One Friday night in 1979 fifth-grade teacher Jim May packed into a VW minibus with several other teachers and drove all night to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, the town was lined with cobblestone streets and antebellum houses where, May says, "you'd expect to see Tennessee Williams sitting on a porch any moment.
"I walked into this tent, and there was an African-American woman, Jackie Torrence, a great granddaughter of a slave, telling mountain stories," he says. "There was this old guy sitting on a hay bale someplace in town telling horse-trading stories. I just felt like it was something that was right in my bones--it just seemed so familiar to me."
One of the stories May heard Torrence tell was called "Soldier Jack," a tale about a man who goes out to seek his fortune while overcoming monsters, doing good deeds, and saving the king's daughter before finally making peace with death. May calls it a classic folktale "that has all the elements of what humans need to do in order to make it through life with some kind of grace and compassion and honor." The story inspired him enough to try it out on his students back home. "Monday morning I got up in front of my fifth-graders and told them that story, and they looked at me like, "What happened to this guy over the weekend? He's a lot more interesting than he used to be.' I don't think I ever felt so connected with my class in ten years of teaching as I did inside of that story with them."
His students wanted to hear more, so May began going to festivals, seeking out old-timers, and researching his own family history. Six years later he quit teaching and began working full-time as a freelance storyteller. "That was 11 years ago, and I've been doing that ever since," he says. He's also published a collection of 18 stories called The Farm on Nippersink Creek.
For May, the connection with the story and the audience is more important than performing. "Storytelling can be used in lots of healing ways," he says. "It's certainly entertainment, but it also heals in a way that our society needs right now. A lot of people--therapists, political activists, writers, and poets--are looking at storytelling as a healing medium."
May sometimes does programs for businesses and corporations where he works on cultural-diversity issues, using storytelling as a tool for understanding. "I get them telling stories from their family and from their growing up and from their own culture, and they share that with each other," he says. "When you hear somebody else's story, it's pretty hard not to be compassionate and not to empathize."
Thirteen years ago May and his cousin Bob started the Illinois Storytelling Festival, a huge sprawling conclave of tents that pops up in the heart of Spring Grove each year. The two-day event--which draws storytellers from all over the country--takes place this weekend, noon to 5:30 Saturday (square dancing 6:30 to 8; ghost stories 9 to midnight) and 10 to 6 Sunday. Admission for each day and evening is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors; children under 16 are free. Take 294 north to Rosecrans Road (Route 173), exit west to Richardson Road. It's held in Spring Grove Village Park. Call 815-678-4773 for more info.