As social creatures, it’s human nature to share experiences, and long before there were arsenals of digital recording devices, the spoken word was the primary method. Stories contain lessons, histories, jokes and formulae. They can warn, inspire, entertain and educate—and they’re alive and well! The South is a rich repository of yarns, from animal trickster tales and eerie legends of haunted plantations to real-life adventures of folk heroes like Daniel Boone and Stonewall Jackson. Luckily, despite living in an age of technological craze, these oral traditions are being kept alive by a devoted network of storytellers, both professional and amateur, who recognize the value of the spoken word—and the power it generates with live audiences.
“I am absolutely devoted to storytelling,” says Feriel Feldman, president of the Southern Order of Storytellers. “Our brains are hardwired to story. From an educational standpoint, it is vital that we turn things into stories, even in science and mathematics. Culturally, it gives a voice to our history.”
Across the country, the art of old-fashioned storytelling is enjoying a renaissance, and the South is no exception. In 1983, the Southern Order of Storytellers (SOS) was founded by a group of people who deliberately referenced the Morse code distress signal with their acronym because they had very little idea what they were doing. Nevertheless, SOS has managed to endure for more than a quarter of a century, holding a major festival in Atlanta every year. It’s a highly inclusive organization, says Feldman, and members range from professional storytellers who make a living at their performances to devoted listeners and casual enthusiasts who simply enjoy drinking beer and telling tales. Feldman acknowledges that every area of the country is bound to have its own oral tradition according to local society; but the South, she maintains, distinguishes itself by having what she calls a “plantation hangover.”
“There’s an extreme politeness, and Southern stories will reflect this sugar coating,” says Feldman, who grew up in rural Alabama and now teaches storytelling at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. “It’s a gentler kind of telling, where a New Yorker would be much more to the point.” Representing SOS in Savannah is professional storyteller Bess Chappas, who specializes in ghost stories and folktales that she picked up during her world travels. “It’s amazing how much people love hearing a story, even adults,” says Chappas, who recorded a CD entitled Savannah Ghosts and Other Stories. “There’s just something about being there in front of a real person—it always brings back some kind of memory,” she says. Chappas saw first hand the power of storytelling on a grand scale when she attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, which she describes as a huge gathering of 10,000 people. “But when the storyteller is telling a story,” she says, “you can hear a pin drop. I’d love to have something like that in Savannah.”
Written by: Michele Roldan-Shaw