ROCKINGHAM — For Laurinburg native Tyris Jones, storytelling is “almost like a lost art form.”
“Recently, it’s been revived and brought back to life,” he said. “The way I tell my stories is very animated, using my voice and actions.”
Jones said he grew up as the one child in his family who would most often be found on the front porch, listening to his older relatives as they recounted stories and memories from the past.
“I like folk tales and tall tales,” he said. “But my favorite ones are the ones I create on my own, that are based on my childhood growing up with my brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins.”
For Jones, storytelling was not a talent inherited from anyone — he said as far as he knows, there are no other storytellers in his family.
“My cousins and I used to go dumpster diving, and we used to get all the library books, go back to my grandmother’s picnic table, and teach each other to read and do math,” Jones explained.
This led to a love of learning that got him to North Carolina Central University, where he was first introduced to storytelling.
“It was there that the bug bit me,” he said. “And that’s where I am now.”
His storytelling has taken him as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia, but some of his most memorable work has been in his own regional “backyard” of Scotland, Richmond and other nearby counties in North Carolina.
“One particular performance I did years ago, when I first started, was in a classroom of elementary kids,” Jones recalled. “I was working at this school and I decided to tell a story to this particular class. They had been labeled as having short attention spans with learning difficulties, but when I started talking and telling the story, these kids didn’t move. They were focused and hanging on to every word I said.
“Later that day after school, one particular kid in that class saw me standing in the front yard and yelled out the window, ‘There is the storyteller!’ He knew me as Mr. Jones, but that day, he referred to me as the storyteller,” he continued. “That made an impression on me.”
In 2009, Jones was invited to the 39th International Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee.
“I got to hear Kathryn Windham, who was legendary in the storytelling industry,” he said. “She is long gone now, but she was amazing. To perform at the festival, you had to be invited. I was invited to perform at the Exchange Place. That was for six new tellers, and there were about 1,500 people or close to that — and you had up to 11 minutes.”
Jones said his story only took seven minutes because of the excitement.
“That festival is like going to the Super Bowl for storytellers,” he continued. “I had never been to the festival, and then to be given a ride in a golf cart to get here and there, being catered to — I was a little bit overwhelmed.”
There, he told the story, “The Talking Mule.”
“When you’re telling, you think you’re up there forever,” Jones said. “Time is very long, and I didn’t realize it was only 7 minutes until I got up there. Now, I choose certain stories that I know are 10 minutes long, maybe another that’s 5 minutes. I pick enough stories that will stay in that time span. I might have 30 minutes. It just depends.”
Along with timing and memorization, Jones said elements of spontaneity and improvisation also have a place in a well-spun yarn.
“It can be hard,” he confessed. “Some things just pop up naturally during the story, they come from, I call him my Creative Friend — God. I actually tell people that me and God be trippin’ sometimes. We have us a good time.”
Jones said several storytellers have influenced him throughout his career, including Donald Davis, Bill Lepp, Grandaddy Junebug and Kathryn Windham, among others.
“I have a theater degree, a bachelors of arts in theater arts, and when I first started out, I was in the monologue mode,” he said. “In theater, you never break the fourth wall — but in storytelling I learned that you can do a little more.”
When Jones decided to study theater arts, he first dreamed of becoming a professional actor on Broadway.
“I still think I’m going to get an Oscar, even if I’m 70 or 90 years old,” he said. “I am a storyteller but I’m still using my acting skills as well.”
The theme for his upcoming performance — today at 6 p.m. at the Heath Memorial Library — is Black History Month, and Jones said he’s got a few stories he enjoys sharing for the occasion.
“I have one I’ve been doing since about 2008,” he said. “It’s based on the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman.”
Jones was also tapped for a historical project about the civil rights era.
“Two years ago in Scotland County, a grant was written from the National Endowment for the Arts for the purpose of gathering stories from Scotland County natives, from white, black and Native American people who lived in the time of segregation and integration,” he explained. “We went around — I represented the black people — and we collected stories from that time. I talked with maybe 10 or 12 people to find out what it was like.”
He added that his mother was one of the first black people to be hired by the Scotland County Board of Education as a secretary.
Asked whether storytelling is lucrative enough for performers to quit their day jobs, Jones said it’s possible.
“I haven’t published anything or recorded my first CD yet,” he said. “I gave myself a goal to have a CD completed by 2018. I want it to be the best one ever, as my first one. I’ve been shopping around to find a studio to record in.”
Jones can be reached by emailing [email protected]
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673.