Sobol, Joseph Daniel. 1999. The storytellers’ journey: An American revival. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Joseph Sobol is a professional storyteller, folklorist and musician who began his professional storytelling career at the age of twenty–two (in 1977). In 1982 he became associated with the National Storytelling Association and in this book he continues to document the importance of the NSA in promoting storytelling from its headquarters in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Sobol’s book (STJ) is an exploration of the storytelling movement, its “revival” by describing its oral traditions and artistic contributions. For the study he conducted 80 taped interviews with storytellers to discuss how they became storytellers and what role organizations like NSA played in their efforts.

Sobol describes TSJ as a “mythography, an examination of the uses of myth in an artistic movement whose basic program is the search for myth… It examines the stories we have told… [and] involves a hard look at the complex interaction of personal ideals and economic forces…” (p. 15)

Chapter 1, The archetype of the storyteller, recounts the vocational narratiaves of “storytelling revivalists”, such as Donald Davis, Brother Blue, Laura Simms, Rafe Martin, Carol Birch and Doug Lipman. Throughout his book, Sobol applies Wallace’s revitalization movement process to storytelling: steady state > individual states > cultural distortion > revitalization, including communication, organization, adaptation, cultural transformation and routinization > new steady state. He summarizes by saying that he was “…touched again by the archetypal sway of the storyteller’s voice… [with this] we knew that we could at least remember the simple story and find, perhaps, the rest within it: the place, prayer, the fire, and even atonement in our own hearts’ core for the dark and weary ways we had wondered without them” (p. 63).

Chapter 2, The motif of serendipity, applies the quality of serendipity to the revival movement of the storytellers. “Serendipity becomes part of the design of every good folktale because it mimics the action of human destiny as we are psychologically able to perceive it” (p.65).

Chapter 3, From serendipity to ceremony, continues the theme by looking at the process of “traditionalizing” (inventing traditions) the storytelling movement by choosing names and themes for the stories. One example is “The ghost storytelling in the cemetery” where the environment provides the setting for the stories. Another example is the “swappin’ grounds”, a place where emerging storytellers were given opportunities to perform, especially with the “canonization” of Ray Hicks as the premier storyteller for the Jonesborough festivals.

Chapter 4, The storytelling festival as ritual, continues to outline the history of the National Storytelling Festivals. It was at once an esthetic experience for participants and performers, although “perilous” because it is “reuniting with the culture from which one has turned away to go on a quest for authentic experience” (p.153).

Chapter 5, Alternate models of community, discusses how the storytellers must transfer their experiences to the home communities, reinforcing the storytelling revival. Storytelling has “moved out” from Jonesborough to new communities, groups, and networks. Community is seen as the shaping force in the revitalization movement.

Chapter 6, Blood on the porch, gives details on how the NSF began to split, with storytellers in other parts of the country feeling that they should be better represented. The “dark underbelly of the bright, shining body of revitalization” was surfacing in various ways. There was competition and misunderstandings contributing to the facture, so that the revival emerged in the seventies “from a fusion of worlds: the unself–conscious world of home, family, and community talk, where its folk roots lay; the world of libraries and schools, where its official families of the revival support groups…” It became something far more technical and bureaucratic. Congresses on ethics and cultural diversity highlighted some of the problems.

Chapter7, Stories and morals: reflections on an American revival, is the final chapter. It can be summarized with this quote: “When the storytelling movement finally reached a public plateau and its chief institution began to wobble, to struggle for survival, and to grasp at institutional camouflage and self–commemoration to sustain itself, the precipitating event was no riot or bacchanalia [an ancient Roman festival, riotous and drunken, to honor Bacchus] – only a quieter–than–expected Sunday morning with too many featured storytellers to go around. But the movement’s very failure to precipitate either mass catharsis or catastrophe is perhaps its best hope for a graceful aging” (p.225).

When I read that final quote, it helped me to better understand Wycliffe USA and its struggle to maintain growth and community, compounded by its demise as the most important festival in the country and by fractionalization into many new communities. Like Jonesborough, Orlando has been the focal–point for the administrative festivals, but other organizations are now drawing potential (and real) members away with opportunities that seem more personal, less technical, and, perhaps, better oriented within a community.

Karl J. Franklin, April 2010

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