Stephen Gordon Produces Video on Appalachian Oral Tradition for 2005 National History Day Project

Articles from The Iron Blade  |  DCR Digest  |  The Congressional Record

Notes by Tina Hanlon: Stephen Gordon's ten-minute video "Telling Tales: The Appalachian Oral Tradition" contains excerpts from interviews he and his father conducted with storytellers and consultants Orville Hicks, Rex Stephenson, Lloyd Arneach, Omope Carter Daiboku, Lana Whited, and Bobby McMillon. The film is an excellent short overview of the oral tradition in Appalachia, considering it in relation to ancient traditions of world storytelling, modern mass communication, and cultural diversity in the region's history. Stephen's project, which won awards at the local and state levels, was selected for presentation at the Smithsonian Institute on National History Day. It is listed in a report by AScribe Newswire, which contains the following description of the program.

The 19 students selected to present their projects are part of a larger group of more than 2,000 finalists participating in the National History Day [NHD] national contest at the University of Maryland June 12-16. These young historians are bringing with them the products of months of research, and creative presentations in the form of research papers, dramatic performances, documentaries, and exhibits.

The NHD program annually engages more than half a million participants in grades six-12 across America.

More than a student competition, NHD is a campaign to change the teaching and learning of history our nation's classrooms. The program is having a profound impact on education and received the Charles Frankel Prize for Public Programming from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Through publications and education programs, NHD trains teachers to move students beyond textbooks and expand their classrooms to include libraries, museums and archives. 2005 marks the 25th anniversary of the National History Day organization. For more information go to

("Students Present Award Winning Projects at Smithsonian American Art Museum." AScribe Newswire. Tuesday, 7 June 2005.
Accessed through Lexis-Nexis, 22 April 2008)

You can read more about Appalachian folklore and the people named here by following the links below to other AppLit pages. The research by Dr. Peter Crow described in the first article has been published in his book Do, Die, or Get Along: A Tale of Two Appalachian Towns (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2006). His research is also described in "An Education that Hits Close to Home" by Lana A. Whited, in PROFESS 2001: A Record of Faculty Achievement, Ferrum College.

Father and 14-Year-Old Son Interview Professors for National History Day Project

By Michelle Vincent
Ferrum College '06

This article originally appeared in The Iron Blade, 21 Feb. 2005, Ferrum College, VA. It has been edited by Lana Whited and Tina L. Hanlon.

A father-and-son filmmaking team, Steve and Stephen Gordon II, came to Ferrum on Feb. 8 for what the father called “Super Tuesday.” The teacher-student team interviewed four professors for the son's National History Day project on folktales as part of his home-school curriculum.

The professors are Tina Hanlon, Rex Stephenson, Lana Whited, and Peter Crow. Steve Gordon said, “What we have here [at Ferrum] are people who know about the tales.”

The Gordons are doing research to produce a ten-minute video on Appalachian storytelling for the National History Day theme this year: Communications in History: The Key to Understanding. According to Steve, everyone knows about George Washington. “We decided to do something different because oral history is important,” Steve said.

Steve Gordon, the father, has a background in television production and editing. “My interest is in helping my son with his skills in research, writing, and editing,” Steve said. “I have been helping students in junior and senior high schools do these History Day projects for the last 10 years. I want to share my passion for creative expression using audio and video productions with students. In Stephen’s case, he already has a passion for history and video.” 

Dr. Tina Hanlon, associate professor of English and director of the web site Applit, an online resource for Appalachian literature, responded to the Gordons’ request for an interview. They called Hanlon after reading her survey of Appalachian folktales in AppLit. "I have been studying Appalachian folktales for over a decade, but hearing about this project made me think more deeply about the relationship between history and folktales," Hanlon said. "I then realized that the Gordons could talk to several other members of our faculty who have worked with different types of storytelling."

Hanlon said she told the Gordons about folktales brought to the Appalachian mountains by European immigrants since the eighteenth century. For example, "Mutsmag," an Appalachian folktale about a heroic girl, is related to a British folktale called "Molly Whuppie." "I know 'Mutsmag' was told in Virginia in the early 1800s and storytellers still tell it today," she said. According to Steve Gordon, “In oral tradition, Tina [Hanlon] is legendary. There are people who don’t return phone calls, but she is really good about responding.” In addition, he said, Hanlon goes out of her way to help. "She has given us so much information about folktales and the history behind them, which will be very useful in our video production."

Dr. Rex Stephenson, professor of drama and writer/director of the Jack Tale Players, was also interviewed by the Gordons. A part of the interview with Stephenson included discussion of Richard Chase, a nationally-known folklore collector. Chase came to Ferrum twice in the late 1970s to work with the Jack Tale Players.

Stephenson also told the Gordons about some of the Southwest Virginia storytellers. In response to the interview, Stephenson said, "The cradle of folklore is right here, and it's not being taught in the schools. I think what [the Gordons] are doing is great." Stephenson also mentioned how American history has many "little events" which are very important. "The more history can be localized, the more of an effect it can have," he said.

Steve Gordon said, "Ferrum has a lot to offer. You all have a great drama professor who has a theatre company on Jack Tales. Rex [Stephenson] is taking a completely different look at the stories and telling them through drama."

Because Dr. Lana Whited, professor of English and journalism, has extensive knowledge of the Frankie Silver legend, the Gordons interviewed her. Silver was hanged for the murder of her husband in North Carolina in the 1830s, when she was eighteen.

Whited said that while doing her research on the Silver case, "I began to think of journalists as participants in making folklore." The story became folklore in "The Ballad of Frankie Silver." The ballad is supposedly based on a song Silver sang just before being hanged, according to Whited.

Steve said, "Lana [Whited] told us about the Frankie Silver story, and how it has changed through the years, much like folktales. I am very interested in the Frankie Silver ballad. Instead of a story, this is told in the form of a song." According to Hanlon, Whited gave the Gordons excellent insights into the connections among journalism, folklore, history, and literature.

The final interview was with Dr. Peter Crow, professor of English. Crow discussed the significance of oral history in the town of Dante, Virginia. Crow said this old coal town was saved after a social worker convinced the citizens to put in a sewer system. The social worker also collected oral stories about their community, which were published in a book. According to Crow, "Community storytelling, in this case, has revived an entire town."

Crow said the Gordons' project "is a timely, well-thought-out father-son project, perfect for National History Day. It also brings much-needed attention to this nation's diverse regions." National History Day is an educational program that includes regional and national competitions. The Gordons, who live near Asheville, North Carolina, will enter their video at the local level in hopes of its going on to the national level.

The Gordons are also interviewing others, such as North Carolina storyteller Orville Hicks, Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach, and African American storyteller Omope Carter Daboiku from southern Ohio. Stephen commented that these projects involve "over a couple hundred hours of work."

For more information about Appalachian folktales, visit

National History Day

From The Congressional Record, The United States Senate, June 15, 2005, Section 22.

Online at Tracking the 110th United States Congress.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole [R-NC]:

"Mr. President, I am delighted to come to the floor today to congratulate Nathan Przestrzelski of Swannanoa, NC and Stephen Gordon of Fletcher, NC on being selected to present their award-winning history projects at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in celebration of National History Day.

For 25 years the National History Day Program has brought history to life for students across our country. By combining creativity with scholarship, students are finding a new appreciation for the past while developing valuable skills in writing and analytical reasoning. Most importantly, this program focuses on inspiring each child to reach his or her full potential, and in doing so provides a great service by increasing their confidence and ability to succeed.

This year the National History Day Program asked students to present projects on the theme "Communication in History: the Key to Understanding." Students were asked to explore the role communication plays in history and its significance in helping shape how historical changes have been understood.

Let me share with you the two wonderful projects Nathan and Stephen presented.

Nathan presented his exhibit entitled, "The History of Spring Training: Communication is the Key to Understanding the Merger of Athletic Preparation with Market Magic." His project explores how baseball's spring training has grown from traditionally being a means for athletic preparation to today becoming a multi-million dollar industry expressed through business marketing. Nathan was able to incorporate his love of sports, his interest in business, and his appreciation of history to better understand how this tradition evolved over time.

Stephen also presented his project, a documentary entitled, "Telling Tales: The Appalachian Oral Tradition." His work depicts how the people of Appalachia have communicated ideas, history, heritage, and values through the use of nothing more than oral tradition. Stephen was able to trace stories from the mountains of North Carolina back over hundreds of years and show how fundamental concepts were passed from generation to generation.

Through their hard work and dedication, these young historians show that discovering, understanding, and interpreting history is not only important, but exciting.

Today is a proud day for Nathan, Stephen, and their families. We are proud of these students' hard work, dedication, and tremendous achievements. I believe passionately that education is the foundation for success, and I am encouraged to see students so active in the learning process. I hope Nathan and Stephen have enjoyed this experience and I wish them continued success in the years ahead."

Students Winning with History

Excerpt from DCR Digest, employee newsletter of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Public Affairs Office 
Volume 3, Issue 12                          June 15, 2005 

      Four North Carolina students currently have exhibits on display at three Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C.  They are part of a 45-member North Carolina contingent participating in the National History Day (NHD) competition at the University of Maryland, June 14-16. The 45 students were winners in the April 30 statewide competition in Raleigh. This week, 2,000 student competitors from across the country are in Maryland presenting projects on the NHD theme, “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.” 

      The student exhibits on display are “The Navajo Code Talkers: Communicating the Importance of Cultural Diversity,” a group project presented by Edward Farley and Will Payne of St. Peter’s Catholic School in Greenville; “Telling TalesThe Appalachian Oral Tradition,” a documentary presented by Stephen Gordon of Four Oaks Christian Home School in Fletcher; and “The History of Spring Training: Communication Key to Understanding the Merger of Athletic Preparation with Market Magic” by Nathan Przestrelski of Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain. 

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Timeline of Appalachian Folktales in Oral and Written Traditions
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