Remembering Doc McConnell

When Doc McConnell died on August 16, 2008, part of the beating heart of storytelling grew still. Only a week before, he had taken the stage at the National Storytelling Conference to the cheers and applause of a standing ovation. Though he had been ill, as soon as he began to spin the first tale, all weariness and sickness fell away.

And then he was gone. The stories that had rolled off his tongue in an unbroken stream, the Old Medicine Show he had performed for over thirty years, all died with him. Others will tell the stories, but none will be Doc.

I first met Doc when I attended my first National Storytelling Festival. I had been newly elected to the Advisory Committee of NAPPS (the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, which morphed into the National Storytelling Association). But I had never attended the organization’s premier event, the annual festival.

Featured storytellers were met at the airport in Johnson City, Tennessee. Everyone else made her own way. But neither I nor the inexperienced teller I had met at the airport knew the rules. So when we saw a sign that read, “Storytellers”, we aimed for it.

Doc didn’t have the heart to tell us we were on our own. So he and a friend loaded us into his car and drove us the festival grounds in Jonesborough. They knew storytelling innocents when they saw them and spun stories for their open-mouthed audience during the entire drive from Johnson City.

Doc was dumbstruck when he learned I was on the board but had never been to a festival, but he recovered quickly. And neither he nor his comrade made the slightest hint they were making an extra round trip, just to accommodate two newbies.

No one has ever made me feel more welcome than he did that day. Some of his signature stories, such as the “Snake-Bit Hoe Handle”, still stick with me. But nothing sticks with me more than the memory of the southern gentleman who was so kind to this newly minted storyteller.

A video can’t capture the warmth and humour of Doc McConnell, but this telling of Mr. Fox and the Bumblebee at least gives some of his down-home style.

Two of his friends and fans, Joseph Bruchac and John Kirk, wrote a song in honour of Doc. They perform it in this video.

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Karen - June 17, 2010

Your words lovely resonate and bring him back to us Cathryn. Thank you for sharing the smiles. He will always be with us.

Karen

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matelizabeth - March 20, 2015

I just came across this blog post and was sad to learn that Doc has left this life. I knew him, and his brother Steamer, long ago when I lived in East Tennessee and worked with the Tennessee Arts Commission, Crafts Division. They were both good people; dear friends. I wrote a poem about them back in the day. Let me know if you would like to see it, and where you’d like me to email it. Thanks for writing this wonderful tribute.

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matelizabeth - March 20, 2015

I will just share it here; perhaps others will enjoy it as well and think of him/them.

Doc & Steamer
(From Rogersville, Tennessee)

Tales told
amongst a puddle
of cedar curls with pause in word
& stroke of blade meant
for special emphasis

(Pointed in effect
as a goodly directed
tobacco spit)

Voice of old-style barker
calls up crowds:

Tambourine & banjo twang
the old time brightly painted
Medicine Show wagon
with re-lived tonics,
herbs & bags of
asafetida,

They carry copper bracelets
Guaranteed to turn wrists green
Along with songs & fine stories meant
To enliven the tradition.

Gentle eyes that shine
subtle laughter remedies, healing
folks of all ages with a
smile,

People stand to watch
& listen to their tunes
of guitar chord & wash-tub
thump

Singing, “Will the circle be
unbroken by & by…”

Written Summer of 1976 – Coker Creek, Tennessee – In Memorial, for brothers Steamer McConnell, who died autumn 1978 & Doc McConnell, who died August 16, 2008
Published in “One Turn of Seasons” , a book of poetry and photographs from East Tennessee, written by Elizabeth Whittle (Perdomo) with photographs by Doc Dockery, published 1980.

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storyroute admin - March 21, 2015

My apologies for being so slow to discover your generous sharing of this poem. It brought me to tears. Doc McConnell was one of the most generous, gentle men I met in the storytelling world (or anywhere else, for that matter). I will be forever grateful to him – and am so appreciative of this poem, which beautifully encapsulates this extraordinary human being.

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matelizabeth - March 21, 2015

Hello, Cathryn. So happy you liked the poem. Yes, Doc was a wonderful man and storyteller. His brother, Steamer, was a kind man as well. He once carved a little cedar letter opener knife while doing his storytelling show, then gave it to me as a gift afterwards. I still have it. A treasure, indeed! 🙂

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