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Thousands Hold Fast To Tradition Of Oral Storytelling


Before Twitter, radio, even electricity - in fact, going all the way back to pre-historic times, people gathered around fires to listen to stories. Even though the glow of computers has replaced the warmth of the campfire for most of us, some folks still hold fast to the tradition of oral storytelling.

As Missy Shelton reports, nearly 10,000 people have gathered this weekend for the National Storytelling Festival in northeast Tennessee to hear professional tellers weave some good yarns.

MISSY SHELTON, BYLINE: Sure, you can get the gist of what happened from a reporter's pithy tweet or you can LOL at your friend's Facebook status update, but getting stories through social media just isn't the same as hearing professional storytellers like Barbara McBride-Smith. Her voice rings through the enormous white tent where people have gathered in Jonesborough, Tennessee. She tells about the time she tried on a dress and got stuck in it in the fitting room of a New York City boutique. She had to get help from the other women who were trying on clothes.

BARBARA MCBRIDE-SMITH: Well, that fringe on the bottom of that dress, it got caught up in the clasp of my necklace. And I was panicking about that time. Well, those little scantily clad New York debs, they come running out of there to help me. They grabbed a hold of that dress and we were all gyrating and wallering around with that thing trying to get it off. And I got so tickled...


MCBRIDE-SMITH: ...well, I believe the technical term is I peed on myself.

SHELTON: But it's not just humorous stories that have drawn people from all over the U.S. to Jonesborough this weekend. They also come to hear poignant tales like "Homecoming." Judith Black tells the story of two women waiting at an airport arrivals gate: one, a mother whose son is coming back from the Iraq War; the other, a woman whose father experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The mother wonders if her son will come back with PTSD. But then she sees her son coming toward her.

JUDITH BLACK: His eyes were still open and filled with mischief. Thank you. And I ran and I must have thrown myself into his arms - and he's big enough he could carry me. And we're walking out and we're almost out of the waiting area, and I think I should say thank you to the nice lady in the blue suit. Tears were pouring her make-up into rivulets down her cheeks. I wanted to say, it's OK. Look, he's good. He's fine. He's whole. So far.


SHELTON: Stories like this one hit a deeply personal note with the audience. It's why Theresa Bellamy brought her friend Cassie to the festival for the first time 13 years ago, shortly after Cassie was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Theresa says she and her friend take away something very important from the festival.

THERESA BELLAMY: You take away hope, that there is joy in the world and there are happy endings, along with all the tears. You know, there's just a joyous feeling of hope and that you're not alone.

SHELTON: Indeed, it's hard to feel alone when you're sitting practically hip-to-hip under a tent, breathing in the cool mountain air, and listening to stories that reveal truths and new perspectives.

Storyteller Lyn Ford says it's a way to build connections between people.

LYNN FORD: When we know one another's stories we realize how much we're alike, even though we are different and unique people. And so, story in the oral tradition can build community. And that's something that we need.

SHELTON: Need enough to turn off our smartphones for a few hours, after posting on Facebook that we're getting ready to turn off our phone and hear some tall tales.

For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton in northeast Tennessee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Missy Shelton