Back for the 46th year, here’s the unlikely story of how the National Storytelling Festival began.


This weekend, a 46 year-old tradition will return to Jonesborough, Tennessee.

The National Storytelling Festival will bring people from around the world to the Northeast Tennessee town where an international movement began.

“When we tell our stories, we are communicating incredible things,” said Kiran Singh Sirah is the Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center.

It’s a simple truth that sparked an remarkable idea back in the fall of 1973.

Jimmy Neal Smith was a high school teacher at the time, and he got an idea while listening to comedian Jerry Clower on the radio.

“I thought – why not a fall festival, centered around storytelling?” Smith said.

Jonesborough town leaders liked the idea.   Smith acquired a farm wagon and had it and some hay bales hauled into the parking lot beside the Mail Pouch Building, an 1880’s era building next to the courthouse in downtown Jonesborough.

“I was looking for anyone who could tell a story,” Smith said.   

“Some one told me I had to get a man named Ray Hicks,” Smith said.  Hicks was a teller from the mountains of Western North Carolina who went on to be a fixture of the fesitval and a National Heritage Award winner.

By chance, someone video recorded the first festival.   And there’s a photo too of Hicks on the farm wagon.

Smith says no one dreamed that the festival would explode in popularity, that Jonesborough would become home of the International Storytelling Center (just around the corner from the Mail Pounch parking lot), and that Jonesborough one day would be regarded as the epicenter of a global storytelling movement.

“He created an event but he boldly called it the National Storytelling Festival,” Sirah said.  “It created a movement.  People came.  It was before social media.”

“We expected people to come, and they did,” Smith said.  “100. 200. 400.  A thousand.  And finally it grew to 10,000.”

In Jonesborough, people from around the planet return every year to acknowledge what inspired Jimmy Neal Smith in 1973 – the fact that storytelling – as common across cultures as breathing air – was as vital as the air we breath.  It’s an art form worth celebrating, and Jonesborough seems to be the perfect place to hold the party.

“Here was the first place that really framed it and created a space that could celebrate it in its full beauty,” Sirah said.

The 46th Annual National Storytelling Festival is Friday October 4th through Sunday October 6th in Jonesborough.   Some events require tickets. 

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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