What Is Storytelling?
Storytelling, an art that predates written history, is one of the earliest forms of human communication. Although the importance of storytelling is often underestimated, the late Southern writer Reynolds Price expressed: “A need to hear and tell stories is essential to human beings, second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.” Storytelling obviously is not limited to the American South as the National Storytelling Network illustrates -- almost every state has an association. However, the power, intimacy and skills of storytelling in the South are unsurpassed.
Storytelling is not simple. It requires imagination, narrative, and interaction; in addition, if often depends on non-verbal communication and expressions. In fact, storytelling can be a high art form. For example, East Tennessee State University offers a master’s degree in storytelling. Other regional universities also offer programs, such as the storytelling project of Florida Atlantic University that seeks to advance the knowledge, appreciation and application of storytelling through classes, workshops, and outreach programs. Some programs focus on specific objectives, such as The Storytelling Project at UNC-Greensboro that focuses on teaching tolerance to kids of all ages (one story at a time) and uses storytelling to foster respect for diversity.
Types of Storytelling
Unlike the South, in some regions storytelling fell out of favor, particularly as the written word and printed material were used to share information. If storytelling survived, it was typically limited to library story hours and young children. However, the South is well known for its many stories where stretching the truth is not a vice — sometimes:
- Tall tales, often known as Jack tales that are very popular in Appalachian folklore, are familiar traditions. Usually centered on a weak, sometimes foolish, but usually kind character, these tales are oral traditions (as opposed to written). Many also trace back to sources in England.
- Folk tales with a moral often have animals as main characters. Probably the best known stories of the South are the Uncle Remus tales
recorded by Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908), who was born in Georgia on a plantation where he served as an apprentice. The stories represent dialect tales that Harris had heard from slaves before he became a well-known writer for the Atlanta Constitution. Such tales often feature a trickster animal (Br’er Rabbit) that disobeys normal rules and succeeds through wit rather than strength or authority. Connected to storytelling traditions with roots in Africa, these animal tales, seemingly stories of simple entertainment, suggest more complex lessons about the value of cunning and escape from submission.
- Myths and legends, brought forward from native American, African, and European traditions, are also common in the South. Ghost stories, such as “A Christmas Haunting,” are also prominent, and their characters are not limited to humans, such as the legend of Joeabb the frog.
- Other family, church, and community tales are often great attention grabbers.
Storytelling Circles and Networks
Storytelling, by preserving the heritage of the region, serves as a bridge between families, generations and areas; reaches across barriers of age, gender, wealth and race; and provides the foundation for meaningful connections that in others cultures may be lost. Obviously, the South would be the preferred site for an international storytelling event, and it’s the home of the International Storytelling Center, located in Jonesboro, Tenn., which conducts a festival each October (attended by more than 10,000 people). It also sponsors “tellers”-in-residence from May to October.
Many states in the South have statewide guilds and local storytelling circles. North Carolina is a prime example with a statewide guild, circles in cities such as Asheville, and groups with a specific cultural focus such as the N.C. Association of Black Storytellers. In fact, North Carolina is also the home of the Storytelling Arts Center of the Southeast, which sponsors a regional festival each spring with workshops and performances, a liars’ showdown (with a maxim of “where lying through your teeth is an art”) in January, and a fall festival in October with music and storytelling. Another example of a state with a strong storytelling network is South Carolina. Often these networks and events capture the attention of regional media as illustrated by the festival report of the North Carolina statewide television network.
When I participated in the Liars’ Showdown, my tale of a talking collard plant (that lied) was representative of the traditional Southern tall tale. Held at the Storytelling Arts Center of the Southeast in Laurinburg, NC, the event featured storytellers from throughout North Carolina (including Asheville, Cary, Hickory, Marshville, Monroe, Raleigh, Saint Pauls, Waxhaw, and West End) as well as South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Other participants told tales about a Greyhound bus that flew to Africa, false teeth in a mud puddle that ate fried chicken during a tent revival, moon rocks found in a cow pasture, and a boy who could swallow an ocean. The regional talent is almost as good as the national storyteller such as Suzi Whaples of West Virginia who receives top billing.
The rich tradition of storytelling has an unlimited future in the South. Although it predates written history, storytelling will never be out-of-date even in the era of digital communications. Because it features imagination, intimacy, and interaction that the Internet cannot offer, storytelling – with its strengths in combining culture, history, arts, and humor and emphasizing the importance of community and the power of family – will be a significant part of Southern culture for a long time.