Festivals are like symphonies, a blending of strings, brass, and woodwinds. But to neglect the prominence of festival "space" is to rip out the percussion section and send them packing. You could still play, I suppose, and might even sound good, but something would be obviously missing.
PERFORMANCE OF SPACE
My third festival experience occurred brief weeks following the 2001 tragedy we know as 9-11. Despite the multitude of cars in the Phoenix metro area bearing patriotic slogans and American flags, I sensed such overt symbols of newfound patriotism would be scant in Jonesborough. Valentine, my mentor, continually cautioned me to be acutely aware of the way 9-11 affected the festival. Somehow, though, I felt that Jonesborough and the festival would not change much. I was right.
A few Jonesborough stores displayed patriotic messages, but the town held true to its regular appearance. With good reason. Apparently, with popular events being shut down or postponed throughout the country, people thought the festival would also be canceled. Mayor Tobie Bledsoe commented on their fears.
So many people have called making sure that we have not canceled storytelling. They say that, especially this year, it is a time that they can put everything aside and just come for storytelling. It’s like having a wonderful tranquilizer, and just forget everything else, and focus on storytelling and listening to the tellers.
The décor flowing through Jonesborough reinforces the performance of space on several levels. It helps identify Jonesborough as a storybook; promotes gathering, propels visitors into another age, and preserves the sense of isolation, seclusion.
The town looks as though Mother Nature instructed Fall to decorate for a party. Streetlamps, only slightly taller than a very tall person, are wrapped in cornstalks, and bedecked at the base with hay bales, pumpkins, and chrysanthemums. Large rag dolls, with stuffed gunny sack appendages, adorn selected lampposts.
Décor’s strategic influence can be assessed by looking at the 2001 festival. Until a day or two prior to the festival, following the 9-11 tragedy, twin American flags stuck out at an angle near the top of each streetlamp. Main Street practically glittered with red, white, and blue. Two days before the festival, the flags came down. By chance I was on a rooftop when workers removed the flags. Restoration experts had befriended me and invited me to take video footage from their vantage point, so up I climbed. Suddenly a truck drove by, stopping every few yards while workers scurried out with small ladders in hand. One by one, the flags disappeared.
Later, talking with mayor Bledsoe, I learned the reason behind the flags’ disappearance. “We have never put our flags up for storytelling,” she averred. “It’s not a flag day time.” She had ordered the flags up following the 9-11 incident, but now decided—despite opposition—to take the flags down. Because of storytelling. Worried visitors needed storytelling, an escape, not reminders about tragedies. Storyteller Ed Stivender applauded this move. “This is the only town in America this year that did not have a flag in every cornstalk. [ . . . ] That meant the people coming here were in an oasis that doesn’t exist anywhere in the entire western world.” He added: “People aren’t afraid to travel” to the festival. “They feel safe when they are here.” The lack of flags, and the presence of the other Fall décor reinforce this sentiment of safety and escape.
Jonesborough’s décor also engenders respect. Since the space is clean and well groomed, visitors are subtly and overtly encouraged to follow suit. Many people commented on the visitors. “Storytelling brings ten thousand . . . of the nicest—I like to describe it as the nicest bunch of people in one spot on the face of the earth at any given time,” said town resident Steve Cook. “They’re educated. They appreciate what Jonesborough is.” I asked mayor Bledsoe if the decorations were devoted to the season, or to storytelling. She said:
Actually, for both. For both. Well, truly it’s for storytelling. There are ten thousand plus people that come to Jonesborough every October. And it’s just wonderful. We love our visitors. Storytelling people are the nicest, best group of people in the whole wide world. They don’t mess up. They pick up after themselves. They are just a wonderful group, and we love decorating for them. They’re also very appreciative.
The mayor’s comments reveal an affirmation of the joint influence that the decorations and visitors have upon each other. Although Jonesborough decorates each fall, the major impetus behind it is to impress the storytelling guests. “Truly [the decorations are] for storytelling,” she affirms. When she elaborates with a justification for her answer, she speaks of the visitors as picking up after themselves, and not messing up the beautiful decorations. In other words, the visitors maintain the space.
Monday after the festival I learned the significance of maintaining the decorations intact. It was early, about eight in the morning, and the street was all but vacant. Closed shops revealed their wares through dark windows. Cars passed through the historic district en route to Johnson City and the nearby vicinity. Recreation vehicles were slowly making their way out of town. Attempting to capture the mood on videotape, I meandered up and down Main Street taking shots here and there of empty shops, empty streets, and empty rocking chairs. Suddenly it struck me that all of the hay bales, pumpkins, and other décor were still intact. They had not even moved out of place, that I could tell.
I especially noted the décor in front of the courthouse. Here was a gathering area, almost a mini-plaza—open, off the street, convenient. Two days earlier Ed Stivender had captured throngs of people as he and other storytellers held their annual off-festival festival. This off-the-cuff impromptu story session took place in the mini-plaza, centered around a tall, stone tower with water fountains on either side. A pumpkin, flowers, and other decorations lay at its base, neatly placed along a stone ledge. On Monday morning, now two days after this unsanctioned ritualistic storytelling gathering, not a leaf or straw appeared disrupted—despite the crowds that had ample opportunity to mess with it.
Soon after, the decorations became prominent in an interview Mary Hermance, a regular festival-goer, and I had together. She declared that of all the many festivals and gatherings she knew, only the festival created relationships in which visitors come to town as friends, not as customers. In response to her comments, I agreed: “No, [visitors] usually come in and go, and leave their mess.” Mary seemed taken aback at my statement. “Mess?” she queried. I responded: “When something comes into town, they usually come in and kinda wreck it.” With a disgruntled look, as though I were accusing the festival-goers of just such acts, she challenged: “If you turn your video camera around, you’ll still see that there are decorative gourds and pumpkins, bales of hay, corn stalks, potted plants—that haven’t been vandalized.” She acquiesced that people “might accidentally be a bit untidy,” but they didn’t litter, vandalize, or otherwise disrupt the magical space that Jonesborough had created for its visitors.
Stewardship Of Space
Each of us governs a particular space, or spaces. We watch over it, care for it, sometimes coddle it. My mentor’s office is carefully laid out to reflect efficiency and commitment to teaching. A business CEO governs and watches over her/his business space. Renters I know despair about renting units to college students because often the students “wreck the place.” That is, they (students) feel no sense of permanency or commitment to their dwelling. They lack that sense of ownership that encourages homeowners to spruce up their homes.
While it is difficult to own a town or a festival, there are those who perceive a responsibility resembling ownership regarding Jonesborough and the storytelling festival.
This responsibility equates to stewardship—a sense of responsibility, or partial ownership. But why would people feel this keen sense of stewardship? What compels these people to bestow their time, energy, and even financial means toward something that fails to bring monetary benefits in return? Why do it?
“All roads lead to Jonesborough,” said Steve Cook. A brash statement, to be sure, it is one that indicates Steve’s passion for his town. Calling himself a self-appointed ambassador, Steve revealed that this sense of stewardship is what helped create the historic district and what it has become. At one time, city planners excluded the downtown area, emphasizing instead the construction of business along the 11-E highway. Said Steve: “For years they wanted development on 11E, 11E, 11E. Blow ‘em right through here. Who cares about what our downtown is. And that’s almost a quote from a former alderman. Those people didn’t vote for me, and they’re not what I’m concerned about.”
Contrary to the alderman’s sentiment, it is the historic district (rather than the rest of the town) that has given Jonesborough its prominence, especially in the storytelling world. Without it, says Steve, the town would be just like every place else.
If you didn’t have this historic district, and this viable little working downtown, you’d have an intersection just like any other intersection anywhere in the country, with gas, fast food, couple of banks. With signs to tell you how to get somewhere else the fastest possible way. But instead, all roads lead to Jonesborough.
Whether or not this dismal scenario would actually materialize is unimportant. What is important is the perception behind it. What distinguishes Jonesborough from being just another town is the historic district and what it represents.
Among other things, the historic district represents a certain pace of life. Festival-goers consistently echo this sentiment. Terry Julien said: “This place has become just really a place of peace and rest.” Jim Millikin called it “an old setting where you come and kinda kick back. You can relax.” After fumbling for the appropriate descriptor, Roxanne Erickson called Jonesborough “a village.” Sara Hughes directly contrasted Jonesborough with the familiar, fast pace of life that most people experience.
"We’re different here. You know, we’re laid back, and we don’t move at a fast pace. [ . . . ] They’re friendly here, but they’re not gonna move fast. I’m sorry. So if y’all in Arizona are still moving at ninety miles an hour, like some states in the union are, then you won’t find that here. It’ll be a lot more laid back state of mind."
Unlike the 11E highway with its “fast food” and signs telling you “how to get somewhere else the fastest possible way,” Jonesborough’s historic district invites its patrons to slow down, linger along brick paths. Stop and stay awhile. This feeling is (in part) what people feel responsible for preserving.
In addition to preserving a slower pace, townsfolk go out of their way to make visitors feel “at home.” Perceptions matter to them. Even Weldon Miller, the elderly resident I spoke with, clarified this sentiment. When I asked: “Let’s say I’m coming here for the first time to the festival. What would you hope I leave with?” He replied: “I would think you would leave with a good impression of the town, the layout, the people, the stories you receive from here.” Note that the first item in his list is “a good impression of the town.” Stories, important as they may be, come further down the hierarchy. First is the impression of the town. Mayor Bledsoe added: “For years, everybody has just gone all out to make our visitors feel welcome.”
Townsfolk (especially shop owners) seem to make up a majority of the welcoming committee, but are not alone in their responsibility. On Thursday, the festival’s eve, Stivender roamed the town clad in his trademark trench coat. As he wandered I watched him greet visitors again and again, walking with them and saying, “Welcome back,” “Good to have you back.” These phrases offer insight into Stivender himself as well as the stewardship he later professed.
First, Stivender welcomes people back to Jonesborough, implying that they’ve been to the festival before. It’s simply given (by Stivender) that the visitors have a history of attending the festival, for they are coming back—returning to a place of origin or meaning. Second, Stivender’s welcome connotes ownership. One usually welcomes someone back to a location where he or she resides or maintains ownership (or stewardship). Parents camping in the mountains would not welcome their children “back” to their favorite camping spot, even though they may think of the location as “their spot.” They may welcome them “here” to their spot, but not back. Additionally, a child will often say, on returning to his or her childhood community or home, “It’s good to be back home.” Again, the child is returning to a place of origin or meaning, and the actual word home is often associated with the return. Conjointly, “Welcome back” is a phrase spoken by those dwelling in the location. It is spoken to outsiders who have an affinity with the locale but no longer reside therein. A parent welcomes a child back. Friends will welcome back their friends who have left and returned. Although Stivender resides in Pennsylvania, he considers Jonesborough partially his own, for he welcomes attendees back to Jonesborough. He is, in essence, a resident of Jonesborough, one with stewardship over the festival.
During our interview, Ed referenced this stewardship. Citing Biblical teachings behind the stewardship of space, he elevated stewardship to a spiritual—even godly—obligation. In speaking of stewardship Ed first spoke of “the steward . . . at the marriage feast of Cana.” As a Catholic could Ed have given a more potent example? Likely not. Jesus performed his first miracle at the marriage feast of Cana. The implication is twofold: stewardship, and miracles. The steward provides an atmosphere conducive to miracles. And those miracles occur. Ed’s elaboration clarifies this point: “The stewardship of space is the most important thing that a Catholic gentleman is called to do.” Ed feels his stewardship so keenly that he affirms: “I’m concerned with every aspect of the festival.”
Included in Ed’s and others’ welcome is the desire to help people step back in time, to escape reality. Again, Mayor Bledsoe’s comments are telling. “We have a historic zoning commission that . . . [is] very sensitive and very in tune to what keeps a historic district going. [ . . . ] Everything we can do to promote Jonesborough as a historic town has been official to us.”
Performance Of Outer Seclusion
Let’s briefly assess what we have identified about culture so far. The festival is like Brigadoon—a hidden world in a previous age. Patrons feel like they’re stepping back in time, and they perform their passage through time in the way they dress, and in the stories they tell.
Jonesborough’s location also feeds into the sense of being in another world. After all, the town is isolated. One gentleman pointed out the area boasts no major recreation sites: no lakes, no theme parks, no winter recreation, no major colleges or universities. Its main enticement is the historic district and the storytelling festival. When people undertake their short regional jaunts or long cross-country journeys to East Tennessee, they travel to a tucked away corner of the world. They’re stuck. Festival-goers cannot simply arise one morning and decide to rent jet skis instead of sitting in a tent. Travel to the festival entails a commitment—a commitment to the festival.
Isolation, or seclusion, manifests itself in various ways. Some by design, some not. (To use Duane’s thoughts, in some ways this seclusion is constructed. In other ways the seclusion is pre-existent.) A glimpse of seclusion on a MACRO level reveals that Jonesborough itself is a space within a LARGER space—a town within a region, within a state, within a country, within a continent. Of course, any town lies within a region, within a state . . . and so on. Yet each of these spaces performs itself differently.
Jonesborough’s performance of seclusion is centered in geography. This town of four thousand, or thereabouts, is located in eastern Tennessee. Its current inhabitants had nothing to do with its location. They did not plan on planting Jonesborough in this part of Tennessee, or even in Tennessee at all. Jonesborough existed prior to their first childish babbles, the result of other people in another age. No one purposely built the town four hours drive away from any major airports. (How could they when airplanes remained centuries away in the future?) They didn’t plan on distancing the town thirty-five miles from the nearest airport. It just happened. Okay, it didn’t just happen. Political, economic, geographic, and other such factors weighed into the town’s location. But these factors spanned decades and centuries.
Its location necessitates a journey—usually a lengthy one. Also a crooked one. Unlike many other attractions, Jonesborough does not lie along any major thoroughfare. Quite the opposite. Travel from Arizona, for instance, entails a plane flight to either Nashville or Atlanta. From Atlanta you can take a jumper plane to the Bristol Tri-cities regional airport, and then drive to Jonesborough. From Nashville, you just drive. I have traveled both routes. Each offered a different—but very real—journey toward seclusion.
On the Atlanta route, I boarded a huge jumbo jet complete with drop-down video screen and throngs of passengers. Despite strong winds, I enjoyed a pleasant, relatively bump-free flight. That all changed in Atlanta. Our small group suffered such a roller-coaster ride on that midget plane that I feared for my lunch. Someone had told me that Bristol crosses the Tennessee/Virginia, so I’d hoped in Bristol to cross over into Virginia (just to say I’d been there). But, upon landing, I learned that the airport wasn’t even near Bristol. Our shuttle to Johnson City passed into rural America via winding, often two-lane, roads.
Nashville offered a similar feeling, without the frenzied flight. Hosts of buildings border the bustling, multi-lane freeways as you pull out of the Nashville airport. Frequent towns interrupt the flow when heading east to Knoxville, and although vegetation lines the highway, one can almost feel the industry hiding just out of sight beyond the towering trees. Radio stations offer a plethora of musical options. East of Knoxville the landscape alters. Multi-lane freeways narrow to dual lanes on either side. Trees assume varied hues, looking almost lollipop-like in their circular splashes of green, yellow, orange, and red. Vegetation thickens. The previously straight, flat road transforms into rolling hills. Looking down on the descent down such a hill, you can see the wilderness stretched out upon the horizon. Civilization seems to intrude upon the wilderness, whereas earlier you felt the wilderness intruded upon civilization. Well beyond Knoxville you turn off the freeway and travel for scores of miles down a highway to reach Jonesborough. Your previously uninterrupted journey is halted by occasional traffic lights as you pass through small towns.
Space, on a MACRO level, becomes an element of the festival journey. This journey—this pilgrimage to what Ed calls a “Mecca” and an “oasis” –becomes integral to the overall festival experience.
Performance Of Inner Seclusion
On a micro level, space also becomes an element of the festival experience. Obviously the festival occurs in Jonesborough, but it occurs in a strategic section of Jonesborough, and then in strategic spaces within that section of Jonesborough. In essence, the journey doesn’t stop upon arrival within the town limits. Until now we have slowly slipped into “another world” but now we take that final leap into another world and time by traveling into the historic district.
As elaborated upon earlier, Jonesborough is touted as “historic.” This is no small thing. In fact, the historic district is part of the town’s identity. Welcoming signs along the highway announce its antiquity: WELCOME TO JONESBOROUGH—OLDEST TOWN IN TENNESSEE. I saw the same phrase emblazoned on the mud flaps of a diesel truck. A diesel truck. HISTORIC JONESBOROUGH—OLDEST TOWN IN TENNESSEE. Jonesborough mayor Tobie Bledsoe echoed these messages. “We were the first in Tennessee to be put on the national register for historic places. We take the historic district very seriously, and we protect it just like a mother hen. Everything we can do to promote Jonesborough as a historic town has been official to us.” Official.
Jonesborough performs its historic identity through its verbal messages and signs, but also through its spaces. Three spaces deserve our scrutiny for the manner in which they perform antiquity, seclusion, and commitment to storytelling: restored buildings (and the tales surrounding them), parking and pedestrian spaces, and the International Storytelling Center.
In the historic district buildings are not renovated; they’re restored. And people undergo drastic challenges to achieve such restoration. I learned this when talking with Jack and Tami Moore, owners of the Moore House Bed & Breakfast on Main Street. During this interview we sat on a balcony overlooking their manicured yard. Tami began by narrating how they bought their property in 1993 and worked on it nearly five years before opening for business. No sooner did Tami mention their 1993 purchase than Jack incredulously asked: “What, he hasn’t seen the pictures?” He then promptly reached over, removed a book from off a miniature table, and dropped a hefty photo album before me. Imbedded in those photos was a ritualistic story of transformation. Apparently anyone restoring a building kept a visual documentation of the restoration. According to Tami, everybody had similar photo albums—prominently displayed—in their own business or home. Tami accompanied the visual restoration story with an oral tale that emphasized the Herculean task of restoration.
In our contract with the people we bought the house from, they had to empty out the inside of the house. They were auctioneers and sold real estate. And we think that they just brought leftover things when they would have an auction—we think that things that didn’t sell they’d just pile ‘em up inside the house. Best we can tell. ‘Cause it was just a bunch of trashy old furniture, and stoves, and washing machines that didn’t work, and things like that.
So . . . these are bags of coal that were down in the cellar that we—I think we—I think the town hauled away nine dump truck loads of trash out of the cellar. And these old auction signs, they left them down there, and we put that on the side so we could pile more stuff in there. That’s what that is. I think the town hauled nine dump truck loads of trash away. And this is really the cleaned up version of it. After it was empty. This is one of their offices. That’s what it looked like when they conducted business here. Of course that’s—those are our tools, and we had already started on it. But that’s what it looked like. Bare wires, and bare light bulb hanging down.
As we continued leafing through the pages, I saw the sagging building assume a new shape. One photo revealed a tower of scaffolding. Another showed brickwork. They all told of a long process requiring an investment of time, money, and dedication.
TAMI: We got some of those bricks by tearing old chimneys down, and that’s what we’re doing here, and here.
LAYNE: Chimneys . . . ?
TAMI: On other houses. In the country, the woman that owned this was gonna build a house—was gonna have this demolished and build a new house on this property. So we tore that chimney down. It was seven degrees. It was in January. Seven degrees that day. That was pretty grim doing that one. We remember that one very well.
LAYNE: I’m sure you do.
TAMI: In fact there were two chimneys. Not one, but two.
LAYNE: The memorable bricks.
TAMI: We left the truck running. And when our hands would get so numb, we’d get in the truck and warm up. And then get back out and…
LAYNE: Yeah, yeah.
TAMI: Not a lot of fun.
These stories not only explain the buildings. They also enshrine them. Restored edifices represent the owners’ desires to contribute to the historic identity of the district, to involve themselves in the community, and to honor the town’s commitment to storytelling. In turn, stories, visual and oral, are symbolic indications of the owners’ transformation. It is a transformation from outsider to insider.
Parking And Pedestrian Spaces
During the festival, pedestrians rule the road. Main Street is blocked off from one end of the historic district to the other. In thousands, people roam freely down the middle of the street, interrupted only by an occasional golf cart as it whisks festival officials from tent to tent. So pronounced is the street’s openness that when I entered Jonesborough on my third visit (several days early) I was shocked to see cars. Parked cars lined both sides of the street, and old pickups and slick sedans zipped thoughtlessly through town. Steve Cook kept yelling at people to “SLOW DOWN.” During the festival, the downtown center opens only one parking area, limited to buses and vehicles displaying disability stickers. All other vehicles are kept to the outer limits, granting pedestrians full power and authority over the road. Pedestrians reign supreme.
Before they can assume their reign in the festival space, however, festival-goers have to get into the space. Getting there requires passing through buffered layers of insulation. The festival space itself is protected, much like a castle is protected by its surrounding moat, or like an executive who is buffered by the offices of less prestigious personnel. Most festival attendees have to be transported in.
Reliance on someone else for transportation into the secluded, protected space occurs at remote levels. Even though people may get to an airport on their own, they then become subject to other forces. Many opt for the shuttle from the Tri-Cities Airport to their various hotels in Johnson City. From there, they can take any of numerous shuttle runs back and forth between their hotels and Jonesborough. The shuttles stop at the registration area, which lies on the outer perimeter of the festival grounds, and attendees can then stay in Jonesborough’s arms until they return to their hotels—again by shuttle.
Those driving their own vehicles are relegated to similar options. They can pay costly parking fees at the outer perimeter of the festival grounds, and then walk into the protected space. They can catch a shuttle into Jonesborough from their respective hotels. Most park close to a mile away at the elementary school. A sprawling lawn gets converted into parking in front of the school, and beat-up school buses ferry visitors into the festival registration area. Regardless of the option taken, visitors end up walking into the festival space. A transportation company makes regular (and numerous) shuttle runs from the airport to hotels in Johnson City,
Recreation vehicles are no exception. Whether they are parking in a church lot or in another such parking area, they yet remain outside of the protected space. Only by walking (or zipping along in a wheelchair or motorized cart) can they enter the festival.
Such a protection of space further secludes the festival from the outside world, creating an area wherein, as Ed Stivender puts it, people “feel safe when they are here.” Susan O’Connor, Festival Director, called it an “oasis.” “You have this special island retreat. [ . . . ] It feels protected here.” And she was not alone in her thoughts. To support her point, she cited another member of the festival organization staff. “I was talking to the guy that heads up our parking . . . and we were talking about how it was supposed to rain Friday night. And he said, ‘Well you know it won’t start until after midnight because we’re in Camelot! Don’t you remember?’” How could she forget? Yet Susan is acutely aware of seeming hokey, unrealistic. To drive home her feelings she said: “Unless you’ve been here I guess it [referring to Jonesborough as Camelot] can all sound very trite. But you know it is true. You step into a kind of a protected environment, you really do.”