Storied Past (and Future)

A storyteller celebrates 40 years.

By Ursula Gullow

When she was 24, she agreed to tell “Harry the Dirty Dog” to a group of kids in a Chattanooga library. And after that October day, in 1971, Connie Regan-Blake knew she was a goner. “That’s the day I became a storyteller,” says Regan-Blake, now 64 and one of the most celebrated storytellers anywhere.

Growing up, she figured she’d probably become a mathematician. She had always loved math and political science. Little did she know, she would spend the next four decades telling stories ranging from 2 to 30 minutes to people in 16 countries. She has performed in Dubai, Japan and Korea, telling stories on military bases. She’s made appearances on Good Morning America and NPR’s All Things Considered. A career highlight, she says, was speaking to an audience of 20,000 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1978. Her performance was broadcast live on public radio all over Canada.

Originally Regan-Blake told mostly traditional folk stories. But in the last 10 to 15 years, she’s built stories based upon personal experiences, including one witty tale about a spontaneous paragliding adventure off a cliff in New Zealand. The soothing timbre of her voice comes in a variety of tempos, dialects, octaves, and nuanced pauses, while the movements of her hands and arms seem to cast a spell on her listeners. It’s different from acting, says Regan-Blake, and it’s not stand-up comedy; nor is it story-writing. “Writing and telling stories are certainly kindred art forms, but they are very different,” she says, noting that she does write her stories down as a means of documenting them.

The most important part of being a good storyteller? Being a good listener. She encourages those in her workshops to “bypass the voice that says ‘oh you can’t do this,’ and listen to that much deeper voice. If you can focus on that deeper voice and the place where it’s coming from, then you’re really present. That is the key.”

As an art form, storytelling has gained recognition over the years, but Regan-Blake says she still receives the occasional raised eyebrow when she writes it as her occupation on legal documents. “In the 1970s, the National Storytelling Festival was the only festival. Now, almost every state in the union has a storytelling festival,” she says. In North Carolina, she reckons there are more than half a dozen.

Guilds and societies have sprung up around storytelling. The Asheville Storytelling Circle is a group of committed storytellers (Regan-Blake is a member), and she participates in local story clams at places like The Magnetic Field and Firestorm Cafe in downtown Asheville.

As a pioneer of the storytelling movement, mentors were hard to come by in the early days when Regan-Blake established a lifelong friendship with Ray Hicks. One of the original storytellers, Hicks passed away in 2003. The two met in 1973 at the first national storytelling festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. “He really lived the stories,” she says. “He taught me that the stories are alive for you and you’re living them.”

Today, Connie lives with her husband in Asheville and travels frequently for shows at libraries, schools and performance centers. She conducts a storytelling retreat in mid-July. On July 29th, she performs with the Appalachian storyteller, author and musician Sheila Kay Adams, at White Horse Black Mountain. “There are so many people who get caught up in the art form of storytelling, even though they may discount it to begin with,” says Regan-Blake. “It’s a language that we all know.”

Learn more at Connie Regan-Blake performs with Sheila Kay Adams at White Horse Black Mountain on July 29 at 8pm.