Storytelling in Appalachia is as old as the mountains — well, not quite. But before newspapers, radio, television, Internet, and other forms of social media, rural folks gathered together around wood stoves, front porches, hunting campfires, church steps, garden fences, barn dances, quilting circles, general stores, and anywhere country people congregated to hear stories; both fiction and nonfiction tales.
Spoken stories served the purpose of informing, entertaining, educating, sharing, and passing down beliefs, values, and ideas to younger generations. Children learned to listen by listening to storytellers and the stories. Children learned to communicate by retelling stories and creating their own narratives.
According to Ohio Arts Council, “Traditionally, storytelling has been the mechanism for maintaining a culture’s collective memory. Major events were held in memory by an oral historian who retold the highlights over and over, keeping the event alive generation after generation. Other stories taught proper social interaction or explained spiritual principles and creation.” www.oac.ohio.gov/.
Despite technological devices, oral storytelling in Appalachia is experiencing a revival of the traditional mixed with the modern. Storytelling festivals and competitions can be found in many Appalachian areas.
The Appalachian Ohio Storytelling Project is out of Athens, Ohio. Kentucky is home to the Cave Run Storytelling Festival near the town of Morehead. The West Virginia Storytelling Guild teaches storytelling and “grows new storytellers and story listeners.” Jonesborough, Tennessee, is home to the International Storytelling Center. The Stone Soup Storytelling Institute in South Carolina hosts the Stone Soup Storytelling Festival. Georgia hosts the Azalea Storytelling Festival. Virginia is home to the Culpeper Tells Storytelling Festival.
However, many Appalachians incorporate the art of storytelling into everyday conversations — and they’re not aware it. Many times I’ve heard individuals preface what factual and nonfiction information they want to share as, “I have a story to tell you” or “Let me tell you a story” or “Oh! Listen to my story.” My own relatives preface dialogue this way and so do I. I’ve lived outside of Appalachia, and this discussion introduction is distinct to the Appalachian region. I find it to be cultural as well as delightful.
“In Appalachia, we tell our stories not only on front porches and around kitchen tables but also in the aisles of the local Walmart and the waiting rooms of hospitals. We tell tales in our gardens while we hoe beans or far back in the deepest coal mines. Often they are stories of nostalgia, for we are a people always mourning the past. Always holding tight to the old ways, grieving because we know how easily things can slip away forever. But just as often our stories are rooted in the modern world and told in increasingly modern ways: on laptops, blogs, social media, digital cameras, in texts and videos.” That’s what writer Roger May composed in his online magazine entitled The Bitter Southerner.
This is your homework. Listen to your Appalachian family, relatives, friends, and coworkers to see if they introduce conversations with a phrase to talk about daily happenings and events.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in southern Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.