Friday, October 10, 2008

Once upon a time ...

Every eye in the tent was on the woman sitting on a stool on a bare wooden stage talking about how she’d have lost her virginity if only the police hadn’t interrupted at a crucial moment the carefully researched and staged event. No one gasped or tut-tutted at the indelicate subject matter. We were too busy wiping the tears of laughter that ran from our eyes. Beth Horner, the virgin under discussion, was followed by Bil Lepp, who told us about how one of his college buddies, Paul, had built a submarine in his dorm room their senior year. The sub was so big they had to blast a hole in the dorm wall to get the pig-pink contraption out. (Bil won the West Virginia State liar's contest several years running.)

The National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, which comes up the first weekend of October each year, is like sitting around the Thanksgiving table enjoying a feast of the best family stories—with 20,000 of your closest friends and assuming your family includes the likes of matriarch Kathryn Windham, who barely leaned on her cane as she described her 90th birthday party this past summer, complete with comb chorus and a parade through downtown Selma, Ala.

Then there’s cousin Andy Offutt Irwin, you know, the weird kid who grew up to be the one everybody wanted to sit next to at dinner. Andy told about Aunt Marguerite, the 85-year-old founder of the Southern White Old Ladies Hospital, then Andy and his band, the Finger Monsters, played a song about his girlfriend Clarice who was a member of the Klan, and wouldn’t leave it, even for love. (That’s not clan like she was a family member, but Klan like the KKK.) We were all too busy laughing at the song to worry about whether or not it was politically correct for two African-American women to be singing backup on such a tune.

You know how some of your relatives are. Despite hearing from birth that it’s not polite to discuss religion, money or politics, some people just can’t help themselves. John McCutcheon is one who mixes all of the above with his music and stories, making most of the audience laugh and think at the same time. (Not to mention swoon. My mom and my aunt would have followed him home if I hadn’t been there to remind them that they’re both already married.)

While the National Storytelling Festival is like the Thanksgiving table of festivals, with its variety of the best the storytelling community has to offer stuffed down your throat until you think you can’t take another bite, smaller, kitchen-table festivals can be found all over the country. Just Google storytelling festival and your state, you’ll find something. Or visit storytellers’ web sites, where you’ll find links to their tour schedules. You can try just a taste of storytelling, rather than stuffing yourself at first with an entire feast.

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