Sen. Lamar Alexander visited Jonesborough Friday to help Tennessee’s first town kick off its 40th annual National Storytelling Festival with a couple of short stories of his own told from the hay wagon at the side of the courthouse where the festival’s first tales were told 40 years ago this weekend.
Welcoming Alexander to Jonesborough’s original storytelling stage, Mayor Kelly Wolfe and the festival’s founder Jimmy Neil Smith thanked the senator and former Tennessee governor for his decades of support for storytelling and for the festival that has made Jonesborough known around the world.
“From his governorship until now, he’s been a consistent supporter of storytelling and a guest at our festivals. And he’s told a few stories at each of his visits, most often at our Swapping Ground, but today at the spot where our first tales were told,” Smith said.
Sharing the story of that first festival day in October 1973, Smith said there were about 60 people gathered around the wagon to listen to the tales of the late great storyteller Ray Hicks, a couple “after-dinner speakers” and one well-spoken congressman from Arkansas.
Hicks was the only professional storyteller featured at the festival that year, Smith said. And in that era, he was one of only a few to be found anywhere. In the four decades that have passed since then, storytelling has evolved into a widely celebrated form of art and the festival has grown to include more than two dozen nationally known tellers.
Standing in the storied wagon for only a few minutes, Alexander shared a couple of “lessons in humility” he’s learned as a politician and more from two of Tennessee’s most beloved storytellers, “Roots” author Alex Haley and the late country comic, Minnie Pearl.
As it was with Pearl, Alexander said his celebrity in Tennessee has had its moments. Sharing one of his favorites from “a wonderful storyteller whose stories often had the virtue of being true,” he said Pearl once told him she was on an elevator at the Opryland Hotel when a gentleman commented, “I bet a lot of people have told you you look like Minnie Pearl.” And when he received her confirmation, the man went on to wager, “I bet it makes you mad.”
For that one, Alexander swapped a tale of a tongue-tied clerk at a store on Nashville’s Lamar Alexander Parkway who asked him, “Did they name you after this road?” He also told of a man he encountered in Murfreesboro who upon learning he was indeed Lamar Alexander told him, “You sure don’t favor yourself.”
But it was Haley, “the greatest storyteller Tennessee has ever produced,” who “began stitching together his stories of Kunta Kinte” while listening to tales told on the porch of his grandparents’ home near Henning, who Alexander said told him he should learn to tell stories after listening to him speak.
On the engaging value of storytelling and its powers of making a point, Alexander said truth isn’t found in the embellished details of a story but in the whole story the teller intends to tell.
“Tennessee is a special place and we like to celebrate what is special about us. What you do here in Jonesborough is a lot of fun for all of us,” Alexander said.