Saturday, September 12, 2009


It is a sad thing that mockingbirds sing everybody’s song but their own.
- Old folk saying

In recent years, people frequently ask me if I think that “storytelling can be taught.” The question has been prompted by the fact that several academic institutions in this region are offering “degrees in storytelling.” The most notable example is the program at East Tennessee State University that has been endorsed by some folks at Jonesborough, our "Mecca of Appalachian Storytelling.” A quick Google survey indicates that the idea is beginning to spreading to other institutions that are currently offering storytelling degrees - recommended for “potential social workers, teachers and ministers.”

Since I am an elderly yarn spinner, I don’t feel especially threatened by programs that offer degrees and academic sanctions for a craft that I have always considered “a kind of inner compulsion” – something that I have always done because I felt compelled to do it. Admittedly, I did have a brief, fanciful vision in which I imagined a future time when grim-faced agents would arrive on my porch to serve me with a subpoena for practicing “without a license.” Also, I admit that I find a certain surreal distress in learning that storytellers, who have traditionally been “outside” conventional society, are now being told that they need “professional training.” We are being ushered "inside" provided we can meet the eligibility requirements.

I guess I am evading the question, so let me say that I do not feel that storytelling can be taught effectively unless the aspiring teller already possesses an innate talent. I think that the world is full of potential storytellers, but many lack the confidence to venture onto a stage without encouragement. If acquiring a degree from a college or university will instill that confidence, then perhaps
“professional training” will serve a purpose. For the would-be storyteller, it would be like “having his/her parking ticket validated.”

I am a bit cynical about the necessity of an academic program for storytelling since there is bountiful evidence that scholars sometimes dismantle and rearrange creative subjects (popular novels, film, storytelling), forcing them into patterns that have structure and references, but in the process, the scholars manage to remove some inner spark of spontaneity (they sap the natural energy) that made the subject vitally alive. I still remember when “oral history and traditional music studies” were often a breathtaking and vital experiences; however, that was before the field was “refined, structured” and filled with tape recorders and interviewers, each with a rigid format that intimidated both the audience and the performers.

But, let me get back to storytelling. In conjunction with Jonesborough’s emergence as the “capital of storytelling,” I began to encounter storytellers who ascribed to strict rules regarding “the way a story should be told.” Since I had never been officially accepted as a “teller” at the annual Tennessee festival, I was often “diplomatically instructed” by Jonesborough veterans: I should memorize my story and respect “time limits.” Further, I was advised to “never touch the microphone” (I rarely use one anyway) and “assume a proper posture.” There were topics I should avoid and others that I should strive to include in my tales (Storytelling should teach valuable lessons!).

Since I believe the essence of storytelling is spontaneity, I never memorize stories. From the time I was a child, I was aware that the telling of a story involves a mutual exchange between the teller and his audience. Something flows between a teller and a listener. I have always felt that audiences feed on a teller’s energy and a teller is "sustained by an audience’s approval/acceptance." I guess it is a kind of symbiosis. When I talk to my peers, they invariably express the same feeling – their awareness of the near-magical exchange between teller and listener.

Further, I am wary of storytellers who indulge in a kind of mindless repetition of old stories: Jack Tales and fairy tales. Indeed, some storytellers develop a menu of carefully memorized material that can be regurgitated on cue. That is not my idea of what storytelling should be. While I can admire the precision, clear enunciation and the precise movements and gestures, this is not my kind of craft. It does not make allowances for that sudden, inspired moment that only comes when both audience and performer are in harmony and exploring a facet of a tale that they have discovered together – the moment when the mockingbird sings its own song.

As a consequence, I am something of a maverick, and I strive to emulate other mavericks – Don Davis and Garrison Keillor, for example … Storytellers who search for that common experience which blends pathos and laughter. In the past 30 years, I have learned to draw my inspiration from a “personal folklore” in which I and my mortal and deeply flawed relatives, ancestors and peers behave foolishly, suffer profoundly and struggle for dignity – actions that strike a familiar chord in any audience.

The storytellers that I heard in my childhood didn’t appear on a stage with a microphone. They talked quietly to an intimate audience at funerals, Sunday services, weddings, graduations and family gatherings. They didn’t have big belt buckles, silly hats or colorful shirts, but they told anecdotes that reflected their culture and tradition with authenticity and integrity. Sometimes, they made me proud of who I am and where I live.

I don’t think you can teach that in a storytelling course.


  1. Thomas Jefferson kept a pet mockingbird if I recall. I never hear them much out here, so they do stop me in my tracks when I do have an opportunity to listen to them carrying on. But this isn't really about mockingbirds, I know. Yes, I hear you, and I think some folks with discerning tastes will always prefer the real thing, as practiced by you and by Don Davis (whose storytelling I also greatly enjoy). On the other hand, there's a big old herd of people out there who are more than willing to consume the formulated, pasteurized product of the kind that marketers and universities love.
    I did happen to take a storytelling course in grad school 30+ years ago...on my way to becoming a children's librarian. In that context, I think it served a useful purpose. Although back then the little tykes were always happy when we finished the story...because a 16mm movie came next! (And what they liked best of all was when we'd run the movie backwards.)

  2. You are my kind of storyteller, Gary.

  3. Thank you, dear. I'm glad I'm somebody's kind.

  4. Gary, it's just my opinion but I believe it's a gift. A gift only a select few possess. You possesser of great magnitude! :)

  5. Thank you, Carol. I thought you might like to know that my DVD of the "Nance Dude" play is coming together. My filmmaker friends, Arthur and Katie, were here yesterday and interviewed me for an intro to the film. They also found Nance's grave and filmed it ....nothing there but a little plastic marker with her name (misspelled).

  6. I've known you for over 30 years.

    I've never heard you tell the same story, the same way, even twice.

    Story telling for you is an art as well as mental therapy for the rest of us or at least for me.

    One of Stephen King's novellas had a quote over the fireplace in a private lending library that said," It's not the story, its the teller of the tale."

  7. Hey, WOW! Sounds like it ought to be a blurb on the jacket of my unpublished (and unwritten) book.

  8. You're right about how academic institutions can really mess something up. When I used to live in Brasstown there was this colorful old local that used to stop by my shop with a jar of white liquor from time to time. One day he told me a Jack Tale that he had heard when he was a teamster driving a mule wagon between Hanging Dog and Tellico. It was a pretty raunchy story but involved Jack, his brothers and a father. I told it to an academic from Bloomington and he proceeded to tell me how it wasn't really a Jack Tale. I thought it was interesting and funny!

  9. I'd like to hear that story! Did he say why it didn't qualify? Was it because it had no identifiable "original" in the Brothers Grimm?

  10. Yeah, he was a PhD folklore guy from Indiana U. and was not interested at all that the story was told as a Jack tale. It had a lot of the same themes in the other tales but it was really raunchy. I can just see one of those teamsters driving a wagon through that wild area over there coming up with a revision of a story that he had probably heard as a kid. I wish I had recorded Hobe when I had the chance. He was quite a man. (I'll tell you the story sometime.)