A friend had invited me to attend the Athens, AL Storytelling Festival. I’d heard of the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival, and had wanted to attend it, but it never seemed to work out with my schedule or my budget. Kathryn Tucker Windham was going to be at Athens, as well as other tellers who were supposedly famous and experts at their craft, though I’d never heard of any of them. The timing was right and the cost was within my budget, so I told Janet I’d go with her.
The festival was from Thursday through Sunday. Only diehard fans attended the whole shebang. I wasn’t a diehard fan, but I wanted the whole experience so the last Thursday in October found me under the big tent in the courthouse square in Athens. It was unseasonably cold. I was bundled up and had chemical hand warmers in my pockets and foot warmers in my socks, neither of which were up to the task of keeping hands and feet warm.
Kathryn Tucker Wyndham, the undisputed Queen of American storytellers was celebrating her 90th birthday. Thursday night the other tellers were paying tribute to her. The other attendees were familiar with the other tellers: Andy Irwin, Carmen Deedy, Bil Lepp, and Donald Davis. They were all strangers to me. Each of them in turn stood up paid homage to Kathryn, sharing stories of when they first heard her tell a story, when they first shared a stage with her. They were in turns funny and sincere. Andy sang a lovely song he’d written for the occasion.
The last to speak was Donald Davis. He was in his sixties with thinning grey hair. He wore wire framed glasses. The waist of his pants were too high, in the way of old men. He wore a yellow bow tie. His hair was too long in the back. He was either overdue for a haircut, or kept a style that was ten years out of date. I tried not to roll my eyes. I have no patience for old men who think they are still young, or for people who wear bow ties as an affectation.
He’d been speaking for thirty seconds when I tuned him out. Who hired this guy? So pretentious! Carmen and Andy and Bil sounded genuine when they spoke but this guy had such an obvious “stage voice.” What a phony! I checked my watch. I smiled politely while he prattled on. I glanced at the schedule for the rest of the weekend. How long would we be subjected to this guy?
Finally, he shut up and Kathryn took the stage. Even at ninety years old she didn’t need a cane. She was a tiny thing. She spoke for half an hour and was charming. She sent us off to bed.
The next morning was a chilly one. The hand and feet warmers were as useless as they’d been the night before. Donald Davis was the first speaker. I could have stayed in bed at the hotel another hour, under the covers, with the heat going. I considered leaving the tent and getting a cup of cocoa, but breeding will tell. I didn’t want to be rude.
He told a story about his first grade teacher. Within two minutes I was enthralled. I laughed. I nodded, remembering Mrs. Woolfinger, my own first grade teacher. When he finished I was wiping away tears. He spoke again after lunch, telling a story about his mother, and “what smart mamas do.” Again I laughed out loud only to be sniffling at the end. When he told a story about Irrational Fear I laughed so hard I got a stitch in my side that hurt the rest of the weekend.
I’ve been to the Athens Storytelling Festival every years since then, ten years in all. I’ve been to storytelling festivals in Selma, Florence, Birmingham, Huntsville, and Lehi, Utah, all because Donald was performing there. I’ve attended his five day storytelling workshops.
I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from Donald, but the most important thing I learned was to always doubt my first impressions.