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Notes from Jonesborough

Herman & Marguerite

Tools or Tales?



Notes from Jonesborough


The National Storytelling Festival is one of the wonderful events of the year. I was telling at the last festival and Saturday night I had just finished telling both The Herring Shed and Father Joe. I told in the Railroad Tent and there must have been 1400 people there. Both stories are very important to me. My dear friend, Connie Regan-Blake was the MC, and she introduced my wife, Linda, and my children, and had them stand up before the performance.

After the performance, a fellow shook my hand and said, "I'm Fraser Marsh from the National Endowment for the Arts." The two of us took a walk down the main street trying to find a place with some hot cider. Failing that, we started up the hill to the Kennedy's where I always stay. I wasn't sure what this fellow would think about Jonesborough. I've had two NEA encounters, one wonderful, and one awful. In the awful, the fellow felt there is no place for hope or joy in drama.

As we walked up the hill on the brick sidewalk, Fraser Marsh turned to me and said, "I didn't know this existed. It's like Brigadoon." He had hit the nail on the head. It is like Brigadoon.

On one weekend a year people all over the country are drawn to a town in the Appalachian hills, to Jonesborough. It's as if a whisper goes out over the land..."Come, there will be beauty, tragedy, magic...come..." And people arrive by the thousands. The great tents are up, the seats filled, the tellers telling. And on Sunday afternoon, like Brigadoon, it disappears.

We went up and had hot chocolate with Bill and Virginia Kennedy, and Fraser asked some of the questions he needed to ask.

Fraser was impressed not just with the festival, but with the town itself. Bill Kennedy has a great deal to do with keeping the town beautiful and authentic. It takes a real commitment because of the power of some of the big chains. They have enough money and power to push their way into most places. But Jonesborough remains lovely. Bill and Virginia Kennedy have gone to every festival except for the first, when they were busy moving into their house. Bill is an orthopedic surgeon. Both Bill and Virginia are extremely busy and creative people. They are really both artists. They're deeply steeped in music and sing in a choir every week. Virginia makes marvelous quilts. Bill has a clear vision of what Jonesborough can be and is doing all that he can to keep it the beautiful town that it is.

Fraser Marsh and I walked down the hill afterwards, shook hands, and he was off into the darkness. I stood alone, and off to my right in the Railroad Tent, I could hear Ed Stivender singing "Yankee Come Home". The whole crowd was singing it. Ed's songs have become some of my favorites in the world.

The day had been long and I needed to walk. So I walked through Jonesborough. I walked down the main street and on past the Visitors Center, past the fire station, and finally out to the highway to the Shell station. It's a large gasoline station, and there are seats inside where you can have some crackers and milk. I sat down and just thought about Jonesborough for a while.

I was so tired that I left by the wrong door. I stood there facing the highway, and to my left Hardee's sign was red and almost ferocious. I was confused. I was tired enough to wonder where I was.

Suddenly, I felt I had lost Brigadoon. It had disappeared into the mist.

I went back into the Shell station and used the door I had come in. I ran down the sloping sidewalk, saw the fire station and knew I was on my way back to Brigadoon. It was a strange, disconcerting moment.

Happily back on the dark, quiet street of Jonesborough, I went to the Railroad Tent and listened to Ed Stivender tell "The Gift of the Magi." Sitting there with 1400 other people at 11:00 at night, I realized Jonesborough and this national festival are a great gift to us all.



Herman & Marguerite


Finally it's here! The book of Herman & Marguerite. It's been a long saga. I'm very excited that the book is finally out. I think you'll love the collage work my daughter, Laura O'Callahan, has done. And hopefully you'll never look at worms in quite the same way again.

My thanks to Margaret Quinlan, the publisher, for her daring and kindness. And my deep thanks to Carmen Deedy, who got Margaret to listen to my stories.



Tools or Tales?


When my daughter was in high school, she was upset that everyone was being conditioned to perform a role. I think she had an insight into a technological society. We begin to see ourselves simply as tools. We perform a number of roles and do them well, and that's the way we look at life. But we're much more than parents or doctors or teachers or librarians or bakers or delivery people.

If we see ourselves simply as tools, as performers of functions, then we lose sight of our history, of beauty, of the importance of being silly and frivolous at times. Thomas Merton once wrote that being a monk was important because monks did nothing of value.

Walt Whitman not only gave pleasure to a great many people with his poetry, but he made his readers see that the smallest things in life are filled with beauty and mystery so deep that we know we can never fully touch it. At the same time, he felt it was important to laze about a bit. Whitman felt it was important to watch and to lounge and to relax, to laugh and to dance. We are beings in a universe that is alive with creativity, with wonder. Rocks are wonders, trees are wonders, and so are we. Wanna dance?


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