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Jonesborough, Tennessee: the storytelling capital of the world

Jonesborough, Tennessee did not get the title of “storytelling capital of the world” just for any reason.

This town’s storytelling history goes back to the 1970s when groups of locals would gather around an old hay wagon in Courthouse Square to exchange Appalachian tales and legends.

These local storytellers went on shortly after the emergence of the first Storytelling Festival in 1973 to develop nonprofit organizations dedicated to the artform, which led to the establishment of the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in the late 1990s. 

This tradition has since become one of the largest parts of Jonesborough’s history, leading all the way to the 52nd annual Storytelling Festival that is to be held in October.  

"I think the town does a good job of representing storytelling. It isn’t just us by a long shot," said Susan O'Connor, the Director of Programs at the ISC, Susan O’Connor. "The town is centrally involved,” she said on Jonesborough’s dedication to the artform of storytelling.  

The annual Storytelling Festival consists of an array of events, vendors and storytelling. The ISC in downtown Jonesborough arranges the entire festival weekend meticulously throughout the year.

O’Connor recounts how original founder Jimmy Neil Smith used to describe the development of the festival:

"He used to talk about the festival like an iceberg. He said the tip that comes out of the water is what everybody sees, and it’s beautiful. But the real work of it is beneath the waterline.” 

The ISC will release lineups and provide programs to festival goers to highlight the storytellers making appearances. Then, patrons can traverse to the many white tents placed around the downtown area during the festival to pick who they want to listen to.  

"When most people think of storytelling… they assume it’s all folk tales and jack tales, which is absolutely a part of it, but it’s so much more than that," said Angela White, ISC Communications associate.

Scouting staff at the center have made it a priority to highlight the widest breadth of voices that they can reach. The festival will often have storytellers representing marginalized voices, unique voices and modern perspectives along with storytellers that represent the more “traditional” way of storytelling that Jonesborough built its history on.

"It’s balancing all of these different voices and bringing them all together in a way that honors the history and heritage of what we do, and the new and up and coming unique(ness) of what storytelling is today," said White.

Although planning the festival is a year long endeavor for the center’s staff, they also handle other events such as Storytelling Live, a 26-week-long teller-in-residence series where a different storyteller comes every week and performs for five days.

"One week might not be your cup of tea, and the next week might. Regardless, we are bringing those voices to the region and giving them a platform to share their stories," said White.

This program allows patrons to have more opportunities to embrace the artform of storytelling with both the variety of storytellers featured and the length of time not having the constraints of one weekend in October.

"It was important to the region, to the economy," said O'Connor.

Storytelling traditions have made their way and will continue to make their way through Jonesborough’s history for as long as time will allow.

To find out more about events that the ISC has to offer, visit here. For tickets to the 2024 Storytelling Festival, visit here.  


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