grasshoppers, floating clouds, and catching butterflies. Only it embodied my adult self as well. I felt the melding of the child and adult selves, consciously seeking out the beauty of nature while desiring to understand why I did so. Let’s clarify something—I am no tree-hugger, and have never considered myself an advocate of nature. I have rejected political moves to shut down farms and industries over a fern or spotted owl. Yet during that festival weekend I walked barefoot in the grass, lavishing in the prickly, ticklish feeling of the grass blades sliding along my sole and between my toes. One afternoon following the festival, I lay on a bench watching the sky. For forty-five minutes. Who has time anymore to sit still and just watch the sky? But I did. I watched falcon-like fowls ride the air currents in lazy circles. Fascinated, I watched them adjust their wings slightly to avoid brushing the golden treetops. I breathed in the crisp autumn air, allowing my body to feel the familiar sensation of autumn that exhilarated me as a child in Idaho.
I sensed then that nature played into the festival, but realized it more fully when talking to Jonathan Bledsoe, a Jonesborough native, and his mother Tobie, the town mayor. After our interview, once I shut off the video camera, the best stories rolled out. Jonathan’s first and freshest memories involved ghost storytelling in the cemetery on the hill. He talked about gathering in the cold around a blazing bonfire, and as he spoke a dreamy reminiscence greeted his eyes—a reverie of another time. Year after year ghost stories drew ever-increasing crowds. So one year the festival decided to move it. This disaster proved double-fold. First, they not only moved it away from Jonesborough to nearby Johnson City, they also moved it into a building. Both Jonathan and Tobie decried the move, speaking vehemently about this rash act. That was the first and last time the festival dared such a move because, according to Jonathan, it was a complete flop. No fire. No cemetery. No outdoors. No magic. Tobie called it a disaster.
Their story indicates two important contributions to the festival success. First, the festival is a part of Jonesborough, and vice versa. Taking any element out of Jonesborough is to rip the delicate fabric binding it together. Second, the cold outdoors comprises a significant aura that transports people back to another time. That time exists, for some, as a trip back into childhood. For others it is a journey into history, into an age when folks gathered in tents, rain or shine.
In its own rather odd way, the very season of autumn contributes to the feeling of antiquity. Autumn, with its colorful transformation, conjures up images of harvest, of log cabins and warm fires, and of new beginnings. Autumn invites a certain kind of dress, offering weather that repels shorts and T-shirts as well as winter coats and gloves. In this way it aligns intimately with the Socialization of Apparel. Festival-goers dress as much for comfort in autumn’s brisk grasp as they do to fit into the storytelling scene. Most of all, autumn evokes memories of the past.
Emcee Gayle Ross, a Native American storyteller, identified part of autumn’s enchantment in relation to the festival. I saw her emcee at the final storytelling session on Sunday afternoon of my third festival, in 2001, and she spoke with deep sensitivity to the earth and nature. Each year, she said, when she arrives (early) for the festival, the trees are still green. The sun shines, the air is warm. By Sunday, as the festival concludes, she has witnessed a transformation. Nature has painted with deft brushstrokes, leaving yellow, orange, and red trees where green stood before. The last of summer’s warmth has given way to brisk air and a tingle that sends people for their jackets. Nature’s transformation is reminiscent of her own personal transformation as the festival renews her soul.
Certainly Gayle’s images hearken to other themes expressed herein—themes of transformation, of the performance of space—yet they also hint at autumns past. Her comments reference an ongoing tale of being transformed, of being changed each year by nature and stories. Terry Julien, a regular festival attendee, sustained Gayle’s remarks.
TERRY: This is the time of year to have [the festival].
LAYNE: Oh, isn’t it!
TERRY: Yeah. Fall colors—just wonderful.
LAYNE: Fall colors. How do you think that fits in with the magic?
TERRY: Well I . . . boy. Fall is my favorite season. So I’m delighted that it’s now. There really is something about fall—over other seasons—that I think is more of a transform—. It is a greater visual transformation of the seasons, perhaps. For me it’s always been . . . it’s not summer dying. It’s always been a time of beginnings. Just because that’s when the school year would start. So oftentimes a new teacher, a new classroom, new friends. And that continues even in adult life, that somehow the end of summer . . . the end of summer is the end of the other year. You know fall begins something. There’s a certain energy and excitement to fall. So, I’m not sure if it ties directly with storytelling, but it is a beautiful time of year to have the festival. In many ways.
Autumn’s colorful display is symbolic of significant personal memories and feelings, and an ongoing renewal or transformation. For Terry, the season evoked the past, but not just any past. He equated autumn with school, an era of learning, when he forged new connections with old and young alike. Such beginnings continue in adulthood, as autumn marks the passing of an old year for a hopeful new one, filled with a revitalized vision.
When Terry speaks of a “certain energy and excitement to fall,” he alludes to a rebirth. In religious terms, rebirth symbolizes the casting aside of the old person, and taking up a new, spiritually awakened being. Rebirth is to change, to be energized by a new spirit. Such a rebirth is not only religious, but also historical. Pilgrims began a new life in the Americas, leaving behind their repressed ways and embarking on a new beginning—one inspired by hope and fresh opportunity. Autumn is distinctly reminiscent of this new life. Barbara Cutts, a regular festival-goer, called the festival a harvest. “This [festival] is like the harvest must have done for the farmers of a long time ago. It’s kind of the reward of the whole year. This is a reward for me to come here every year.” Her choice of terms and images conjure up the past, a past imbued with struggles and new beginnings that, for many U. S. citizens today, is rolled up in the brisk air and colorful trappings of autumn.
Sunday afternoon, with Gayle Ross’s words resonating in my mind, and seeking to sort out my own feelings about another festival’s end, I sat down at a wooden picnic table outside the courthouse with pen and paper in hand. Out came a poem. The images and rhythm are infused with impressions of a new beginning, and another age.
Comin’ round the curve
I see a light ahead
I’ve traveled far
Yet never too far
Through the red-gold night
of Summer I pass
For the burnished brand of autumn
‘Pon the leaves
‘Pon the trees
and ‘Pon my soul
Is never met
‘Til at the fire I sit.
The night fades
A hazy, wispy day
Greets my vision
And though I hesitate
Another light I spy
Grown brighter by my
Through summer’s night
And forth to autumn
For summer has now fled
And yet ahead
‘Pon the road I set my soul
The road before me
But far ahead
But no, not too far
I spy another curve
Awaits another fire