MY ART STORY by

Jimmy Neil Smith

Jonesborough
Tennessee

jimmy-neil-smith-storytelling-replacement.jpg

Bearded older man in a dark suit leaning against a tree with a three-story main street with brick builidngs and side walk behind him

Jimmy Neil Smith on Jonesborough’s Main Street. Photo by Keith Dixon Studios

I have a confession.

I’m just a country boy with a dream.

I was born 68 years ago in the tiny town of Jonesborough in the rolling hills of Tennessee, in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and I have lived here all of my life.

Unfortunately, Jonesborough was a dying southern town—losing its Main Street, its heart and soul, as business moved to the malls and strip centers of a nearby city.

In a bold and courageous action, the town’s leaders launched a program to restore Jonesborough’s historic downtown to both improve our quality of life and develop a tourism program to re-ignite the town’s economy.

While our town leaders were in the midst of planning the restoration program, they declared that they wanted to create and stage four major public events each year, one for each season, to celebrate Jonesborough and its history, heritage, and traditions.

And as I pondered my hometown’s challenges—and opportunities—I made a discovery, and the seed for my dream was sown.

I was 25 years old and teaching high-school journalism. And one day, I was driving with some of my students to a nearby town to print the school newspaper. We were listening to the radio.

Jerry Clower, a Southern humorist and storyteller, was telling a story about hunting in Mississippi. We were laughing, slapping our knees and, enjoying the story.

Then, it occurred to me…

I turned to my students and asked, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we brought storytellers, like Clower, to Jonesborough to tell stories together?”

Well, the idea just floated away, but the vision of a storytelling event in Jonesborough kept tugging at me. So, I met with the town leaders and said, “Why don’t we have a storytelling festival?”

They were puzzled. “What’s that?”

“Well,” I said, “Let me tell you about my dream.

“I dream of a world where we honor and celebrate our stories, our storytellers, and our storytelling traditions,” I told them. “But, our stories, our oral traditions, are dying, and we must save that important piece of our humanity.

“And, besides, we might be able to celebrate our community’s stories and bring tourists to Jonesborough to rebuild the town’s economy.”

The town leaders liked the idea.

“Now,” they said, “you do it.”

So, without any book of instructions or how-to guide, I created the first National Storytelling Festival.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in October of 1973, my neighbors and I rolled an old farm wagon into Courthouse Square in the heart of Historic Jonesborough, and around that wagon, we told stories.

There were only 60 listeners. But it was magical, and we knew it would happen again and again. My dream was coming true.

In October of this year, the Festival celebrated its 43rd anniversary, and 10,000 people crowded into my tiny Tennessee hometown to listen to and tell stories.

Sure. Stories have been told since the beginning of human language. In libraries. At folk festivals. In ancient ceremonies. Around the dinner table.
But the National Storytelling Festival was the first public event, anywhere in the world, dedicated exclusively to showcasing the world’s stories, storytellers, and storytelling traditions.

And something else happened that day.

Around that old farm wagon in Courthouse Square, the Storytelling Revival was born, and during the past four decades, this cultural phenomenon has spread throughout America and the world.

More and more people across the globe began to gain an awareness and appreciation for the art and ancient tradition of storytelling, new storytelling festivals and conferences were popping up across the world, and the emergence of the professional storyteller was bringing recognition to storytelling as an art form.

The organization that would become the International Storytelling Center was founded in 1975, two years after the first festival, and, in 2002, the International Storytelling Center opened in Jonesborough, Tennessee—the first facility anywhere in the world dedicated to the art and tradition of storytelling.

Today, my dream has come true. The world is honoring our stories, and Jonesborough is a restored living community and considered the Storytelling Capital of the World.