Connie Regan-Blake first discovered storytelling as an art form in 1971 at the age of 24. “I ended up falling in love with story-telling,” Regan-Blake says. “Within two weeks I knew I would tell stories for the rest of my life. I never thought I would make a living at it, but I fell right into it. It was an open door for me.”…
Do Tell: Come Autumn, Town Buzzes with Stories
By Nancy Meanix
Alone on the wooden stage in a plain lavender skirt and a potent purple blouse, she keeps the ears and eyes of 1,300 listeners riveted until the final sentence: “And who is your fire keeper?”
Connie Regan-Blake appeared as one of 17 featured storytellers at the 33rd annual National Storytelling Festival weekend in Jonesborough, Tenn., last October. During her 30 years as a storyteller, the Asheville story weaver has taken her tales to 47 states and 14 countries and appeared on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CNN.
Regan-Blake first discovered storytelling as an art form in 1971 at the age of 24. Her cousin Barbara Freeman, then a librarian at Chattanooga Public Library, suggested Connie apply for a federal grant that would pay someone to tell stories to preschoolers.
“But I asked her, what is storytelling, really?” Regan-Blake remembers with a grin. “She sat me down and told me a couple of stories, and I became intrigued. I thought I could tell stories for nine months to earn some money, and then go back to traveling in a little Volkswagen through Europe, where I had been living for the last year and a half since graduating from Loyola in New Orleans.”
She landed the grant, dubbed herself Ms. Daisy and began touring day-care centers, playing with puppets and telling stories.
Connie Regan-Blake tells a story at Foothills Storytelling Festival in Tryon,
where she will perform again this year the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“I ended up falling in love with story-telling,” Regan-Blake says. “Within two weeks I knew I would tell stories for the rest of my life. I never thought I would make a living at it, but I fell right into it. It was an open door for me.”
In one of five circus-sized tents at last year’s storytelling festival, Regan-Blake opened her first session with a tribute to Freeman, her cousin, who sat in the first row. The women worked as a duo called the Folktellers for 20 years, from 1975 to 1995.
“Barbara is my cousin and my best friend, a funny person, down to her bones,” says Regan-Blake. “Sometimes we laughed together so hard in our yellow Datsun pickup that we had to pull off the road. Barbara has a childlike quality that draws you, and she is such a good listener, a fairy godmother to so many storytellers.”
Through her storytelling, Regan-Blake realized her cousin is her fire keeper, a special person that everyone on earth needs to thrive.
“Each of us has fire keepers in our life,” Regan-Blake says. “These people stoke it and give us light and warmth, like Barbara for me.”
With her story set up, Regan-Blake launches into “The Fire Keeper,” a brief tale about Jumah, an Ethiopian slave. As she tells the story, her voice rises and falls, changing cadence between young panicked Jumah and an old sage whose wisdom about fire finally gives him his freedom, some land and a cow.
A new merger
Ten years ago, a noted chamber music group, the Kandinsky Trio, approached Regan-Blake’s agent, suggesting a joint venture with the story-teller. Regan-Blake signed on, joining pianist Elizabeth Bachelder, cellist Alan Weinstein and violinist Benedict Goodfriend. The four created a new entertainment genre, presenting traditional tales set to original music composed by Asheville’s Mike Reid. (Sports fans will remember him as an NFL All-Pro tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals. Reid is also a Grammy winner who has written for Bonnie Raitt and Barbara Mandrell.)
Dressed in formal attire, Regan-Blake and the trio showcased their talents during the storytelling festival for an overflow crowd. They performed a story from 12th-century Ireland: “Wicked John the Cantankerous Blacksmith and the Devil,” filled with powerful images and tremolo voices, both human and instrumental.
Regan-Blake animates the “meanest man in the world” and three devils of different ages as the musicians add their unique edge to the story’s suspense. The quartet proceeds smoothly to the climax. The storyteller’s hands flutter, taking on a life their own, as the musicians skillfully accompany her stimulating tale.
“I enjoy working with the trio often,” says Regan-Blake. “The merger has resulted in new audiences for chamber music and different audiences for story-telling. We have produced a CD of this story for the Public Broadcasting Service.”
The magic happened
For a change of pace, Regan-Blake doesn’t mind sharing her own tale and the three-decade history of her business, StoryWindow Productions.
“I have made my own schedules, traveled around the world and met the best people in the world,” she says.
Regan-Blake gives workshops across the country and performs at events like American Bar Association meetings at Lincoln Center, schools and libraries worldwide, and festivals: Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, S.C.; Wolftrap near Washington, D.C.; Bele Chere in Asheville; Glistening Waters in New Zealand, Sidmouth Folklore Festival in England and Jonesborough.
She fondly remembers performing at the very first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough in 1973. A high school journalism teacher in that town, Jimmy Neil Smith, established the festival after noticing how much his students enjoyed hearing famed Grand Ole Opry storyteller Jerry Clower on the car radio. Smith became enthused with the idea of inviting Clower to town.
“Jimmy Neil set that up for a Saturday night inside the school,” says Regan-Blake. “He also planned an informal gathering outside for Sunday after-noon, with a flatbed filled with hay and a couple of microphones.”
Neil invited Ray Hicks, the patriarch of Southern traditional storytelling from Banner Elk; Carolyn Moore, Jonesborough’s grand dame, and several politicians. When Regan-Blake heard about the festival plans, she wrote Neil and asked to come and tell a story.
Accompanied by her cousin, Barbara Freeman, Regan-Blake joined about 40 other people listening to stories outside on that Sunday afternoon. And she took the stage and told one too. “Jimmy Neil realized the magic happened on that afternoon,” Regan-Blake says. “It was intimate; a real connection was made.”
Smith, who eventually became the town’s mayor, began planning more festivals. Today he heads the International Storytelling Center, which continues to direct each festival in Jonesborough. Regan-Blake chaired the festival’s board for three years and served as its artistic director for five years.
Fellow storyteller Jay O’Callahan described the event’s evolution in his newsletter of spring 1998: “Connie and Jimmy Neil watered the National Festival when it was just a sprig, and now it’s a mighty tree.”
Storytelling nearly became a lost art, Regan-Blake says. The art, an integral part of folks’ lives before television and radio, needed all the watering it could get after losing popularity during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
‘Jonesborough in 1973 was the beginning of a blossoming as people began to look for ways to entertain themselves with music and storytelling again,” Regan-Blake says. “It started slowly with small audiences and then grew. Now every single state has at least one storytelling festival.”
In North Carolina alone, eight or 10 storytelling festivals are thriving, Regan-Blake adds.
Regan-Blake advises fledgling story-tellers to listen to as many tellers as possible to “see what catches your ear.” They should start out with traditional tales, not personal experiences.
“Traditional tales give us a good foundation,” she says. “Now, the people who are jumping right in with personal tales make me think of trying to build a house without a carpenter. So they should start with the basics and continue from there. You should have a passion for it, not necessarily giving up everything else for it, but just that you have a real connection. Then find someone to work with you, and devote a lot of time to telling stories.”
She released a CD of Folktellers’ stories with Freeman, “Stories for the Road &: To Grow On” and is releasing a new CD of stories “Dive Into Stories” from a live performance at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, where she often serves as teller-in-residence
Regan-Blake will be an emcee at the 34th National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough Oct. 6-8, 2006. After that, she will lead a workshop, “Getting to the Heart of Our Stories,” in Asheville Nov. 3-5 and perform for the fifth time at the Foothills Storytelling Festival at FENCE in Tryon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Next March, she will perform for adults and schoolchildren in Brevard, a program courtesy of the Transylvania Community Arts Council.
Not surprisingly, the National Storytelling Association has chosen Regan-Blake for its 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award. “We give this award to only the biggest names in storytelling, but don’t think it means Connie is retiring,” says Karen Morgan, chair of the board of directors, speaking from her home in Texas.
“Connie is an amazing woman, a legend in our community who has contributed so much on so many levels. As an entertainer who is a model for others she has given new storytellers hope and has never rested on her laurels.”
The modern-day festival
The 33rd storytelling festival in Jonesborough last year attracted 12,000 fans who laughed and cried at a myriad of stories – fables, folk, historical, literary; personal and traditional. Some tellers sit. Some stand without moving. Others act out each character. Still others dance, sing, play instruments and use costumes or props.
In addition to the popular festival, which sparked a renaissance of storytelling across the United States, Tennessee’s oldest town offers historic buildings, varied shops, eclectic galleries and charming restaurants. Hungry visitors can eat at the festival’s food court, which provides home-style food, and the town library sells home-baked cookies. Among the better restaurants to sample: Main Street Café in the old post office for lunch and Bistro 105 for dinner, which offers continental cuisine and the only full bar in Jonesborough.
No need to worry about the weather during the festival. The show goes on in Jonesborough, rain or shine. Travelocity.com recently awarded the storytelling festival a top insider spot in its Local Secrets, Big Finds international poll.
Don’t delay, if you would like to attend the storytelling festival. Hotels in Jonesborough fill up fast during festival season.
Nancy Meanix lives in Pisgah Forest.