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Preparing the collection of a storytelling trailblazer

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A photo of Kaitlin Dotosn standing next to archival boxes holding the collection of Connie Regan-Blake in the American Folklife Center.
Intern Kaitlin Dotson processed the Connie Regan-Blake collection at AFC this past summer.

This is a guest blog post by Kaitlin Dotson, who did an internship at the American Folklife Center this summer. She was recently hired as a processing assistant at the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Libraries.

As an intern at the American Folklife Center (AFC), I spent the summer processing a recent acquisition to the archive, the Connie Regan-Blake collection. Connie Regan-Blake comes from a region rich with storytelling traditions: Asheville, North Carolina. She has spent her life preserving and perfecting the art of storytelling, traveling the world to spin tales for audiences of all ages. Some of her stories are true and some have been greatly exaggerated or drawn from the rich oral traditions. This collection is an accumulation of photographs, programs, diaries, sound and video recordings, and correspondence with folklorists and storytellers such as Frank and Anne Warner, David McClosky, Rosa Hicks, Katharine Briggs, and Jimmy Neil Smith among many others. It documents both her storytelling career and the larger storytelling scene from the 1970s to 2014. My work centered on arranging, rehousing, and describing the manuscript and photographic materials, inventorying the more than 300 audiovisual carriers from the collection, and creating a draft finding aid, which will soon be posted online.

Image of three brochures for the play, Mountain Sweet Talk. The brochures are in the Connie Regan-Blake collection. The photo is by Kaitlin Dotson.
Brochures in the collection. From the play, Mountain Sweet Talk. Photo by Kaitlin Dotson.

Regan-Blake’s collection adds to the rich body of material at AFC that documents the storytelling revival. The International Storytelling collection, and the Tom Raymond collection are good examples.  The former includes the archives of the International Storytelling Center (ISC), an organization that produces the annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and of which Regan-Blake is a founding member. Raymond was a long-time photographer for the National Storytelling Festival, documenting it from 1984-2003.

Regan-Blake began her career as a storyteller at a children’s library, but soon teamed up with her cousin, Barbara Freeman, to form the traveling storytelling duo, The Folktellers. The two performed together for two decades, from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. During this time, they wrote and starred in the two-woman play, Mountain Sweet Talk. With seven seasons and more than 300 performances, Mountain Sweet Talk remains the longest running theatrical production in Asheville. The collection at the AFC contains memorabilia from the play, including an original script, a Christmas edition of the play, as well as one script annotated by Regan-Blake. There are also recordings of several performances.

The Folktellers performed at the annual National Storytelling Festival several times. It was there that she formed lasting relationships with its founder, Jimmy Neil Smith, and storytellers such as Doc McConnell and Ray Hicks. Part of the collection documents these friendships, including correspondence and even letters of recommendation from Jimmy Neil Smith during his tenure as president of the ISC (formerly known as the National Association of the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS). Regan-Blake was very close with the Hicks family, even organizing a benefit for Ray when he fell ill later in life. There are several videotapes as well as photographs in the collection that capture the early days of the ISC storytelling festivals and performers.

Regan-Blake also had a highly successful solo career and still hosts workshops regularly, recently completing her 12th annual Summer Storytelling Retreat & Adventure in Asheville. She also served as the artistic director of the Tell It in the Mountains Storytelling Festival in Asheville for seven years, and in 2012 she teamed up with the North Carolina Symphony for a storytelling and musical collaboration.

On a personal side, I grew up in the Wiregrass region of Georgia where storytelling played a large role in my upbringing, and attending folklife festivals was routine. Having the opportunity to work with a southern storyteller’s collection exposed me to the deep history and influence of artful, long-standing storytelling traditions, not only in North Carolina, but also on a national and global level. Learning more about Regan-Blake herself and her beginnings as a storyteller was inspiring. She was a trailblazer for women during the storytelling revival of the 1970s. While so many other acts at this time were men, she and Barbara Freeman were groundbreaking and paved the way for future female storytellers. It was a true honor to get to work with these materials that have so much power and importance attached to them.

On a professional side, my background in archives was limited before beginning my summer internship. Considering the arrangement and description of multi-format materials both intellectually and physically, was a new experience for me. I also learned about different archival approaches, specifically MPLP, or “more product, less process,” which is not only beneficial to an archive, allowing archivists to efficiently process a collection, but also beneficial to researchers, getting the collection available for use more quickly. I now utilize the knowledge I gained from my internship in the archives daily at my job as a processing assistant at the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Libraries.

AFC is excited about making this collection available to researchers, and I am honored to have been a part of providing access to this rich storytelling collection that provides insights to the inner workings of the storytelling community and its revival and impact on a social and political life.

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