The Storytelling Revival in the United States

Published in Tantagora, Spain’s Storytelling Magazine, October 2007

From time to time, waves arise out of the cultural sea. They make a run for it and often are dashed against an out-cropping of the harder historical reality. But sometimes, just sometimes, they run beneath the surface long enough that they clear all local obstructions and have a good long ride across the ocean of time, unlikely rides that then take hold and become historical movements.

In the USA, in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was just such a sea change with diverse movements arising out of the general culture…each encouraging and strengthening the other in what became known variously as “the folk scene,” ”back to the land,”  “the “hippie movement,” and “the 60s.” The storytelling revival in the USA was a part of that cultural wave.

Some observers date the beginning of the US storytelling revival to one specific folk festival held in the tiny town of Jonesborough in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee in October 1973. The inspiration of the town mayor, Jimmy Neil Smith, the first National Storytelling Festival drew 60 people, storytellers and listeners combined, sitting on bales of hay and listening to old time stories under the Tennessee sky. This event set the stage for what has grown to an annual festival which attracts over 10,000 people. Out of that festival grew an organization, the National Storytelling Association, which now has two branches: the National Storytelling Network, a membership organization focused on storytellers (www.storynet.org), and the International Storytelling Center, focused on the power of storytelling itself and its many applications in the world (www.storytellingcenter.com).  Many believe that the early and on-going work of this organization sparked the storytelling renaissance.

Other people who have studied the history of storytelling in the late twentieth century say it grew naturally out of the revival of interest in folk music and folk arts in general which began in the 1950s and found its flowering and transformation in the “hippie” movement of the 1960s. The American culture had become very “corporate,” dominated by business, materialism, and conformity. In the mid 1950s there was an upwelling of resistance to this  “buttoned-down” and “plastic-fantastic” vision of life. Individual expression flowered. The renewed interest in the folk arts brought the music and the stories out of the countryside and into the mainstream.

The rise in popularity of storytelling itself began in the 1970’s. When Diane Wolkstein, one of the pioneers of the revival in the US, began telling stories as New York City’s “Official Storyteller”  in 1967, she didn’t know anyone else, other than librarians, who were doing it. Laura Simms and others who were those original “professional” tellers say they, too, felt alone. One of America’s most famous storytellers, Jay O”Callahan, writes, “the early days were full of discovering gifted artists; Diane Wolkstein, Laura Simms, Jackie Torrance, Ed Stivender, Connie Regan-Blake, Brother Blue. . .so many when I  had thought I was alone!”

Milbre Burch, one of the greatest of the  ”second generation” of  American storytellers says, “The conferences and festivals in Jonesborough were like storytelling camp for the next generation of tellers. A wonderful crucible of community”.

The National Storytelling Festival brought together tellers and listeners. The organization that grew around it provided a center for the movement, networking opportunities, and inspiration for the formation of other organizations across the country which sponsored concerts, other festivals and conferences.  There are dozens of regional organizations  such as  LANES (League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling : www.lanes.org) and the Northlands Storytelling Network, (www.northlands.net) in the  upper mid-west states); there are hundreds of local organizations such as the New York Storytelling Center, founded in 1982 by Laura Simms, Gioia Timpanelli, and Diane Wolkstein, (www.storytelling-nyc.org).  And, of course,  there are festivals, large and small, across the USA.

In the past few years, the National Storytelling Network has sponsored SIGS (Special Interest Groups) which are devoted to specific aspects of storytelling such as storytelling in higher education, business, youth storytelling, etc. (www.storynet.org/Programs/SIGs/)  One of the most active is The Healing Story Alliance (www.healingstory.org), which has an ongoing discussion on the power of story to heal both individuals and  communities. These SIGS are now holding conferences of their own.

There has also been another wave in the storytelling revival in the US in the past decade, the emergence of interest in telling and listening to stories by young, “hip,” urban professionals. This is best exemplified by The Moth (www.themoth.org), which hosts theme-based story “slams” and story concerts in New York, San Francisco, and other urban centers. The stories are generally original and “personal,”  not from the folk tradition; the storytellers are not professional performers, but more likely bankers or lawyers.  This new wave of storytelling is extremely popular and has given rise to many discussions in the storytelling community on what, “exactly,” IS storytelling! It certainly has come a long way from folks sitting on bales of straw  under a Tennessee moon listening to “old timey” stories of “haints and haunts.”

Whether the movement spread out from the Jonesborogh festival and NSN, or whether NSN and the festival gave a focus and opportunity for networking to the far-flung, often solitary storytellers, it is agreed that the storytelling movement gained momentum due to the inspiration and ongoing work of NSN. But just as the US is a vast country with diverse cultures, both indigenous and immigrant (long established and new), the storytelling “renaissance” here has deep roots and very diverse fruits.


posted on June 9th, 2012
written by reginaress

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