Storytelling Festival founder to retire

Sue Guinn Legg • Dec 3, 2012 at 10:14 PM

Jonesborough storytelling festival founder Jimmy Neil Smith announced his retirement Monday, forty years after he had the idea for the first fest.

In 1972, the Jonesborough native was teaching at Science Hill High School and driving a car load of journalism students to Elizabethton to have their school newspaper printed when he was struck by a revolutionizing idea.

The late Jerry Clower was at the height of his career and on the radio telling one of his comic stories about life in the rural South. The troupe was well entertained and laughing when Smith turned to his students and remarked, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have storytellers like Jerry Clower come to Jonesborough to tell stories.”

Smith’s beloved hometown was in a state of decline and at the beginning of the long course of revitalization that would turn the borough into one of the region’s most popular tourists stops. Jonesborough was in need of a fall festival and Smith, who would later be elected to four terms on the town’s board of mayor and aldermen, presented his idea to the Civic Trust.

“They liked my idea and they told me, “Now you do it.’ ” he recalls. And so he did.

 The following October, Clower performed before a packed gymnasium at the then new David Crockett High School in prelude to what is believed to be the world’s first storytelling festival.

Staged the next morning from a hay wagon on Jonesborough’s courthouse square, there were only six storytellers and about 60 listeners present, Smith said, “but that was the festival that ignited a storytelling revolution that began here and spread across the world.”

Forty years later and forty Jonesborough storytelling festivals later, similar festivals are held the world over. Storytelling has become a profession and is not only prevalent in performance venues but in education, in health care and in various other fields. There are storytelling guilds and storytelling networks. And in Jonesborough, there’s an iconic a $3.5 million International Storytelling Center that will soon transfer to town ownership.

On Monday, the nonprofit International Storytelling Center organization that built the center and recently emerged from bankruptcy with a restructuring plan that will allow to continue its annual festival in Jonesborough, announced Smith’s retirement and lauded him for his accomplishments.

“Jimmy Neil has helped spearhead a movement that has had far-reaching and profound impact on many people’s lives and it will continue to evolve in innovative and unexpected ways long into the future,” Jim Reel, chairman of ISC’s Board of Governors, said.

Smith’s retirement will become effective Jan. 1 but his work with the ISC will continue, part-time and under contract in the organization’s new grant funded collaboration with the East African nation of Comoros.

“I am retiring from the ISC but not from work,” Smith said. “I remain committed to my role in the advancement of storytelling both in Jonesborough and across the world.”

Funded in part by the U.S. State Department grant, Smith said the project’s purpose is to help Comoros document and share the oral history of its culture through a community storytelling program at its National Museum.

While the project will take Smith and a team of ISC collaborators on at least a couple of excursions to Comoros, he said his home and his work will remain in Jonesborough.

“I love this town and I love what it stands for. I have no intention of leaving and I will be setting up some small enterprises … all in storytelling, doing things I always wanted to do but couldn’t,” he said.

“I can’t tell you what that is yet, but I’m going to be working as hard as I’ve ever worked.”

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