I offered to let a girl call Jesse stay with me for three months, she emailed from New York State, except when she arrived ‘she’ was a he, Jesse; a man’s name in America. He introduced me to his father, Richard, who was a great raconteur and newly single. Richard said he was attending a ‘Story Telling Festival’ in Tennessee, would I like to go?
I didn’t make it that year, but twelve months later, I boarded a plane in Bristol, final destination Tennessee, for the 39th Festival, in Jonesborough, the oldest town in the state.
Descending the escalator in Syracuse, New York, I spotted Richard and Jesse, patiently waiting, my last connection had been delayed by an hour. Undiminished, on spotting me, they stood to attention, saluted me and played ‘Rule Britannia’ on imaginary trumpets.
What a welcome.
That weekend Richard and I drove through Pennsylvania and Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains to the left of me; skimmed Maryland and set up camp just outside Jonesborough.
The middle of the town was closed to vehicles so we were able to wander freely in the warm balmy southern state. Shops stayed open late, cafes and restaurants overflowed with happy unhurried people, making new friends, meeting up with old ones.
Four marquees housed the story tellers, and there were six sessions in each tent, running from 10 am to 8pm, with a half hour between each session. I came across Bill Lepp on the second session I chose. He is the funniest man I have ever encountered, tall stories stretched thin as a bored hooligan’s bubble gum, I laughed till I cried and thereafter followed him through the sessions like a good groupie should.
On Saturday evening a session entitled ‘William’s Tell’ kept us in town. It began at 8pm. Three Wills; Willy Clafin, Bill Harley and Bill Lepp had us rolling in our seats, with stories of wild camping trips, encounters with devilish horses and ‘The American Way’. Willy Clafin brought along Maynard Moose, a broad talking hand puppet who gave us a new slant on an old fable. In Maynard’s version of The Ant and The Grasshopper, though the ants work and the grasshopper fiddles all summer, when winter comes, the ants’ store of food gets first soaked and then frozen, rendering it inedible, whilst the grasshopper finds himself in demand to play at folk’s houses, since they are snowbound.
“We’ll give you food and shelter if you entertain us through this dark winter,” beg the folk in the town.
Meanwhile, the poor ants are starving and beg the insect to teach them to play the fiddle so that they too can survive the snowy season.
“You should have thought of that in the summer,” says grasshopper.
Lyn Ford wove home spun wisdom with a multi cultural slant, drawing on her African, American Indian background. Gently spoken, with bright animated smiles I listened with a slightly sardonic British ear for all of ten minutes, then found myself smiling and nodding, English reserve dissolving like alka seltzer in the presence of this warm unassuming lady.
The festival was over all too quickly, and after a long saunter around the historic and pretty town, we decamped and I said my farewells.
However, it’s the 40th anniversary of this popular event next year, so I didn’t say goodbye, I whispered a soft ‘au revoir’ into the southern breeze and vowed to return.