An interview with International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah
By Ted Olson
Appalachia is a storied region. Every place within the region has its own story, and many people who have lived in some Appalachian place have been affected by — and have become part of — that particular story.
Appalachia is likewise a hotbed for art, and the people who create that art interpret the story of their regional identity — their sense of place — by means of whatever artistic medium they find most helpful or effective in communicating their truth. Each art form within Appalachia — whether visual art, craft, music, the written word, or the spoken word — is nurtured within the venues the region sustains. Visual art by artists from Appalachia can be viewed in a range of regional galleries; crafts are created for everyday use within homes or are preserved in museums; music graces front porches or backyards across the region or is showcased in clubs, concert halls, and festivals; and the written word — as literature and in other forms of written discourse — can be savored privately at home or publicly in classrooms, online repositories, bookstores, or lecture halls. The spoken word can exist in simple conversation, reflecting the rhythms of daily life, or it can flourish in elevated form as storytelling, told at the dinner table or before the fireplace; yet, because of its intimate connection to specific people and places, storytelling can be a difficult art form to replicate in more formal settings.
But it can be done, as proven 49 years ago by Jimmy Neil Smith, a humble visionary from the tiny East Tennessee town of Jonesborough. In 1973, Smith founded the National Storytelling Festival in “Tennessee’s Oldest Town” and inadvertently introduced what is now a time-proven model for publicly celebrating and perpetuating storytelling as an art and as a tradition. Today, in the wake of the storytelling revival fueled if not ignited by the National Storytelling Festival, stories can be heard at a broad spectrum of organized events offered locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Fanbases for storytelling have grown considerably since 1973, and Smith has a lot to do with that.
With its annual staging from Oct. 7 through 9 of this year, the National Storytelling Festival enters its 50th year of continuous operation with its 50th festival. This occasion presents an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of Smith and all those — organizers, storytellers, audience members — who have contributed to the festival’s success. Participants during the past 49 years could tell their own stories about the sustaining power of that event. As a longtime attendee, I found myself at this juncture wishing to know more about the festival’s backstory — especially about Smith’s role in its founding and development. It was obvious that the ideal person to contact for that backstory is Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center. As the successor to Smith in overseeing the National Storytelling Festival, Sirah has brought his own vision to reimagining the festival’s possibilities for growth and continued relevance. Having known Smith for years and having marveled — first from afar and then up close — at the festival’s meaningful and lasting impacts, Sirah understands the festival’s deep and abiding value as a cultural force and as a driver of social change and economic sustainability for the community it serves.
In anticipation of this significant milestone for a festival with the humblest origins — when Smith invited Ray Hicks, a storyteller from Beech Mountain, North Carolina, to tell stories to a small but rapt audience sitting around him on bales of hay — I interviewed Sirah to learn more about his role in sustaining the National Storytelling Festival and to hear his interpretation of Smith’s achievement. Here is the transcript of the interview, which took place on Sept. 12.
How would you characterize Jimmy Neil Smith's original vision for the National Storytelling Festival?
“I can’t speak for Jimmy Neil, but I can perhaps try to interpret what I think was part of his vision. Jimmy Neil describes himself as a country boy with a big dream. Having got to know him well, I know that he was a visionary. He has a belief that one should envision an idea, but then work to become that idea. I know Jimmy Neil was also inspired by events of the time, and part of the reason the festival initially occurred was because there was a need. Jonesborough, like many small towns of that time, was a dying mountain town in desperate need of revitalization.
“The 1970s were a time of intense planning for renewal and growth in ‘Tennessee’s Oldest Town.’ Jimmy Neil Smith was heavily involved in Jonesborough’s revitalization efforts, and the town’s goal was to preserve its historic identity even as it evolved into a community that suited modern residents’ and workers’ needs. So when the initial idea was ignited by the car ride with his students en route to print the school’s newspaper — listening to Jerry Clower tell stories on the radio. That was all true — the idea was ignited. But then JNS approached the town and posed the idea, and something in his persuasion, made it happen. I think Jimmy Neil himself didn’t expect it to turn into what it is today... but when he saw the possibilities, he worked hard to make it happen. It was a combination of events, need, and a carpe diem of moments.
“Jimmy is from this place. This is his home place. He cared about his home and wanted to see it both survive and flourish. Jimmy Neil already had a worldly understanding, and he credits his elementary school teacher Sara Hickey for embedding a love of storytelling in him, too. I know he sensed what was also unique to his homeplace. And while there were pockets of movements to support storytelling within the national folk revival movements and events of the time, I think what Jimmy Neil saw was the opportunity to foster a home for storytelling preservation, and he saw the potential for Jonesborough to do just that. And one of the things Jimmy Neil did that I think was absolute genius was to ensure that first ever event, of Ray Hicks telling story from a hay bale, along the main street, with 60 people in attendance, was recorded and documented.
“Because by doing so, he inspired what my folklorist colleagues today at the American Folklife center at the Library of Congress, describe as one the most important and complete and distinct collections in the entire library. And to add to that, the world’s largest collection to this day that can tell the story of the storytelling movement itself. And I think years from now, we, the nation and the world will come to appreciate this even more so than we do today.
“I’d also like to add, I like that Jimmy Neil was thinking of equity, diversity and inclusion, long before major corporations started to realize its importance. Jimmy Neil knew that to make something truly national — to live up to that name — we had to work to make sure the nation and multiculturalism — a core American value — was represented. Hence why we can look back to the ’70s, the early days of the festival, and see people like Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Jackie Torrence, and tellers from many different traditions coming to perform. I know Jimmy Neil tried to harness this to make it more diverse and inclusive. And it took some time, but when people such as Alex Haley, alongside Native American, African American, alongside European American traditions, Jimmy Neil was helping to lay the foundation for what we are able to do today.”
Could you please comment about the setting of the National Storytelling Festival in “Tennessee's oldest town,” in Appalachia? Did that contribute toward shaping the identity of the Festival?
“Our town, our region, our Appalachian identity is core to our identity. Appalachia is core to our nation’s identity as well… and as such, both go hand in hand. I think the preservation of our town’s aesthetics, has also helped us preserve the stories that come with those buildings, landscapes. Both Jimmy Neil and I, (as I discovered in conversation one day with him) have been influenced by the ideas of MacArthur Fellow genius Bill Strickland. That suggested, if you make beautiful spaces that beautiful things will happen. Bill Stickland is from Pittsburgh, (Pennsylvania), and wanted to make sure that kids at risk could feel a sense of pride in the place they call home. So he used art and world art to do that. likewise, Jimmy Neil helped bring the best of storytelling to his home place and has helped thousands, even millions of people feel that sense of pride. Even when storytellers such as the late Syd Lieberman from Illinois requested some of his ashes to be taken to Jonesborough — we know that this place is like sacred ground for storytellers.
“Our Main Street preservation has significantly helped people want to come. Whether people live in Appalachia, or have an association, or wish to return, we know Appalachia is both a tangible and intangible idea — a place of nostalgia for some, a refuge, place of sanctuary, and place of creativity, artistry, ideas and innovation as well.”
What are some of the challenges to pursuing and maintaining an Appalachian identity within the National Storytelling Festival's programming?
“I don’t think there is one, because like story, identity is always in flux, it is always changing and it can mean different things to different people. As Donald Davis suggested to me once, the final interpretation to any story will always rest in the mind of the listener. As such, people will make meaning from listening to stories according to their own way of interpreting that story. And when you can actually see the mountains — then you are reminded where you are. It’s why Knoxville (unless you are high up) doesn’t feel very Appalachian to me personally, but Asheville does. And so does Johnson City, and Jonesborough — because one can see where you are, and that juxtaposition of stories and landscape creates a soundscape of the imagination.
“I myself descend from rural villages of northern India. My people were carpenters and farmers. They were also freedom fighters and revolutionaries that fought imperial occupation. My parents grew up in east Africa. And became refugees. And they were stripped of their material possessions by an evil dictator. Even though I grew up in a coastal town outside of London. I heard the stories of where my people came from, and I understood these stories were part of who I was. I learned stories of resilience and survival, of love and perseverance, who I’ve become, and what I wish to become. When I came to these mountains for this job, and visited the home of Ray Hicks, and met his family, and heard stories told at the homestead in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, or that first weekend in Jonesborough, I realized in many ways, I had returned home in a sense. A different location but very much connected to the values of my people from rural villages on the other side of the world.”
How does the festival negotiate the difficulties of cultural representation (pervasive positive and negative stereotyping of Appalachian culture in some quarters, etc.)?
“I remember one of my first conversations with Jimmy Neil — over breakfast — and in that three-hour conversation he told me about how much he was once criticized for changing the space of where Ray Hicks first told at the festival. The stages were thought by some as out of place, not real. But then, I thought, imagine if just for Appalachian storytellers, we had replicated the front porch on the stage? Actually, what the stage was doing was elevating the beauty of an experience that has been experienced for so many, it was saying this artform is as equal to any other art, theatre, performance, that gets performed on stages around the world. Some people have said they never understood Ray Hicks storytelling because of his accent, and dialect style of telling. I might suggest, they’ve perhaps missed the point. Let me explain with another example. Some years ago, a small group of Japanese storytellers came to Jonesborough. Of their own accord. They ended up sharing stories at the ‘swapping ground,’ a small event at the festival managed by our local volunteer-run storyteller guild (a group of local folk that love storytelling). They told their stories in English, but then afterwards the local members asked if they’d tell it in Japanese. The visitors then suggested that they wouldn’t understand, and the response from the local guild was, yes we will — because the Japanese storytellers were passionate about storytelling, and they listen and tell all the time, they already knew that there is more than one way to listen for meaning in a story told. And as storytelling-great Kathryn Tucker Windham once suggested, the purpose for storytelling is to teach us to listen, and listen in new ways. I think the local guild knew that instinctively. When I first heard Ted Hicks, the son of Ray and Rosa Hicks, tell Jack tales he learnt from his father, from his hospital bed in Banner Elk, North Carolina, admittedly, I could not understand at first. But I sat and just listened, and after about 30 minutes to an hour, Ted had wrapped me up in his world, and I became totally immersed in his storytelling. I cherish that I got to experience that.”
Can you please comment on the impact of Ray Hicks as a recurring (some would say iconic) performer during the festival's first decades?
“I mention quite a bit on Ray Hicks above, and certainly I think Ray’s recurring presence at the festival — especially in those early years — was significant for many people, and on many levels. For some it was validation, because similar kinds of stories reminded people of the stories that they were told by their parents and grandparents. Then there were people like Alan Lomax who visited the Hicks Homestead — folklorists, TV presenters, and others that collected what they saw as a distinctly American tradition being lived and celebrated and most definitely worthy of being documented. For many others, I think there was also fascination, an insight into a cultural phenomenon different from their own. But then there was the relationship between the Hicks family to Jonesborough, as over the years the entire Hicks family became integral to the festival community. There are cookbooks of Rosa’s cooking recipes, and more. I think Ray Hicks represents in many ways our origins, not just because he is from the region, but as a National Heritage Fellow who performed on the National Mall and who had been invited all over the world, but who always returned home, to this place. He describes knowing these mountains, including the medicine of these mountains, like the lines in his hand. And I think people began to appreciate what he represented and symbolized, and what he could teach them about loving and celebrating the place you are from.”
What are some of the challenges you anticipate having to face in your role while shepherding the festival into its second half-century?
“The festival is naturally evolving, as it has responded to the interests and needs of our time. Storytelling is still a folk-art tradition — for the people, by the people. And circumstances such as the pandemic provide opportunities for us to develop high-quality virtual performances. This is something that will stay. Not to replicate the festival, but to add value and ensure that we can bring it into the homes, hospitals wards, elderly care homes, children’s hospital centers, and to people all over the world. A couple of years ago, we streamed the festival simultaneously in 33 countries worldwide. We’ve used video footage to create partnerships between the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassies in other countries — all in the effort to showcase the best of American culture and to help build friendships with their host nations. We’ve streamed to youth detention centers, libraries, and many other places where people had never heard about the festival. They know now and want to visit — and some have already made the journey to Jonesborough.
“Some people have suggested to me that young people aren’t as interested in the art of storytelling as the baby boomer generation, but I wholly disagree. I think young people are deeply eager to learn about the world in which they live, and they care deeply about issues affecting our nation and our world, our environment and our climate; they are passionate about justice and equality for all, and about the nuances that connect cultures and make specific cultures distinct. Young people want to learn about the past that informs the present, so they too can be part of the shaping of culture for the future.
“The biggest challenge I see is climate change. Just in my time here I’ve seen flash floods, and people tell me how they have noticed that the trees change colors even later every time they visit our region from elsewhere. I think about people’s ability to travel in the future. Or if skyrise buildings will become common in this region and take away people’s ability to imagine their sense of place in these mountains. At the same time, I’ve seen an emergence of a youth generation of storytellers telling stories on these and other topics. Ultimately, storytelling is so core to our humanity that I can only imagine that the festival will respond.
“Certainly we’ll continue to embed new ideas, invite new storytellers, and maybe incorporate technologies so that people can appreciate this art more days of the year and make meaning from stories in new ways. Back in Scotland I used to perform myself at the Edinburgh (international) Art Festival, a one-month-long, 24/7 arts festival. My hope and dream is that the (International Storytelling) Festival will host such an event 50 years from now … or even sooner. But I kind of think now we are already on that path, with both live and virtual sharing of stories, and the 24 weeks of storytelling by artists in residency, and the digital platforms that have since been developed.”
Several Appalachian masters of the spoken word will be in Jonesborough from Oct. 7-9 to headline the 50th offering of the International Storytelling Festival. Attendees will be privileged to hear the magical word-weaving of storytellers — whether they are from Appalachia or from other places around the world.
If you do attend the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough this October, be prepared to enjoy stories regardless of the weather. And be prepared to be both charmed and, in some sort of quiet way, transformed.
Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies at East Tennessee State University.