Thursday, October 03, 2013

41st Annual National Storytelling Festival (Head Start Wednesday)

From the 41st National Storytelling Festival
Jonesborough, Tennessee
Storytelling Live!
Storyteller in Residence
Donald Davis
Wednesday, October 2, 2013

As usual we were later leaving than we intended. Sheila had work to do. Telephone conference. E-mails to respond to. Nose to the grindstone all morning and until 2. She took occasional breaks to throw clothes into the suitcase.

I was at the grocery store and the credit union (our bank), then off getting the car fueled and washed.

By the time I had made a last check of the doors - especially the refrigerator doors - and pottied one last time, we were all packed up and headed out the driveway in our new-to-us red 2010 Camry Hybrid. The dashboard clock read 2:41. Google says Jonesborough is over four hours away.

At 2:42 Sheila remembered that the Zip-lock bag of Festival tickets, hotel reservation form, and parking tags was still lying on a shelf in the kitchen.

And we were headed out the driveway in our new-to-us red 2010 Camry Hybrid. The dashboard clock read 2:48. Did I mention Google says Jonesborough is over four hours away?

All gassed up we can drive there and back without refuelling. Bladder breaks are usually more frequent, but this time it’s GA 53 to GA 140 to I 75 to I 40 to I 26 to Boone’s Creek Road, Jonesborough. No pauses. 

We park at the White House on College Street, as always, and join the other folk strolling down the steep hill toward the gleaming big white circus tents, first the empty College Street tent then the crowded Library tent. 

There’s Donald, resplendant in gold shirt and bowtie, talking through a wide smile to the folks milling about the entrance. The tent is pretty crowded for this pre-festival event, but we make our way  to the very front and find seats there way to the side, but with a clear view of the microphone. 

We took a selfie before the program started.

Here's a blurry pic that gives a better idea of the tent and crowd.

After a brief introduction from the emcee, the Dean of American Storytellers grabbed a mike and the ears of several hundred listeners and didn’t let go for ninety minutes. I wouldn’t have complained if he’d held on another hour.

He started right out letting us know what we were in for. He’s a retired Methodist preacher, after all, and that’s a common preacherly way to start out, you know: tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ‘em, then remind ‘em what you told ‘em. He explained that these were a new set of old stories he had never told before. I liked the idea that this was a World Premiere. And that they were the stories he had learned storytelling on.

 “When you are just learning to play guitar,” declares Donald, “you don’t write your own music!” 

These stories date from the days before he even knew they were stories. It was just called visiting then. 

The stories were in three roughly thirty-minute chapters, one for each of three uncles, Grover, Gudger, and, everybody’s favorite, Frank.

Uncle Grover was the elder of Donald’s daddy’s brothers -- 17 years older! And he was the teacher of 16 children, eight of whom were his siblings! First day of the school year he had each child pick out a hickory branch his own height, trim it good, and carve his initials in it with a pocket knife. With those switches lined up against the building as a reminder, most of them remained unused through the year.

There was quite an adventure when the boys caught a feral cat in their rabbit gum and put it in the school’s cold pot-bellied stove after Grover had “laid a fire” for the next day. When Grover tried to light the fire the next morning? That cat nearly killed him. But he kept his cool, and cancelled school till he solved the crime. (Frank was the culprit.)
Grover “read” law, and passed the bar exam with only one missed question. As a solititor (procecutor) he traveled a circuit. 

Once he had transmission trouble in his Model T and a passing stranger hooked his horse to the bumper and helped him over the hill. As luck would have it the stranger turned out to be a moonshiner/defendant in one of the trials that afternoon. When the judge asked the miscreant if he had a character witness, you guessed it, he called on Grover, who said that was his only occasion to represent both sides in a trial.

I’m not sure how we got to next story of Uncle Alfred Jolly who made, sold, and drank more whiskey than anyone else in Haywood County. When he got religion, his bushy beard got in the way of the baptizing, and somehow his lips missed the cleansing, which led to some major Methodist-style backsliding.

Next came Uncle Gudger, who just died last year at 102. Gudher’s first wife was a sister to Frank and Grover. As a recent widower at seventy or so, Gudger declared he’d have to marry one of the local widows just to get rid of the rest. At 8 Gudger had taked his mama into letting him bring home a runt kitten.

The thing grew so fast under their care that they named it Haywood County. This story grew into a great tall tale that I’ll probably steal for some of my own lies, er, stories before long. Punch line: “Here came that cat carrying its head in its mouth!”

And then there was the snake that stuck its head through the fence and swallowed a rabbit. Then it stuck its head back through the fence to swallow another rabbit on the other side. Whoops.

Finally there was the youngest of the many David brothers, Frank, who believed that if it didn’t take longer to tell a story than it took the story to happen, it wasn’t much of a story. Everybody knows about Uncle Frank’s famous Foxhound, Rainy Weather. (I tell my version of that story, and have to credit Donald, since I keep most of his particulars under different names.) But this story was about how Frank, who was a local politician, kept folks votes while also keeping them from hunting on his property.

Frank taught Donald how to stomp mud puddles dry, to the consternation of Mrs. Davis.

And Frank sure knows how to discourage college boys from the dangerous practice of hitchhiking. “Law, yeah, [at the state pen], they make you WORK!” That boy is probably still crawling through Kudzu.

Donald ended up, of course reminding us that he had told us about only three of his uncles, and there are more stories about those three, and there are enough more uncles, not to mention aunts,  to keep him talking a long time, but he reckoned he’d stop there.

Donald Davis is a wonderfully creative storyteller, with a warm comic style. My girls grew up on Donald Davis tapes. I don’t know if he has changed or if I have just grown to know him better, but his style seems truer, less presentational, than it did to me years ago. I love his stories.

Last year I used his DVD, Make It. Tell It. Write It. with my students. I’d show a short clip of Donald, we kept “Trouble Lists” in our writing notebooks, and I told my “trouble” stories and the kids told theirs and eventually we wrote them down. It is the best and simplest children’s creative writing program I know of -- and the kids don’t even know it’s a writing class. It’s their Storytelling Club.

If you ever get a chance to see Donald Davis in person, don’t miss it. Meanwhile you can find a few clips on YouTube and you can buy his CDs and DVDs online.

Tonight’s Pre-festival concert is musical. it features Tim O’Brien. Tomorow morning Sheila and I will be under one of the BigTops when the real National Storytelling Festival kicks off at ten. Now the always agonizing question - which tent? There are five wonderful choices.

Tomorrow’s blog: 
Who in the world is Tim O’Brien and what is the Party Line?

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