JIMMY NEIL SMITH
Founder, International Storytelling Center
Jonesborough would be way different without storytelling — do you think you could make a case that storytelling saved Jonesborough?
I want to tell you a little story about Jonesborough in the 1950s. My grandfather gave me a three-day-old calf to raise, but I had to get it from his farm to our house and little back yard. And we had to go through Jonesborough, right through Main Street. Well, that was ok, except for the fact that we put the calf in the back seat of the car. That was the only way we could get it home. And I was sitting in the back seat of the car with the calf. I was so, so scared. Who’s going to see me, sitting in the back of a car, with a calf?! Well, we went through Jonesborough. There wasn’t a soul on the street. Not a single person, except a policeman, and he was sitting on the corner, asleep. That’s how Jonesborough was in the 1950s. It was a dead town.
Fortunately, we had some good leadership then – and I don’t mean people who were college professors or politicians – ordinary people on the board of mayor and aldermen who said, “We need to save Jonesborough. And we need to save it by bringing it back to the way it was. To preserve it, restore it.” Well the state planners that worked with Jonesborough [in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s], they thought that was a little goofy, because everybody else was doing renovation work downtown, not in that same way. The state planners that worked with Jonesborough were really questioning whether that was the right track or not.
Until one day, one Sunday morning, Jim Wagner, who was a state planner, came to Jonesborough, and looked at it in a whole different light. He saw these restored buildings of the future. He saw the brick sidewalks. He saw the old fashioned street lamps for the first time. So he got on board. And that board of mayor and aldermen, five ordinary people like me, we began a project to restore Jonesborough, and that’s what happened.
Back in 1972, you were a high school teacher, and you were teaching journalism – what possessed you as a teacher to say to your students, “I think we ought to bring in some storytellers and banjo pickers”?
I had a very talented group of students. I had a beginning class of journalism, and an advanced class of journalism, and they were brilliant kids, very creative. We were going to the nearby town to print the school newspaper, they’d written it, they’d laid it out, now we were going to print it. We were on our way, and on the radio was a storyteller by the name of Jerry Clower. Jerry Clower was well known in the south, and he was comedian, a humorist, a storyteller. He was telling a story about hunting in Mississippi. We were laughing and punching each other and elbowing, slapping our knees. I just turned to them at that moment, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring storytellers like Clower to Jonesborough to tell stories?” The idea just slipped away of course, but it never really turned me loose.
Two or three months later, I went to the leaders of Jonesborough. I knew at that time, from having worked with them in some of these issues, that they wanted to have four seasons of activities, and we already had Jonesborough Days, which is kind of a Fourth of July celebration. I said to them, “You want some more activities, why don’t we have a storytelling festival?” Of course they kind of looked at me funny, and I knew what they were trying to say – “What’s that?” And I didn’t really know what that was. I just knew it as a gathering of people who were telling their stories. Mostly traditional stories, perhaps out of the mountains, but beyond. They said, “Oh, that’s a pretty good idea. Now you do it.”
Without any instruction book, without any how to-guide, I put together the first national storytelling festival, which was at that time the only event anywhere in the world devoted exclusively to the art of storytelling. But we didn’t know what we were doing.
The second weekend in October 1973, we rolled an old farm wagon into the shadow of the Jonesborough Courthouse, right in front of a building with a big mail pouch sign on it from days of the past. And we told stories around that wagon, and on that wagon. It was about two hours or so, and we had people scheduled to tell stories, after dinner speakers. Ray Hicks was the cornerstone of that event. A farmer, mountain man from Western North Carolina. And people could just get up out of their seats and tell a story. And there were people who did that, in particular, Connie Reagan Blake, who is now a professional storyteller. She got up on stage and told a children’s story because she told stories to children in nursery schools, libraries. Then her partner, Barbara Friedman, joined her. They traveled all over the eastern part of the United States promoting Jonesborough, promoting the festival, promoting the revival of storytelling. I stayed home and licked the stamps. But that’s what made it work, because I’ve never been a professional storyteller, I’ve just used stories in my life. But I was rolling up an old wagon for things to happen on it, and it’s been happening for 45 years.
Was it part of your thinking that there’s no storytelling festival around here, we can do it because we’re the only one? Were you thinking ahead to the marketing?
I probably was to some degree, because I had done amateur marketing for Johnson City and government agencies, and a little tourist attraction. That was on my mind, I’m sure. But there are two reasons why I started the festival. The first reason is economic development for Jonesborough. I was born here, and my passion is here, and I wanted to see Jonesborough be different. Be a place that’s lively, vibrant, people coming in and visiting our community.
Number two, was that I realized that we were losing our stories. We were losing our stories, traditions that go back years and years, in Europe and Africa and other places around the world, and our Native American stories that were here. We were losing them, they were going to go away, and if we didn’t tell them, they would disappear. Fortunately, I feel like both approaches worked. We saved Jonesborough and we saved storytelling.
There’s a school of thought that if a town is known for one thing, it’s better than trying to be everything that every other town is trying to do — would you subscribe to that idea?
Yes, I would subscribe to the fact that a focused niche for every community makes sense. Sometimes it can’t happen. Even in Jonesborough, we have a little schizophrenia. We’re the storytelling capital of the world, but we’re the oldest town in Tennessee. There are people in Jonesborough that can’t give that up, that’s important to them. The storytelling, that’s important, and there are people in our town that appreciate the storytelling. I think the brand that we came up with with the help of a consultant, Roger Brooks, is storytelling. He came over to Jonesborough from Seattle, and he walked around the town, he read the materials. It was around 2009, 2010. He said he knew what the brand was going to be, because he saw it immediately. It was going to be storytelling. But he had to confirm that, and so when he came back from his walk around town and his review of our little community, his recommendation was “storytelling capital of the world.” A little cheesy, but that’s what it is, and it’s been good to us over the past few years. You see it on our materials, we’re pushing it.
In so many towns, there are two or three competing things, and all the factions are fighting each other. Do you have any advice for towns on settling on one thing?
I can say that, but I can’t say that we’ve done it. People still use, and proudly, the oldest town in Tennessee. Because we’re a historic town, and that’s what’s been with us for 200 years or more. So how could you give that up?
But storytelling has risen above that and has become the primary brand for our community. Because as the consultant said, what other community in the United States or even the world that can say that? So it’s the storytelling capital of the world. It’s taken a little time for it to sink in and for it to happen, but it’s there, it’s rooted. We are the oldest town in Tennessee, but we are, more importantly, the storytelling capital of the world.
What do you most wish that town managers and mayors in small towns knew, but they don’t know?
I think they need to know, as we learned, that the town is about people, it’s about its residents. And they come first, not anything else. Our program of 34 projects tried to better serve the community of Jonesborough and its residents.
We learned back in the old days when we were doing the street re-visioning and coming up with brick sidewalks and old lamps, was that you needed a partnership to do it. The partnership is the town government and in our case, the preservation community. We worked together. They were tied together, we worked side by side. I would say that was our biggest contributor to our success.
We had our enemies, I can tell you that. In the middle of our development of 34 pieces, we wanted to buy what was then called Duncan’s Meadow. Now that’s the meadow where you come into town, no longer a meadow, but it’s a strip of government services: town hall, fire department, police department, visitor’s center, post office, library. That was the perfect place to put it, so we had to buy that. That was critical to our success. Our enemies decided that they were going to try to stop that. We were getting a loan from the rural development agency, and the loan had the opportunity that there could be a petition against it if signed by enough people to call a referendum. Well, they filed that petition. We went in a referendum, [and it was] one of the best things we ever did.
Two things – it helped us clarify what and who we are, because we had to sell this to 2,000 people or something like that. The second thing is, it forced us to articulate it in a way that everybody could understand it. We won the referendum, 72 percent. That confirmed my thinking that this was a community that was ready for change. It was ready for things to happen. And three-quarters of the people in this community stood up in favor of that.