NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Patsy Lawson and her husband, Herman, grew up in a patch of Appalachia with "no railroad, no airstrips, just subsistence farming." There she learned from her father--a "great natural storyteller"--how to turn everyday events into compelling tales.
Now Lawson is helping ensure that same art is passed along to the next generation: She was among hundreds who visited a recording booth set up in Nashville by StoryCorps, a nonprofit project that records the stories of ordinary people and archives them at the Library of Congress.
And she is teaching people to develop personal stories from real life as a member of the National Storytelling Network.
Lawson, who is from Hancock County in East Tennessee, said telling stories came naturally to her.
"Where we're from, our families had been there forever," Lawson said. "What we did at night was sat around, whether we wanted to hear it or not, and talked about our relatives."
Tennessee's tradition is rooted in the stories that people once told about the hardships of rural life, the comings and goings of neighbors, even about world events as seen from the porches and dinner tables of rural Tennessee on evenings gone by.
And Tennessee has tried to preserve that tradition, even as lifestyles have changed.
Just look at tiny Jonesborough, which more than triples its population every year when 10,000 visitors arrive for the National Storytelling Festival taking place this weekend. Or East Tennessee State University, one of the few universities in the county offering a master's degree in professional and applied storytelling.
All that helped Nashville become the site of the first non-traveling StoryCorps booth outside of New York City, apart from a pilot project in the Midwest.
Lawson's story is one of nearly 500 recorded this year in Nashville. Selected stories have been compiled in a book and others, including at least two recorded in Nashville, have been broadcast on public radio stations.
"Certainly we were told on a number of occasions there's a tendency for Nashvillians to be good story tellers," StoryBooth manager Michael Brigham said. "The quality of the tape we've received holds that up."
The StoryCorps concept is simple: Bring in two people who are important to each other and prompt them to ask the big questions that get lost in the everyday shuffle--questions like, "What are the most important lessons you've learned in life?"
The outcome, people involved in the project say, can be surprising, even life-changing.
Some people come to the StoryBooth to talk in general about their lives or the lives of people close to them, such as parents or children.
Mary Lockett, 68, of Nashville, came at the prodding of a sister who is 18 years younger than her and wanted to know more about their family. Lockett had been reluctant at first, but after the session the two were visibly emotional.
"Memories just start to come back--things you don't realize you remember," she said.
Others come in with specific stories to tell.
Trudy Dreyer, 76, is a Holocaust survivor who lives in Knoxville.
Dryer was a child at the time, but remembers the night in 1938 known as Kristallnacht in which Nazis attacked Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. Dreyer recounts how she was sleeping next to her grandmother when Nazis shattered their windows. The falling glass cut her grandmother's feet.
She and the friend who interviewed her broke down in tears as Dreyer recalled returning to Germany more than 60 years later and being asked for forgiveness from a man who once gave her a rock in a candy wrapper when both were children.
Dreyer did not recall the man or the episode, but he told her he had been bothered by it for years.
"Obviously, it was not the rock in the candy wrapper he asked forgiveness for," she said as her voice broke. "And a good many people did ask forgiveness for what their parents and grandparents had done."
Lawson's husband, Herman, told a story about coaching basketball during his first teaching job as a mathematics professor at a community college in a Kentucky mining town.
Assigned to a rotating staff of coaches on the not-quite-integrated basketball team, he recounts how his black players won a particularly intense game one night--and then he got pulled over for running a small-town stop sign afterward while shuttling a carload of players home.
When the policeman discovered his driver's license had expired, Lawson, who is white, was hauled off to jail.
On tape, he tells how he spent several miserable hours listening to a policeman nicknamed "Shotgun" who talked about his nightstick. In the end, his wife bailed him out and he became a hero of sorts to the ragtag team--players would cheer him and tease him every morning as his wife drove him to school while he waited to get a new license.
Nashville says goodbye to the StoryBooth this month, as the project moves on to San Francisco. But it's not the end of the stories.
Nashville's downtown public library, which has housed the booth for the past year, will continue three other oral history projects involving military veterans, local business leaders and veterans of the civil rights movement.
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