Storyteller hones his craft from 'mountain people'

Jessica Fischer • Aug 13, 2011 at 2:11 AM

David Holt, a four-time Grammy Award-winning storyteller and musician, will serve as the next teller in residence for the Storytelling Live! series.The performer, who was featured in the popular film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” will offer a rare series of intimate performances throughout his residency, which runs Aug. 16-20. Concerts will be held at 2 p.m., daily in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, a cozy theater in the heart of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. Advance purchase is strongly recommended.Holt learned his craft from old-time musicians who lived in obscurity deep in the Appalachian Mountains.“I moved to North Carolina looking for music,” he says. “I’m talking about the days when a lot of the old people who were alive were born in the late 1800s. Most of them were just mountain people. Music was a big part of their life.“A lot of their music wasn’t written down, so I would collect it with a tape recorder or, later, a video camera,” he continues. “As I was collecting music, I began to hear about stories that were connected to the songs.”In his own performances, when Holt began to incorporate those stories into the show, he discovered it was a powerful combination.Over time, many of the folks Holt sat down with became his friends and mentors. Slowly, he amassed rare tunes and mostly forgotten techniques, both for the Library of Congress’s archives and for himself. Along the way, he met a wide array of colorful characters.“They’re all eccentric, but one was really remarkable,” he recalls. “This lady’s name was Susie Brunson. She was 122 when I met her. She showed me how to play the washboard because she said that was the only instrument they had in the black community when she was growing up in the 1870s. Learning firsthand from her was just magical. It still is magical in the concerts. I feel like her spirit’s behind me every time I play.”In 1975, Holt founded the Appalachian music program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. A few years later, he left to pursue a career as a full-time entertainer.“There was a concern to document and preserve,” he explains. “But for me, there was also the joy of performing. A lot of folklorists don’t perform their materials. I finally decided that’s what I liked to do the most, so I quit teaching and became a full-time performer in 1981.” Throughout his residency in Jonesborough, Holt will perform with the washboard and many other instruments, including the banjo and the guitar.In addition to daily matinees, Holt will offer a one-time-only evening concert, “Freight Trains, Jesse James, Uncle B and Me,” where he’ll share stories about his uncle, who knew that iconic figure of the Wild West, Jesse James. The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18. Tickets are $15, and reservations are highly recommended.Tickets for Holt’s matinee performances are $12 for adults and $11 for seniors, students and children under 18. Ticket stubs will save audience members 10 percent on same-day dining at Bistro 105, The Cranberry Thistle, The Dining Room or Main Street Café.The International Storytelling Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.Storytelling Live! is sponsored by Mountain States Health Alliance and Phil Bachman Toyota Scion. Media sponsors are News 5-WCYB, FOX Tri-Cities, Tri-Cities CW4, Johnson City Press, Kingsport Times-News, and Citadel Broadcasting.A detailed schedule of the 2011 Storytelling Live! season is available at storytellingcenter.net.For more information about Storytelling Live! or to make a group reservation, call (800) 952-8392 ext. 222 or (423) 913-1276.

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