By Sam Burnham
This weekend I was able to attend two parts of a weekend long storytelling convention. It's an old tradition, 240 years to be exact, so long as you believe the claims of the organizers of a fibbing competition.
This was the second year I have been able to attend portions of this event. It is put on by the Ridge & Valley Storytelling Guild, of which I am ever so slightly affiliated. My friend Terrell Shaw, with whom I find common ground on many things as long as none of them are political, spearheads this effort every year and, as with most everything he organizes, it is delightful.
One of the great Southern traditions is storytelling. Centuries before European settlers found their way to the region, inhabitants of The South were gathered around the fire, telling stories. The legends, the myths, the truths, they all combined in different mixtures of the ingredients to form oral traditions that would be passed down from generation to generation. Creation myths, tales of great hunts and harvests, explanations of the colors of sun and sky, the boasts of family members long gone. Storytelling was more than entertainment. It transferred their society, their entire understanding of the world, from the mouth of the elders to the ears of the heirs. In such a system, not only are the stories themselves important, but the ability to tell them is essential to pass on as well. For if a generation has to knowledge but not the means of transfer, the knowledge is dead.
That tradition did not change with the arrival of the Europeans. Though many of the stories were written down and are even now turned into movies and television shows, a story given live by a talented teller gives you the opportunity to connect with the tale. There's a human component that makes it somehow more real. It elevates the experience to an almost spiritual level as it takes us back to roots that we have forgotten - the days when movies, television, and even books were but vestiges of a yet to be experienced age.
One of the greatest components of the weekend is the Debby Brown YoungTales Story Competition. Named for an incredible storyteller, gone too soon, this contest features tellers under the age of 17. At this point the pride of a dad comes in as my own son participated in this contest. He told a great story and made a great showing and has no need to be ashamed for not winning as these kids are a credit to their craft. I was amazed at the quality of the tales and the way they were told. They weren't good storytellers for their age. They were good storytellers, period. It's a credit to the work of Terrell Shaw and the Ridge & Valley Tellers and their work in our area schools to share this craft with the youngsters.
The other portion of the weekend I attended was the finale. Those in attendance were treated with reprises of the stories given by the winners of the Big Fibbers as well as the YoungTales competitions. And then the guest star of the weekend, Georgia storyteller, Andy Offutt Irwin, regaled us with a number of stories that were brilliantly tied together to flow as one. It was a mini-epic (work with me here) about members of his family that left people grateful to be Southern and over 40. That's not to say that foreigners or youngsters weren't amused, as they obviously were, but he really drew out pieces of our memory that we may have forgotten, the names were different but he was telling stories that we had seen acted out by our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. He connected with the audience so profoundly that we didn't hear the story, we experienced it. It was worth far more than the price of admission.
Storytelling is alive and well. Chances are, there's an opportunity to experience it near you soon. If you've never sat and took in a story from a live teller and allowed them to immerse you in their tale, do it. It is part of who you are, a part of your past that you may have lost contact with. But once you have allowed it to reconnect, you'll wonder where it has been all your life.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire