AppLit Study Guides

Teacher's Study Guide for the Jack Tale Players and "Two Lost Babes"

Prepared by Thomas Townsend
May 2006

Jack Tale Player Thomas Townsend teaches children about folktales in Woodstock, Georgia  classroom.


The Study of Oral Tradition, Folklore, and Jack Tales

Background on the Jack Tale Players

Background on the Folktale "Two Lost Babes"

Lesson Ideas

Additional Links

Other Jack Tale Players Study Guides Home


The Jack Tale Players offer a special opportunity for students of all ages to share in the unique experience of reliving a vital part of our Appalachian heritage. Under the creative guidance of Dr. R. Rex Stephenson, the Jack Tale Players hold the distinguished honor of presenting North America’s longest continually running dramatic production for young audiences. During more than thirty years of entertainment and education, the Jack Tale Players have played venues as small as a living room or a school hallway and as large as the Omni Center in Atlanta, Georgia and Central Park in New York City. The Jack Tales have thrilled children and adults as near to Ferrum College as Ferrum Elementary School and in foreign locales such as school houses in rural England or audiences near Beijing, China.

The Jack Tale Players represent a much larger idea than mere entertainment. The stories and songs that they share are part of the grand circle that is oral tradition. Though full of folk humor, fast paced physical comedy, and endearing energetic characters, the folktales performed by the troupe draw from the deep well of Appalachian culture that is disappearing from around those of us who call the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains home. The Jack Tales are not only the story of the ever-clever Jack, but the story of the peoples of the Appalachians and the country that they helped to build. The voices that shaped our past are given to the children who will be our future.

The following study guide is presented to help educators in preparing their students to enjoy fully the richness and depth of the Appalachian storytelling and the theatre experience.

The Study of Oral Tradition, Folklore, and Jack Tales

The study of Jack Tales and other Appalachian folktales must begin with a brief look at Oral Tradition, then at Folklore, and finally at the Appalachian stories known as Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales.

Oral Tradition:

Before the Internet, before television, before telephone, before radio, before even electricity, even before writing, people shared ideas with their mouths. For students to grasp the importance of oral tradition, they should try to insert themselves into that not-so-long ago time when oral language was the only communication people possessed.

Exercise: The Grapevine/The Statue


The following books and web sites are good resources in preparing to teach the basics of folklore, especially different kinds of folk narratives:

Lechner, Judith V. Allyn & Bacon Anthology of Traditional Literature. New York: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2004. Web site with supplemental tales.

Lindahl, Carl, ed. American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress. 2 vols. Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.

Yolen, Jane, ed. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

American Folklore web site by S.E. Schlosser,

Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. edited and/or translated by D. L. Ashliman, University of Pittsburgh,

See also Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore.

Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales:

When the European settlers came into the Appalachian Mountains, they brought with them their immigrant cultures and homeland memories. As their families grew and the first generation of Americans was born, the connection with Europe became more and more remote. The stories they knew were re-invented and restaged to their new home, be it in the mountains of Virginia or the seashore of New Jersey. While most of the United States experienced rapid cultural change, the culture of the Appalachians grew in the isolation of the terrain, producing a unique folk heritage of story and song with European roots and similarities, but with American heroes and voices. The remoteness and precarious nature of the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains created cradles where the cross-cultivation of cultures produced genres of music and stories unlike anything found elsewhere. For centuries after similar songs and stories had disappeared from other places in the world, these tales and music were still a vital part of life in the Appalachian Mountains.

Georgia PerformanceOne of the most frequent characters that lived through many of these tales was a boy named Jack. He is the same Jack from the European tales (such as "Jack and the Beanstalk") but given decidedly American traits. In many Jack Tales and other folktales, the European traditions such as castles and kings are still present, while some things such as golden geese and gold harps are replaced. Jack is often naughty, misguided, silly, and a definite underdog, but in almost every tale, he learns that resourcefulness, hard work, cleverness, resilience, and straightforwardness will help him champion every cause. His two older brother, Bill (or Will) and Tom are most times trying to keep Jack in his place as the youngest and the dumbest. As Jack is our hero, he always comes out on top with the loot, the food, or the hand of a beautiful girl to marry.

Photo: Thomas Townsend (standing, right) and Rex Stephenson (standing, left) perform in "Jack and the Robbers" with school children and other Jack Tale Players in Woodstock, Georgia in 2002.

As part of the WPA Writers Project during the Great Depression, scholars and writers combed the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains with their notebooks and pencils to capture the folktales of the region. One of these researchers was Richard Chase. An Alabama native, a botanist educated at Harvard University and Antioch College, Chase traveled the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, where he collected music and tories from the natives. He fell in love with the stories, songs, and games of the Appalachian Mountains , and spent the rest of his life collecting, teaching, and writing about this culture he adopted as his own. Many of the stories he collected were published in two books, The Jack Tales (1943) and Grandfather Tales (1948), both of which can be found in most school libraries. Grandfather Tales contains "The Two Lost Babes" and other folktales that are not about Jack but come from the same oral tradition of wonder tales and trickster tales. (See the list of Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.)

For further information on Blue Ridge folklore, the Blue Ridge Institute,, is a great source of information and images. School groups sometimes visit the Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum on the Ferrum College campus and see a Jack Tale show on the same day.

Background on the Jack Tale Players

    "R. Rex Stephenson originated the Jack Tale Players in 1975 with a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts to present the traditional Jack Tales in dramatic form for children. After a trial run in a hallway at Ferrum Elementary School, the first performance of the Jack Tale Players occurred at Callaway Elementary School in Franklin County, in December 1975. Since then, more than half a million people have enjoyed over 2,500 performances in thirty-four states and in England . Folklorist Richard Chase visited Ferrum College twice in the late 1970s as consultant to the Jack Tale Players. An anniversary performance was given in the same room at Callaway Elementary School on December 12, 2005."  From The Jack Tale Players web site, See more background and photographs at this link, and in the article "Ferrum Performers Keep Jack Tales Alive."

In the photo at left, Thomas Townsend plays the washtub bass and sings with the Jack Tale Players in 2002.

Background on the Folktale "Two Lost Babes"

          "Two Lost Babes" is a story from the Appalachian oral tradition. Several different transcripts of the telling of this story exist. "The Two Lost Babes" can be found in Richard Chase’s Grandfather Tales (1948).  It is related to the traditional European version recorded by the Grimm Brothers in their tale, "Hansel and Gretel." Different versions are compared and discussed in AppLit's Annotated Index of Appalachian Folktales at "The Babes in the Woods" and "The Little Babes in the Woods" are related tales reprinted in AppLit from the James Taylor Adams Collection in the Blue Ridge Institute archives.

The Jack Tale Players' Adaptation of  "Two Lost Babes"

    As with all of his folktale scripts, R. Rex Stephenson writes a script that, while holding to the original charms and nuances of the oral narrative, also finds a way to captivate modern audiences with his own unique form of storytelling. Stephenson’s story theatre script combines the strongest elements from the tale "The Two Lost Babes," collected by Richard Chase, and "Babes in the Woods," collected by James Taylor Adams. The resulting tale, though faithful to the older tales, speaks with its own voice.

    Stephenson’s scripting of the newest version layers the traditional Appalachian narrative with an additional message about nutrition. This added nutritional theme puts a significant twist on the traditional “Babes” tale, as many older versions depict hungry children who find a house made of cake or gingerbread (or some other sugary treat). With childhood obesity and the health complications that accompany it becoming a national health concern, the message of the play is not only timeless, but timely. Songs added to most performances of this adaptation help tell the story and reinforce the nutritional theme with humor and rhythm.


Lesson Ideas Pre-Jack Tale Visit:

Lesson Ideas Post-Jack Tale Visit:

Questions for Discussion

Additional Links

Health and Nutrition Web Sites:

Nemours Foundation’s Kid’s Health,

The Center for Health Care and Health Care Schools,

American Heart Association,

Dairy Management Inc.’s Nutrition Explorations,

United States Department of Agriculture,!ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?navtype=SU&navid=FOOD_NUTRITION

Portion Distortion: Seeing the Healthy Way to Eat. Video for Ages 7-12/Grades 3-5. 20 minutes. "Real kids convincingly provide viewers with solid strategies to make wise food choices. Live action mixes well with animation to dish up a healthy serving of entertaining information." Description from American Library Association 2006 Notable Children's Videos List. Mount Kisco, NY: Human Relations Media,

The Edible Pyramid: Good Eating Every Day. Revised edition of a picture book by Loreen Leedy. Holiday House Books for Young People, 2007. A Reading Rainbow book in 1994, this book is now "revised to incorporate the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture's newly redesigned food pyramid, along with the latest research on nutrition."

Advice for Parents and Children on “Being Lost”:

BBC’s Parenting web site,

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Guide for Parents, (direct parents to this site!)

Keep Kids Healthy, LLC,

Department of Education Standards of Learning (SOLs)

Virginia Department of Education,

Another AppLit study guide: Standards of Learning Covered by Study of "Mutsmag" and "Ashpet" Dramatizations (based on 2001 SOL's)

Other AppLit and Jack Tale Players Links:

The Jack Tale Players Web Site

Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

Study Guides on Dramatizations by the Ferrum College Jack Tale Players

Activities for Teaching Appalachian Folktales and Dramatizations by the Jack Tale Players

The Script as Story Theatre by R. Rex Stephenson

Chinese Students Learn Jack Tales - article by Tina L. Hanlon

Photos of Richard Chase at Ferrum College

Thomas Townsend, author of this study guide:

Thomas Townsend worked with the Jack Tale Players and the Blue Ridge Dinner Theater at Ferrum College for six summers from 1997 to 2006. A native of Johnson City, Tennessee, he has a BA from Milligan College and earned an MA in theatre and storytelling from East Tennessee State University in 2003. He has worked in a variety of theatre jobs in Chicago, New York, and other parts of the U.S., including positions as an actor and house manager at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He spent 2005 teaching Oral English, literature, and Western culture to English majors at Dongying Vocational College, in Shandong province, eastern China. He used Jack Tales in his classes and directed the Chinese students in public performances of Rex Stephenson's Jack Tale dramatizations. He started out in 1997 playing inanimate objects such as a fire bush, then a donkey and half a horse, before advancing to human roles in Jack Tales. The mean blacksmith Wicked John is his favorite lead role. He has played the narrator in “Ashpet,” “Mutsmag” and one of Stephenson's  longer children’s plays, The New Snow White. In 2001 he  inaugurated the popular role of a foolish husband in “The Three Old Women’s Bet,” appearing onstage in a red suit of long underwear after his wife tricked him into wearing an invisible suit (see other photos at this link). Townsend was also assistant director of Stephenson’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book when it premiered in Ferrum in 1997.

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© Thomas Townsend 2006