Barbara McBride-Smith, copyright Tom Raymond, Fresh Air PhotographicsMarch might seem early to be thinking about a festival in early October, but it’s actually getting on the late side for the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It’s not that you can’t get tickets after March — you can buy tickets opening day on October 3rd. But good luck finding a hotel room.

The National Storytelling Festival started out in 1973 with less than 60 people, storytellers included, on a stage of hay bales and wagons in tiny, picturesque Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town. It now attracts well over ten thousand visitors — you might call them devotees — every first weekend of October.

The tellers vary by year and are the last word in diverse. There’s Barbara McBride-Smith, an Oklahoma school librarian who hands out fairy tales and Greek myths with an unmistakable and hilarious Texas twist. Charlie Chin enthralls with his Chinese fables, creating elaborate settings using only a fan and a chair. Cuban-born, Georgia-raised Carmen Deedy tells stories that pull tears of joy and sorrow easily from her audiences. And Kathryn Windham, a Southern lady to the core, who in her late 80s is now storytelling’s grande dame.

Tejumolo Ologboni, featured 2008 storyteller, copyright Tom Raymond, Fresh Air PhotographicsWith the exceptions of tellers such as Kathryn Windham, the storytellers vary every year, and pull from famed storytelling talent all over the world. Many of the tellers reappear at international festivals, such as that held every year in Graz, Austria.

The National Storytelling Festival has been consistently named one of America’s top 100 events. I’ve never experienced anything like it for pulling you out of yourself. Listening to live storytelling becomes a journey within a journey, reminding you of what makes your heart truly tick with joy, sorrow, and wonder.

(Photos courtesy of the International Storytelling Center, copyright Tom Raymond, Fresh Air Photographics.)