Storyteller Connie Regan-Blake revives the oldest art

By Dale Neal  – Published 12:07 p.m. ET March 26, 2015

You can’t help but lean in when Connie Regan-Blake says “I’d like to tell you a mountain story.” Her voice starts to rise and fall, her hands weave through empty air.

“This particular tale takes place back in the times when people really depended on horses. They were a part of their daily lives, as was death — something they had to deal with and we have to deal with today.”

You may be sitting here in the 21st century, but Regan-Blake takes you to a timeless place when a woman can be buried alive in a mountain graveyard, but startled back to consciousness when a grave robber tries to cut the ring from her cold hand.

She comes knocking at the cabin door, but her family thinks she’s a ghost and orders her back to the grave.

“There’s always a gasp when I say at the end, this is a true story,” Regan-Blake smiles.

“Two White Horses” is a tale she collected from a place called Coffey Ridge over in Tennessee. In her 42 years of professional storytelling, Regan-Blake has made the piece her signature tale, out of a repertoire of more than 100 stories she’s committed to a prodigious memory.

Now the Library of Congress has come calling for her career-long collection of letters, audio-tapes and decades of memorabilia.

On the back side of Town Mountain on the dirt road to Vance Gap, Regan-Blake makes her home with her husband, Phil Blake. In the downstairs, she has 17 boxes of old letters and festival programs, magazine covers and other mementos she’s readying for the Library of Congress.

“I’m really glad that the Library of Congress has taken an interest in Connie and her work,” said musician and longtime friend David Holt.

“Connie was instrumental in the revival of storytelling as a stage presentation back in the 1970s. Our real last famous storyteller was 100 years ago with Mark Twain, who would go around and just tell stories, and people loved it,” Holt said.

Stories take us to other worlds, make us cry or laugh, and in a way make us more human. “The more emotions we can experience, the more real, the more alive we feel,” Regan-Blake said.

People have always told stories, but the tradition of storytelling has been on the wane since the Industrial Revolution. Instead of farmers with any downtime during winter to spin tales, people headed to shops and factories, working year-round jobs. Then along came distractions like radio and television in the 20th century, then smart phones and tablets in our time.

“That took our attention. We have started depending on people we didn’t know to tell us stories,” Regan-Blake said.

Attention spans may be shorter these days, but “if you choose the right story and are keyed into your listeners, there is a sweet spot,” she said.

A mountain mentor

Down the hall, a portrait of Ray Hicks hangs on the wall in a place of honor.

She still remembers seeing Hicks at her first Storytelling Festival in 1973 held in Jonesborough, Tennessee. A local journalist, Jimmy Neil Smith, had dreamed up the event as a way to draw visitors and business to the small mountain village.

Six-foot-seven, Hicks took the impromptu stage on a hay wagon on the side street, towering over the microphone. Hicks looked nervous, looking up at the heavens rather than at the audience, but he won them over with one of his traditional Jack tales.

Regan-Blake volunteered to follow the master storyteller at the open mike.

Afterward, they palled around, wandering the streets of the mountain village.

The Banner Elk bard died in 2003, but Regan-Blake kept up a correspondence with Hicks’ widow, Rosa, which ran to about 100 letters — all headed to Washington for posterity.

She’s been the only storyteller to return as a featured performer or master of ceremonies for 42 of the annual Storytelling Festivals in Jonesborough.

It was at Jonesborough that she found her signature story. Visiting with Smith, she read a transcript of “Two White Horses,” collected by Eliza Seeman from a true story told by a family in Coffey Ridge, Tennessee.

She knew she had found a treasure.

She also remembers her first performance of the piece at the second Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough. “It’s a cliche to say you could hear a pin drop, but you could feel us all breathing together,” she said.

As she walked off stage, the emcee said, “I don’t think Connie knows this, but Eliza Seeman is in the audience.”

“I was so surprised and delighted,” Regan-Blake said. The writer and storyteller became fast friends.

Where stories start

Born in Alabama, Regan-Blake grew up in Florida. She remembers her father telling traditional tales such as “Why the Sea is Salty” or “Why the Dog Hates the Cat.” On her mother’s side, she remembers a family of “real talkers” and jokesters always trying for one-ups-manship.

She went to college in Loyola, and started studying in math. “I wanted to help NASA and help them get to the moon and other worlds,” she said. “A friend once told me, you still do that with your storytelling.”

She later switched to political science and thought of becoming a lawyer — another profession of big talkers, but it wasn’t until after college, that she found her real calling.

Visiting a first cousin, Barbara Freeman, up in Chattanooga, Regan-Blake was talked into a job at the local library leading storytelling sessions for disadvantaged children.

“I think you could do this,” Freeman told her cousin.

The first and only time she was ever nervous before an audience was her audition for the library director, who had already hired her. Her hands trembled as she turned the pages of the picture book, “Harry the Dirty Dog,” pretending to be talking to pre-schoolers while these adults listened. “I could feel my face was frozen.”

But afterward, she thought, “I could do this.” She knew was a storyteller.

She spent the next few years telling stories to children, then to adults.

From Chattanooga, the cousins took to the road in a yellow Datsun pickup as the traveling duo The Folktellers. The trusty truck served as office, dressing room, prop room and even bedroom, Regan-Blake recalled. But even then, she was collecting tickets, programs, letters.

That growing collection would follow them to Asheville where the cousins decided to park the truck and put down roots. Here she met and married Phil Blake in 1981.

Together, Regan-Blake and Freeman produced and starred in a two-act play “Mountain Sweet Talk.” They performed the show during the summer and fall at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway from 1986 to 1992, conducting more than 300 performances.

Regan-Blake later linked up with the Kandinsky Trio, accompanying her storytelling talents with chamber music for 350 performances.

How to tell a story

For Regan-Blake, a story is a conversation between the teller and the audience, that breathing together. “The key to a good storytelling is deep listening.”

Over the decades and thousands of performances, she has learned to gauge the audience. Preschoolers are not that much different than adults, but she learned not to “play” to the crowd.

“You don’t wear flashy clothes. It doesn’t mean you fade away, but I like for the power of the story itself to connect with people.”

People listen in different ways. Some close their eyes. Others are just wide-eyed and hanging on her every word. Others may look distracted. “You learn to recognize the ones under a spell.”

Storytelling’s a skill that translates from the stage to the family dinner table and even to the corporate boardroom. Regan-Blake has honed her art into workshops to pass on the simple art to anyone who wants to tell stories.

Business leaders can learn how to market their products and motivate their employees by sharing a good story. Regan-Blake has made presentations before Fortune 500 company leaders and others. Recently, she worked with some 50 independent financial advisers at a workshop in Atlanta. “They need to communicate with a person or a couple. They need to be able to tell a compelling story about retirement,” she said.

Stories are going strong as a performance art these days, with popular venues such as The Moth or the monologues of David Sedaris popularized on National Public Radio.

But many contemporary storytellers focus on personal stories. Only a handful like Regan-Blake are passing along the traditional tales that Hicks told and countless bards before him.

“When we started, Jonesborough was about the only storytelling festival. Now about every state has one, but we’re seeing some of those go by the wayside, and the audience is getting older,” Regan-Blake said.

She’s thrilled that the Library of Congress wants her collection, to digitize all 17 boxes of her letters and manuscripts.

Regardless of whether festivals continue to thrive in the future, stories — true accounts or tall tales — will survive. “The idea of storytelling is part of our DNA.”

To hear more

Storyteller Connie Regan-Blake’s upcoming performances and workshops

• May 12-16: Regan-Blake is “Teller in Residence’ at the International Storytelling Center, right across the mountain in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Performances daily at 2 p.m. with a special show “Hope is back on me: A Storyteller’s Journey in Africa” at 10:30 a.m. May 15. Call for details and to reserve tickets: 800-952-8392.

• May 30: “Finding the Storyteller in You,” a one-day storytelling workshop to explore memories and develop skill and confidence in listening and telling. Lenoir-Rhyne University Asheville Campus, 36 Montford Ave. For details and to register, see www.storywindow.com or call 828-258-1113.

• June 15-21: Artist in Residence at Wild Acres Retreat in Marion

• July 12-18: “10th Annual Storytelling Retreat & Adventure” See www.storywindow.com or call 828-258-1113.