Legendary storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, 89, will tell her tales at the first Spirit of Athens Storytelling Festival this weekend. “One reason people come to storytelling is because it is personal and it’s not plastic,” she said. “It’s slow and from the heart and you never can tell what direction it’s going in.”
A national treasure
Storytelling for Kathryn Tucker Windham is a slow, spontaneous art, but don’t expect a ‘performance’ from this legendary tale weaver
By Danielle Komis Palmer
Legends aren’t born, they’re made.
And so it is with 89-year-old storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, whose longevity has placed her on a pedestal usually reserved for the glamorous movie stars of the 1930s or stoic-faced war heroes.
If one were to base the definition of legend on Windham, then legends possess a distinct, drawling speech with the soft R’s of the South. Her consonants pause for the right number of beats, luring the listener into her simple tales about hometown church bells or a skin-tingling story about her ghost, Jeffrey.
For more than two decades, Windham has been a regular at storytelling festivals nationwide. She holds a Friday morning slot on Alabama Public Radio and was once a regular on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” She is also the accomplished author of nearly 30 books.
Soon, the legend will make an appearance in Athens to share stories at the first Spirit of Athens Storytelling Festival on Friday and Saturday. Windham will be available for a discussion and question-and-answer session Thursday at Athens Middle School for “An Evening with Kathryn Windham,” after a documentary about her life is shown.
An aging storyteller
In recent years, the number of Windham’s storytelling appearances has decreased. This year, she drew an imaginary line at the Mississippi River and declared she would no longer cross it. If the Lord decides to take her, she doesn’t want to be far from her home in Selma, she said. A handmade wooden coffin crafted by a friend sits in her garage, waiting for her.
“You never know what this weary old heart is going to do one of these days,” she said, adding that she’s on her third artificial pacemaker. “Just put me in that beautiful coffin in the garage and get it over with.”
Despite her age, Windham’s keen mind contains none of the molasses that oozes from her famous voice — presumably from the mental exercise required in conjuring up her powerful stories.
But when she leaves this earth, there will be a gaping silence that her personality, her character and her stories once filled, said Wayne Kuykendall, festival chairman.
Windham originally rejected Kuykendall’s invitation to the festival, telling him she was trying to limit appearances because of her age. After he sent her a humorous letter written from the perspective of Jeffrey begging her to come, she laughed and agreed to participate.
“She’s a genuine, true American of old that cares about their friends, their neighbors and cared about people in general,” he said. “There’s no lines anywhere. She’ll go to any people. There’s no pretense about her.”
And her listeners pick up on that, said Nanci Spears, education chairwoman on the storytelling committee. At the national storytelling festival in Tennessee earlier this month, not everyone could fit into the tent for 1,500, so they stood in the rain to hear her talk, she said.
“People will stand in the pouring rain, three deep, just to hear her talk,” Spears said. “I don’t know if people realize what a treasure we have in her.”
Storytelling – not performing
Windham greatly values that lack of pretense as a key component to storytelling. She warns those who have never been to a festival not to expect a performance. The idea of storytelling as a show suffocates the very spontaneity and purity that makes it an unusual art form, she said.
“One reason people come to storytelling is because it is personal and it’s not plastic,” she said. “It’s slow and from the heart and you never can tell what direction it’s going in. I hate to see it become mechanical. ... I sometimes want to stop these young people (storytellers) and say, ‘Look, now that’s just not storytelling!’ ”
But that’s not to say this legend believes she is anything special or has all the answers. She is quick to deflect her celebrity status, and chalk it up to her longevity in the field.
Perhaps her lack of ego as a teller of tales can be traced back to the serendipitous way she landed in the storytelling realm in the first place.
Soon after she had retired from a nearly 40-year stint in the newspaper business and started a job with her local regional planning commission, Windham’s phone rang.
It was a man named Jimmy Neil Smith, who said he was organizing the first national storytelling festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., and wanted her to tell stories. She assumed Smith had mistaken her for her daughter, who shares her name and holds a master’s in drama and theater. But he insisted he had the right person.
“He said, ‘I’m sending you a plane ticket here,’ ” she remembers. It quickly became the office joke that though Windham was not a storyteller she had been invited by a stranger to tell stories at a festival no one had heard of. Windham kept waiting for one of her friends to come forward and own up to the practical joke.
Then something strange happened — the plane ticket arrived in the mail.
“So I thought, ‘If they’re fool enough to send it, I’m fool enough to go!’ ” she said, laughing. Ironically, Smith told Windham he doesn’t remember what made him call her all those years ago, or how he found out about her.
Despite that mystery, Windham says she’s “mighty glad he called. He changed my life. ... It never occurred to me that I was a storyteller.” It’s funny to this legend that her beginnings were at the now prestigious Tennessee festival — in its 35th year and regularly drawing 10,000 people — where many storytellers will never get the privilege of being asked to share their tales.
“I started at the top,” she said. “That’s what storytellers aspire to. It really wasn’t fair.”
But legends? They can transcend the rules.
If you go
What: “An Evening with Kathryn T. Windham”
Where: Athens Middle School auditorium
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Introduction and documentary film, “Kathryn: The Story of a Teller”
8 to 8:30 p.m. “Gee’s Bend” discussion and question-and-answer session with Windham
8:30 to 9 p.m. Refreshment break. Kathryn Windham books and recordings for sale with book signing and photographs.
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