Connie Regan-Blake helped make storytelling history in 1975 when she and her cousin, Barbara Freeman, hit the back roads of America as the Folktellers. Hailing from Asheville, the veteran performer is the upcoming week’s Storytelling Live! Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling’ Center…
By Jill Oxendine
Calling a small storytelling event in Jonesborough a “National Storytelling Festival” took gumption 33 years ago. But so did becoming America’s first traveling storytellers.
Connie Regan-Blake and her cousin, Barbara Freeman, literally made history when they piled into an old pick-up truck in 1975 and began roaming the back roads of America as The Folktellers.
“I think it (storytelling) was in the air at that time,” commented Regan-Blake in a recent phone interview. “We certainly didn’t invent it. But as far as I know, we were the first who quit our regular jobs and said, ‘This is our life’s calling.’ ”
Hailing from Asheville, N.C., the veteran performer is the upcoming week’s Storytelling Live! Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling’ Center, where she will share her repertoire of personal stories, reminiscences and Appalachian tales daily at 2 p.m. Tuesday through Aug. 19.
Now 57 years old and a solo performer, Regan-Blake is credited with helping to pioneer the field of professional storytelling back in the 1970s. Not unlike the plot of a Jack Tale adventure, The Folktellers quit their jobs at the Chattanooga Public Library and set out to seek their fortunes.
For three years, the duo slept in a camper they called “D’Put” and performed wherever they could get work – at libraries, schools and festivals. Regan-Blake, in particular was always scouting for new talent to bring back to Jonesborough.
As a result, many prominent raconteurs who launched careers in the 1970’s and 1980’s credit the women with guiding them into the storytelling flock and the National Storytelling Festival. Among them are such names as Ed Stivender, John Basinger, Utah Phillips, Donald Davis, Doug Elliott and Jackie Torrence.
A co-founder of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation, now called the International Storytelling Center, Regan-Blake also assumed the role of storytelling ambassador.
When you find something that’s really good, you want to tell your friends about it,” she commented. “Whether I was at the Vancouver Folk Festival or at a rural school somewhere, I always mentioned NAPPS, the dates for the Festival and (said) ‘Come to this thing that will change your life.’ It was as though I was spreading the word about a family reunion. Come on down (to Jonesborough).”
In 1985, the two women once again ventured into uncharted territory by co-writing a play that focused on the Appalachian storytelling tradition. Called “Mountain Sweet
Talk,” the production, staged at the Folk Art Center near Asheville, drew large audiences and became the area’s longest-running theatrical production.
Then in the mid-1990s, the unthinkable occurred when The Folktellers amicably split up, each launching a separate solo career. “It was a huge decision,” recalls Regan-Blake. “But my image for it is that we were both kind of reaching down and opening doors for each other.”
Always the trailblazer, Regan-Blake went on to collaborate again in 1995, this time with a chamber ensemble, the Kandinsky Trio. Together, they developed a story presentation of “Wicked John and the Devil,” with an original classical score written by Grammy-winning songwriter and former football player Mike Reid.
Truly innovative in scope and performance, the work, called “Tales of Appalachia,” has been presented 350 times at venues across the country. However, with performances now occurring only three to four times annually, Regan-Blake has basically come full circle, returning to what she does best -traveling and telling classic mountain tales such as “Two White Horses,” “Old Dry Frye” and “No News.”
Tickets for Regan-Blake’s 2 p.m. afternoon performances are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students. Groups of at least 15 or more are welcome to make a reservation for a special morning performance.
The International Storytelling Center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Storytelling Live! sponsors are BB&T Bank, Mountain States Health Alliance, AmericInn Lodge & Suites, and King Pharmaceuticals. Media sponsors are WCYB-TV 5, FOX Tri-Cities, Tri-Cities WB4, Johnson City Press, Kingsport Times-News and Citadel Broadcasting.
For more information about Storytelling Live! or to make group reservations, call (800) 952-8392 or 753-2171. For a schedule and complete list of storytellers, visit www.storytellingcenter.net.