Jo Carson at ROOTS Fest 2011





October 9, 1946 - September 19, 2011



 Jo Carson, writer and storyteller, died on September 19, 2011 of complications from colon cancer.


Jo was a life-long resident of Johnson City, TN.  She died at home, surrounded by her loved ones. In 1976 Jo organized the founding meeting of Alternate ROOTS.  This year she gave the keynote speech at the Alternate ROOTS' 35th anniversary celebration in Baltimore, MD. (Read more below.)

For us, the staff at Alternate ROOTS, we unite with the global community in celebrating her life and legacy and in feeling our shared loss.  ROOTS provided a means for more than 400 people to help Jo with her medical expenses, because her health insurance was inadequate to the task.  We as a staff joined her in this journey, and we also saw that ROOTS is flexible enough to support artists when larger systems - like health care - don't meet their needs.  Jo's story mirrored and amplified an important plot point in our collective narrative as a society: the lack of affordable, preventive, effective health care in our country, even for smart, creative, hard-working people like Jo.  
She will be missed.


Read and/or listen to a great story about Jo and her passing on NPR here, and listen to a follow-up on NPR by one of our members here.

Read Jo's full obituary or donate to the Jo Carson Fund through Alternate ROOTS by clicking here.


Jo Carson's life was epic, both in the living of it and the dying from it.  If you want a script for how to die well, once extended existence is no longer an option, Jo wrote it for you.  Acknowledge your diagnosis, take to your bed, arrange for your friends who are healers to spend a lot of time with their hands on you.  Have loyal retainers put the word out to your multiple communities to come now, because the end is near.  Become the object of pilgrimage.  Visit with the pilgrims as your energy allows, ensure that your house is a place people want to be, let music and conversation flow whether you can pay attention to it or not.   Give away art and cowboy boots, send people off with instructions to further your work.  Jo told us all to investigate the intersection of chaos and creativity.  To which I would add a further instruction: if you're 50 or over, get a colonoscopy.


Jo had a profound impact on Alternate ROOTS, on artists throughout the nation (particularly in Appalachia), on nearly everyone who came into contact with her and her work.  She leaves behind a substantial literary legacy, so stay tuned for further words and ideas.  Her departure from this life leaves all of us with the obligation to continue her work to make the world a better, more creative, more empathetic place.


On we go.


Lisa Mount
Co-Executor, Carson Literary Estate 


A First Amendment Poem

by Jo Carson 


Meaning what I say

is not saying what

I mean and yet I

do not always know

the difference.

I cannot speak

the unspeakable,

I say instead

those things

best left unsaid.

Life is short,

love is unrequited,

the dead do not

take questions.


I can tell this:

there is enough

of truth to offend




First appeared in the Storytelling issue of 

Now & Then Magazine, Fall 1993.


Artists Respond to Jo's Passing, 
Her Life, Her Legacy 

Jo Carson Celebration Booklet Cover

Please enjoy a small smattering of poems in Jo's memory that cropped up from artists in Jo's and ROOTS' network.

Joe Lambert
Will MacAdams
Shannon M. Turner

Would you like to have a chance to make a personal or artistic response in Jo's Memory?  Please visit and feel free to add your
thoughts and words. 



ROOTS executive director Carlton Turner and Jo Carson at Alternate ROOTS 35th Birthday Celebration
Alternate ROOTS Executive Director Carlton Turner and
Jo Carson at ROOTS 35th Birthday Bash. 
Jo at ROOTS Fest 2011

Alternate ROOTS celebrated its 35th anniversary in June of this year in Baltimore.  What better way to do that than with a keynote speech by the indomitable Ms. Carson?  The audience was moved to tear and laughter and much inspiration by her words, which you can read here or see and listen to here.

Jo's presence at ROOTS Fest was her final public appearance, and despite the fact that the festival was just a month before she was diagnosed with the new cancer that ended her life, she clearly had some important things to pass along to the next generation.

Jo and her long-time companion, Al Bentz, also performed a selection of Jo's last play A Tale of Two Charlies, at the outdoor festival.  Eleanor Brownfield, another ROOTS elder, reflects on the experience of being in the audience for the performance:

A Tale of Two Charlies at Hidden Streams

Eleanor Brownfield    


There were quite a few things I had planned to do during ROOTS Fest which I did not actually get to, but I was bound and determined to be at the Hidden Streams stage for Jo Carson and Al Bentz performing Tale of Two Charlies on Saturday afternoon.    


I really regretted having to choose between that and all the other stuff, but there seriously was no question that I would catch Jo and Al.  I had heard about this story they performed.  The writing of it was commissioned by Jo's cousins, and she and Al have done it a bunch, but I had never seen and heard it.  We did not know then that it would be Jo's final public performance, but so it turned out.  I am forever grateful that I was there.  She was having a good day, and the two of them provided a stellar performance.    


The story explores and expands a true story from North Carolina which still stirs strong emotion in the descendants of the characters, and its twists and turns are compelling.  But what was magical on that day in Baltimore was seeing Jo and Al doing so joyfully the craft they had honed together.  The wit, integrity and affection between the characters was reflected and magnified by that of the tellers.  Jo and Al triumphantly wove the strands that surely and skillfully drew the audience into their net of story.  We are all richer for it.


* * * * * * 

You can also watch Jo perform a story about the first phase of her battle with cancer at the Alternate ROOTS 34th Annual Meeting in 2010 by clicking here  

Iron Mountain Review 
Following her death, we received 15 copies of the Iron Mountain Review, Summer 1998 edition, from Dr. John Lang, professor at Emory & Henry College.  The magazine was completely dedicated Jo and her work as an Appalachian writer.  Featuring interviews, poems, and peer reflections, this publication is a treasure, which we have now added to the Alternate ROOTS library.


Alternate ROOTS

1083 Austin Ave., Suite 7 

Atlanta, GA  30307



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Little 5 Points Community Center