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The New York Times: Country Music as Melting Pot

Country Music as Melting Pot

The new documentary series by Ken Burns aims to remind divided Americans of what they have in common.

 September 9, 2019

By Contributing Opinion Writer

NASHVILLE — Last spring at the Ryman Auditorium, sitting in the audience for a concert filmed to celebrate the new documentary series by Ken Burns, I couldn’t help but notice that the folks around me didn’t look much like the usual bro-country fans swarming Nashville these days. Just who exactly was this documentary aiming to reach?

All of us, it turns out. People of every age, every political persuasion, every socio-economic class, every race. The goal of “Country Music” is nothing less than to remind us of who we really are. Even its cover image is designed to evoke the American flag.

Country music, Mr. Burns explained at the concert, is “a uniquely American art form,” one whose signature instruments, the banjo and the fiddle, continue to transmit the disparate cultures, African and European, from which the music sprang. “Country music has never been one style of music,” Mr. Burns said. “It has always been a mixture of many styles, springing from many roots and sprouting many new branches to create a complicated chorus of American voices joining together to tell a complicated American story.”

For the sake of a television audience that might be unfamiliar with country music, all the famous stories are here. How Hank Williams, “the Hillbilly Shakespeare,” died in the back seat of a car during a snowstorm. How a young Willie Nelson drove to Patsy Cline’s house in the middle of the night to play her the demo for “Crazy,” a song he’d considered calling “Stupid.” How Dolly Parton finally convinced Porter Wagoner to let her leave his television show by singing “I Will Always Love You,” which she’d written for just that purpose. How Merle Haggard was an inmate in the audience during Johnny Cash’s first concert at San Quentin prison. How Loretta Lynn, instructed not to hug Charley Pride onstage at the Country Music Awards, defied orders — hugging him and kissing him, too.

But it’s the stories that aren’t yet famous that will have faithful fans of the genre tuning in for every episode of “Country Music.” Mr. Burns’s team listened to 15,000 songs, sifted through more than 100,000 photographs and 600 hours of archival footage, much of it never before published, and conducted 101 on-camera interviews with country legends. The concert at the Ryman — which aired last night on PBS — featured many of the stars who speak in the documentary.

Even so, it took a lot of courage to introduce this program at the mother church of country music. Half the people in this town are pickers, and the other half are music critics, professional or self-professed. But that hometown audience at the Ryman gasped out loud when a teenage Willie Nelson appeared in a photograph on the screen above the stage. “Country Music,” it turns out, can surprise even Music City.

One of the best decisions Mr. Burns made was to tell the story of country music primarily through its artists — those who knew the legends personally and now carry on their art — rather than through historians or critics. The result is a film that is both historically compelling and richly human. “Burns lifts these characters out of the history books and makes them rounded, imperfect humans,” said Craig Havighurst, a Nashville music journalist and the author of “Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City.” “The Carter Family’s complexities and the tenacity and creative spirit of Mother Maybelle are made more vivid here than in any book I’ve read or documentary I’ve seen.”

The singer-songwriter Vince Gill served as a consultant for the documentary, an experience that inspired him to call his own new album “Okie.” “After watching the ‘Country Music’ film and learning about the origins of this music, from people of all backgrounds and races, I appreciated that Okies aren’t that different from other groups who were scorned and stereotyped,” he said. “They were hard-working people who were willing to do whatever it took to survive during one of our country’s most challenging times. The people I grew up with were fair-minded and grounded by common sense. They have given me the values and traits I’ve carried with me on my life’s journey, and they have inspired and created some of the best music I have ever heard.”

Because country music is so strongly associated with white working-class people in the South, many of the same stereotypes that reduced impoverished farmers to “Okies” during the Dust Bowl years are still assigned to country music itself. But Mr. Burns takes pains to complicate these expectations, to highlight not just the story of an art form with roots in both slave quarters and mountain cabins but also the moral evolution of some of the genre’s most prominent musicians.

When word first got out that Charley Pride is black, many radio stations refused to play Mr. Pride’s record. “You son of a bitch, you go back there and tell that son of a bitch that manages your station if he takes Charley Pride off,” Faron Young told one of them, “take all my records off.” It was country star Tom T. Hall who urged Johnny Rodriguez, the young Mexican-American country singer whose manager called him Johnny Rogers, to come to Nashville and reclaim his name. The audience, he said, would come around.

More than anyone else, Johnny Cash pushed the country music establishment to embrace new artists and enfold new musical forms. Mr. Cash used the platform of his weekly network TV show to celebrate diversity and what his daughter Rosanne Cash calls the “ecumenical attitude he had toward all music.” Guests included Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, the Who, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell. When network executives said Pete Seeger was too left-wing for the show, Mr. Cash ignored them. Mr. Seeger appeared anyway.

As Mr. Burns tells it, musical genres were always cross-pollinating. When Ringo Starr recorded a Buck Owens hit, “Act Naturally,” the Beatles released it as the flip side of “Yesterday.” Bob Dylan invited Johnny Cash to play the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and later moved his own recording work to Nashville; the success of “Blonde On Blonde” led a host of other folk and rock artists to Nashville studios, with Nashville session musicians sitting in. And as Willie Nelson observes about the diverse audiences who showed up for his annual Fourth of July concerts in Austin, college students and truck drivers aren’t so different from each other after all: “They’re out there drinking beer, smoking dope, and finding out that they really don’t hate each other,” he said.

Except for one ill-fated attempt to move away, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and all my people are Southerners, but I didn’t grow up listening to country. My parents played only the Big Band music they’d danced to during their courtship, and the second I got my first transistor radio at age 12, I tuned it to ’70s rock. But as a homesick graduate student in Philadelphia, I found a country station on the radio and fell in love. It gave me what country music has been giving its listeners from the very beginning: a way to feel less alone. That year I gave my parents Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for Christmas.

Every art form benefits from a gifted teacher, an expert, an evangelist — someone who can explain to the uninitiated or the skeptical or the heedless that, no, this actually isn’t something their toddler could have made in nursery school. Someone who can convey the context in which the art was created, the hopes of its creators, the way they learned from each other and nudged each other to grow. Someone, above all, who can convince you that you will be better, your life more enriched, if you understand it.

Ken Burns, a Brooklyn-born filmmaker, may be an unlikely teacher of country music, but this transcendent documentary, six years in the making, has arrived at a particularly auspicious time. Thinking of Southerners as stupid rednecks and toothless hillbillies has become the last acceptable prejudice in America. Mr. Burns’s comprehensive and nuanced documentary will make for a welcome reconsideration, especially for those who think they understand what country music is (“loving, cheating, hurting, fighting, drinking, pickup trucks and Mother,” as Harold Bradley described the stereotype) and those who think there’s nothing much to understand. As Mr. Havighurst said, “I can’t wait for America to see this and rethink what country music means and how it sounds.”

“Country Music” will begin airing, on PBS affiliate stations and online, Sunday, Sept. 15. “Country Music: Live at The Ryman, a Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns” is streaming now.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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American Way: AMERICA’S COUNTRY MUSIC MELODY

Filmmaker Ken Burns’ delves into the roots of Country Music. We sat down with him to find out why.

September 2019

Ken Burns is America’s best-known documentary filmmaker. Since 1990, his PBS documentaries have illuminated topics such as jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright, baseball, the Civil War and the Roosevelts. But in his latest series, Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns (premiering Sunday, September 15, and airing for seven more nights), Burns tackles a genre that is more complex than you might think. He spoke with American Way about the project and why country music continues to have such resonance.

American Way: With Country Music, it seems like you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. How much did you know about it before this project?

Burns: I wasn’t much of a country music lover growing up. I was a child of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. I worked at a record store in the late 1960s and in ’70-’71 in Ann Arbor, Michigan [and learned a bit about country]. I knew going into this, though, there were hugely important stories there to be told.

Why is it important?

It’s really elemental stuff—“three chords and the truth.” If you’ve ever felt lonely, if you’ve ever felt in love, if you’ve ever been sad at the passing of someone else, these are human themes that run through all popular expressions of music.

Country music encompasses so many styles—early blues, hillbilly music, bluegrass, western swing, rockabilly. How do you define it?

It never was—even at the beginning—one thing. If you listen to [blues-oriented] Jimmie Rodgers and [the rustic mountain music of] the Carter Family, they don’t sound anything alike. Country is just omnivorous. It’s honky-tonk, it adds the Deep South blues, the [string-laden, uptown] Nashville Sound. It has all these umbilicals to R&B, to jazz, to rock and to blues itself. It was never ever one thing to begin with, and it is certainly not one thing now.

“It’s just simple ways of telling stories, experiencing and expressing feelings. You can dance to it. You can cry to it. You can make loooooove to it. You can play it at a funeral. It just really has something in it for everybody, and people relate to it.”
—Dolly Parton, legendary singer-songwriter, actress, businesswoman

What might surprise someone who’s not a student of the genre?

My biggest interest is the way we [as a culture]  sort of ignored and segregated any discussion of race. It’s no accident that the folks who deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of early country music—A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash—all had musical mentors who were African American. And then there’s Ray Charles [who had numerous country hits] and the jazz influence in the phrasing and guitar playing of Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins. [If not for those influences], all of a sudden you don’t have Elvis and you don’t have Johnny Cash, [early African-American Grand Ole Opry harmonica player] DeFord Bailey, all the way through Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. People listen to other people’s music and adapt to it.

Why did you focus as much as you did on women in country music?

Working on this film we found that women are at the center of this story. Loretta Lynn was like a proto-feminist. The year women’s liberation was coined, she’s writing “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).” She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist and neither would many of her fans, but somebody was speaking for women. There was a powerful sisterhood of country music stars, such as Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells and Dolly Parton, who were articulating themes that nobody else was touching at the time.

 “It’s America, but it’s got Africa in it.”
—Rhiannon Giddens, Grammy winning banjoist, fiddler, singer

What was one of your biggest surprises in the making of this series?

I find it thrilling that The Beatles, every single one of them, has country music as an influence. And we see how Bob Dylan has to go to Nashville to sort of revitalize his music.

Why are some Americans hesitant to embrace country music?

We make jokes about country music, but that’s because we can’t deal with the two four-letter words that country music is all about: love and loss.

You also held a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to be shown on PBS. What was that like?

Rhiannon Giddens did [Patsy Cline’s] “Crazy,” and there was Vince Gill’s version of “I Will Always Love You” [written by Dolly Parton, made a classic by Whitney Houston]. We had Rosanne Cash singing [her father, Johnny Cash’s] “I Still Miss Someone,” Dierks Bentley singing “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” [by Waylon Jennings]. It was so much fun. All the musicians backstage said, “How come we never do this?”

“Just life. That’s what I write. Just life.”
—Loretta Lynn

After working on the film series, how does country music fit into your vision of the U.S.?

America’s strength is an alloy, a combination of things—the complexity, the majesty, the controversy. I believe music works the quickest and the fastest [to bring folks together]. Two notes and you begin to feel something. The reason we’re drawn to particular film subjects, be it jazz or baseball or country music, is that they offer us an opportunity to re-remind people that there is an ultimate power in “us” and in the U.S.

What’s next for you, and what does it mean to you to tell these incredible stories?

We have a new documentary coming out on the American Revolution. Yes, [it will be] about powder-wigged guys in Philadelphia. It’s also about shopkeepers, it’s about slaves, it’s about Native Americans, it’s about women. The barriers we build between ourselves are artificial. As Wynton Marsalis says, art tells the tale of us coming together.

Los Angeles Times: In 2019, country music has a raging identity crisis. For Ken Burns, that’s a 100-year-old story

One is a offhandedly radical merging of two styles of music — hip-hop and country — that historically have occupied distant ends of the musical spectrum; the other is a measured, exhaustively researched examination of nearly a century of American music and cultural history.

The common element, however, is that both hone in on and illuminate — without definitively answering — the same question: What is “country music”? [READ MORE]

 

The Aspen Times: Ken Burns previews ‘Country Music’ documentary in Aspen

Ken Burns spent more than eight years working on his new 16-hour documentary series “Country Music.” He did 101 interviews, collected 1,000 hours of film and some 100,000 photographs, culled down to the 3,300 featured in the film.

So it may come as a surprise that America’s most beloved documentarian wasn’t a country music fan when he started on this massive project.

“I’m a child of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll,” Burns said backstage at Harris Concert Hall on Tuesday night before a preview of the new film. “So it wasn’t in my system. I didn’t know it. … But this has been as satisfying a production as I’ve ever worked on.”

The eight-part documentary, which will begin airing on PBS on Sept. 15, tracks the history of country music from the early 20th century and the days of the Carter Family through the 1990s and the superstardom of Garth Brooks. Along the way it traces the music’s role in American culture and counterculture, the evolutions of its sound as well as its place in gender equality and race relations.

“It exploded my preconceptions,” Burns told the nearly full Harris Hall crowd during a post-screening discussion with Aspen Music Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Fletcher asked Burns for his thoughts on the “very white” world of country music and its perception as a regressive, male-dominated and often racist culture, noting segregation-supporting country icons like Minnie Pearl.

Burns said he had been fascinated to learn about the African-American influence on early country music and noted that women have played a central role in the genre from the beginning — from the days of Sara Carter through Loretta Lynn’s proto-feminist “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’.”

“It’s a remarkable story of very strong women, which belies our sensibility that this is essentially a conservative thing adhering to a tradition,” Burns said. “It has all the problems, those things are here too, but it’s about strong women and that floored us. … You will not believe me when I tell you this was done before the #MeToo movement.”

Country music, Burns found, is far more complex than the stereotype of pick-up trucks and beer-swilling good ol’ boys.

“I think that art and the business of art is to transcend the simplistic, binary thing,” Burns said, noting that the film is arriving soon after “Old Town Road” — a country song by the black, gay rapper Lil Nas X — broke the record as the longest reigning No. 1 charting song in history and underscored his film’s thesis that country is more complex and inclusive than it might seem.

“Thank you, Lil Nas X,” he told the crowd.

Tuesday’s screening in Harris Concert Hall included a preview of eight segments of “Country Music,” including a section on the “hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams and one on Patsy Cline recording “Crazy,” during which Willie Nelson tells the story of writing the ballad (he’d originally titled it “Stupid,” which drew laughs from the Aspen crowd) and going to Cline’s home in the middle of the night to share it.

A segment on Loretta Lynn depicts her trailblazing mid-1960s work writing about issues like spousal abuse, consent and women’s rights in songs like “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” and “The Pill.”

“If you’re writing about your life, it’ll be country,” Lynn says in the film, “because you’re writing about what’s happening and that’s all a good song is.”

A revelatory segment about Dolly Parton tells the backstory of her writing “I Will Always Love You” in order to get out from under the thumb of her creative partner Porter Wagoner. Other preview segments dug into Vince Gill’s tortured, grief-laden composition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” and the personal nature of country music fandom.

Edgar Meyer, the Nashville-based classical and bluegrass musician, performed two solo pieces at the conclusion of Tuesday’s preview presentation. He said he is excited to see the full series and is hopeful it will reshape the public’s understanding of country music.

“It seems to show the country music that I love, and which all the musicians know about,” he said. “I look forward to learning a lot and raising the awareness of most people about what country music actually is.”

Burns was introduced by Amy Margerum Berg, the former Aspen Institute executive and Aspen city manager, who is now president of Burns’ nonprofit Better Angels Society. Tuesday’s preview screening, hosted by the Aspen Music Festival and School, served as a benefit for the organization.

The crowd included locally based funders of “Country Music” including John and Jessica Fullerton, Fred and Donna Seigel and Mercedes Bass. Aspen-based music figures, including the DJ Dan “Pastor Mustard” Sadowsky and singer-songwriter Jackson Emmer, also were in attendance.

DONOR SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Rocco Landesman

Why do you think this film [Country Music] is important now?

Country music as a genre has a very broad appeal. It really reflects American history and American values, and I think the history of country music is the history of our country. Music is the way many of us relate to each other and our community.

Could you tell us just a little bit about your personal connection with country music?

I remember getting my driver’s license in 1964 and driving along hearing the song “Dang Me” by Roger Miller. The lyrics went, ‘roses are red, violets are purple, sugar is sweet, so is maple surple,’ and I thought, ‘what is this?’ This is someone using language and playing with words in a way  I haven’t heard before. I started listening to more country music and found that the stories being told were stories I could relate to. What is special about country music is that the very structure is storytelling. There are characters and stories the way there are not in rock music.

Later, when I decided to do a Broadway show written by Roger Miller, I started to see the strong affinity between country music and show tunes — both being very lyrical, with characters and stories.

Ken Burns’s films always have two stories going on at once. You have the human story right in front of you, and then there is the backstory of what’s going on in the country. So when you’re hearing about Charley Pride and how he broke into country music, you are also hearing the story about race relations in the country. When you are hearing about Merle Haggard, it is the story of breaking out of poverty and the history of rural America. When you see Buck Owens, you are seeing the Bakersfield version of American history.

With Ken Burns there is always a story within a story, and that is why his films resonate, because there is always more going on in any moment than you may first realize, and he really has a way of letting the story tell itself.

Supporting documentary film isn’t the most conventional choice for philanthropy. Why do you think it has impact?

With Ken Burns documentaries, you have a tremendous reach. First, they are entertainment, and people watch them on television and are entertained, but they also have pedagogical value. There is an educational and instructional value to everything he does. Your money really gets leveraged throughout the culture in a way that other philanthropic investments would not be. It is fun to be part of something that is so compelling.

 

The Better Angels Society 2018-2019 Annual Report

We are proud to present The Better Angels Society’s Annual Report for the 2018-2019 year. It has been a remarkable year of growth for The Better Angels Society, having launched new programs like the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, the Next Generation Angels Awards in partnership with National History Day, and a new partnership with Georgetown University, all featured in this report. You will also find previews of upcoming releases like Country Music, College Behind Bars, and Hemingway, and updates on our financials and the Ken Burns Unum digital platform.

Aspen Daily News: ‘An evening with Ken Burns:’ Famous filmmaker to preview his latest project, “Country Music,” in Aspen

Erica Robbie, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer Aug 17, 2019

Despite his more than 30 years of telling stories of war and other equally heavy subjects, Ken Burns was not prepared for the level of emotion he would experience while creating his latest documentary: “Country Music.”

“We tend to make fun of country music because it deals with two four-letter words that none of us are really comfortable discussing: love and loss,” Burns said in an interview from his home in Walpole, New Hampshire on Thursday during a break from an editing session. “And so, it’s much easier to mask that with, you know, pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and hound dogs and six-packs of beer, when that is a very tiny, small subgenre of what country music is about, which [are] universal human emotions that everyone has felt.”

The Emmy Award-winning, Academy-nominated filmmaker will show a special preview of “Country Music” at the Aspen Music Festival and School on Tuesday. Burns will also speak on a panel alongside AMFS President and CEO Alan Fletcher and bassist and composer Edgar Meyer.

“Country Music” explores the history, impact and evolution of what Burns considers a uniquely American art form. The eight-part series, which features unseen footage, photographs and interviews with more than 80 country music artists, will premiere nationally on PBS on Sept. 15.

“People ask me who I made the film ‘Country Music’ for,” Burns said, “and I say, ‘I made it for people who love country music, I made it for ­people who don’t know anything about it, and I made it for people who don’t like country music.’”

In other words, Burns said, he created “Country Music” for everyone.

Country music grew “out of places in the American South, always, with complicated roots,” Burns said. “It’s a working class music; it’s like folk music — it comes from the bottom up, and it’s from people who feel like their stories aren’t being told.”

This is how Peter Coyote’s warm, familiar voice opens the entire 16-hour series: “Country music rose from the bottom up,” Coyote narrates, “from the songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors.”

For the longest period of time, country music was synonymous with “hillbilly music,” Burns said.

He added: “That, in and of itself, was a pejorative super-imposition; that somehow these people — with their twang and their rough dress and their lack of sophistication — couldn’t possibly create something as elegant as popular music or as jazz.”

All told, from initial research to production, Burns spent eight-and-a-half years working on “Country Music.” By comparison, his 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War was a 10-and-a-half-year process.

The documentarian works on several projects at a time and is currently chipping away at seven films.

“We have to do deep dives,” he said, in order to “fully flesh out” the complete picture.

With more than 30 films under his belt, Burns has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries of our time.

Asked to what extent the availability or accessibility of visual elements impacts which subjects he chooses to explore, Burns responded: “None. Zero. Zip.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Sometimes the subjects have an abundance of archives, and you use them; sometimes they don’t, and you figure out new ways [to tell the story]. I’ve never been scared off by either too much or too little of a particular archival research.”

While Burns’ subjects appear diverse on a surface level — from baseball and jazz to the Civil War and national parks — they are all deeply ingrained in American history.

“I think we’re always looking for subjects that tell us about who we are. And that ‘us’ is both ‘us’ in the lowercase, two-letter, personal pronoun ‘us,’ but also in the larger U.S.,” Burns said. “The story of country music is just a spectacular one, surprising to us in so many ways, particularly with regard to the role of women, but also with race, [and] just the sheer emotion of this music.”

If you go…

What: “Country Music: An Evening with Ken Burns”

When: Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Harris Concert Hall

Cost: $200 per ticket, with net proceeds benefiting the Aspen Music Festival and School and The Better Angels Society. Tickets to the event were still available as of the Aspen Daily News’ press time. More information at aspenmusicfestival.com.

Lancaster Online: 3 Donegal High students find national success with their History Day documentaries

MARY ELLEN WRIGHT | Staff Writer Jul 28, 2019

When Taylor Barton first learned about pioneering 19th-century nurse Clara Barton, she wondered whether their common last name might not be just a coincidence.

“I’ve always been interested in the Red Cross and Clara Barton, because when I was younger I thought everyone with the last name Barton was related to me,” says Barton, a rising senior at Donegal High School.

From left, Ella Warburton, Morgan Creek, and Taylor Barton are three Donegal High School students who have found success with their National History Day documentaries. They’re photographed at the computers were they edited their films.

Although they’re not kin, Barton was able to use her interest in the Red Cross founder’s relief work after the Johnstown flood of 1889 to win two national history awards.

She’ll also get to meet a famous filmmaker.

Barton’s 10-minute documentary, “Dam! Better Call Clara!” won her a national second-place award at the National History Day competition last month in College Park, Maryland.

And it also earned her the notice of documentarian Ken Burns, famous for his PBS documentaries on such topics as the Civil War, jazz and baseball.

Barton was named one of six recipients of the new Next Generation Angels awards, created by Burns’ Better Angels Foundation to encourage a new group of young documentarians.

Barton will meet Burns in October, when she and the other top winners in the National History Day documentary category travel to Washington for three days of touring such institutions as the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress.

Barton wasn’t the only Donegal student to gain recognition with a National History Day documentary this year.

National museum

Ella Warburton and Morgan Creek, both of whom graduated earlier this year and will be attending Gettysburg College in the fall, had their National History Day film about the 1930s Scottsboro Boys case shown in a national venue.

Because Warburton and Creek’s documentary, “Lonesome Jailhouse Blues,” advanced to the national competition, they were able to submit their project to a film festival. Their film was screened last month in the Oprah Winfrey Theater of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington.

“It was amazing,” Creek says, seeing their film on a big screen “in a theater that shows real documentaries. I just felt so accomplished.”

So what explains the National History Day success of the Donegal High School students?

“I give all the credit to the students,” says Sara Frazier, Donegal library media specialist. “They picked their own topics that they’re passionate about, and then they run with it.”

Frazier and Susan Heydt, a gifted-education teacher at the school, co-teach the year-long National History Day class at Donegal.

“Once we get an idea of what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, we help guide them,” Frazier says.

“We’re not teaching content,” Heydt says. They’re teaching the students research techniques and, for those making documentaries, how to use sophisticated film editing software, she adds.

History day

Founded in 1974, National History Day is a nationwide history education program for middle and high school students. It has regional, state and national competition levels.

Students can create a documentary, website, performance or exhibit, or write a paper about their chosen topic.

This year’s National History Day theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.”

The Donegal students wove together extensive research, narration, historical images and video to tell their documentary stories.

Barton, who eventually plans to go to medical school, is especially interested in medical topics in history.

“Last year … I made a documentary about the great plague of London of 1665,” Barton says.

She originally was interested in finding out how the Red Cross dealt with the diseases that broke out in Johnstown after the devastating flood.

But she wound up concentrating on Barton’s work in providing housing, food and other services to those who’d lost everything.

For Warburton and Creek, the genesis of their project came in English class, during a discussion of the Ralph Ellison novel “Invisible Man.”

Their teacher told them about the Scottsboro Boys, a group of African American men who had been unjustly charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.

Their story involves complex legal battles that took their case to the U..S. Supreme Court, but left many of the men in jail for years, subject to the harsh conditions of the Southern prison system of the time.

The students’ documentary follows the case through the courts, and details the support the defendants received from Communist and labor groups.

“Last year (for National History Day), I wrote a paper on Russian feminism during the Russian Revolution,” Creek says. “This year, I wanted to do something different.”

Warburton had the documentary skills, having entered a History Day film every year since seventh grade.

The Joplin Globe: Joplin student earns chance to meet Ken Burns through History Day contest

In his second year participating in National History Day, Josef Schuller has earned a special honor — the privilege of being able to meet famed filmmaker Ken Burns.

“It’s really exciting,” said Schuller from his Joplin home last week. “Wow, we actually get to meet Ken Burns. What they call ‘the Ken Burns effect,’ I used some of that in my own documentary.”

Schuller, a student at South Middle School who was a third-place winner last month at National History Day, is among the first six winners nationwide of the Next Generation Angels Awards, a new honor that recognizes middle school and high school students for excellence in historical filmmaking.

The awards were launched earlier this year as the youth component of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, a new initiative to support professional filmmakers exploring themes in American history. They are made possible through the support of the Better Angels Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education Americans about their history through documentary film.

“These burgeoning documentary filmmakers have addressed compelling lessons of history,” said Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, in a statement. “We are grateful to Ken Burns and the Better Angels Society for celebrating our students’ success and working to encourage them to cultivate their skills as future filmmakers.”

Meeting Ken Burns

Schuller’s documentary is titled “The Bridge Over Funchilin Pass: The Only Option for Retreat.” Detailing the dramatic and daring trek by U.S. Marines from North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, the film won him first place in the region in the category of junior individual documentary, second place at the state competition and third place at the national contest.

“At nationals, I was just happy to get in the top 10,” he said. “We saw some of the other documentaries, and they were really good.”

Schuller and the other five awardees — from California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Singapore — will travel to Washington, D.C., for a three-day excursion this fall, courtesy of Hilton Hotels. They will receive tours, special screenings and behind-the-scenes access to film archives at the Library of Congress, American Film Institute and other cultural agencies.

They also will be recognized at a special ceremony and dinner by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has won 16 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Burns’ documentaries include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Statue of Liberty” and “The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science.”

“We are so proud to partner with these young historians, writers, scholars and thinkers,” Burns said in a statement. “I’ve long admired National History Day and have enjoyed attending these national events. It is a tremendous honor to now have a small part in recognizing the extraordinary work this organization does and to acknowledge how young people throughout the country are bringing a new understanding and depth to our historical consciousness.”

Learning ‘cool facts’

Schuller chose this year’s History Day topic after talking with his grandfather, Warren Turner, commander of Joplin’s American Legion Post 13. The theme of the 2019 competition was “Tragedy and Triumph in History.”

Turner had suggested his grandson look into the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, an important conflict in the Korean War that took place during the last months of 1950. Schuller researched the topic and decided to narrow it specifically to the U.S. military force’s retreat through the Funchilin Pass, a daring mission that required portable bridge sections to be dropped into the area by parachute.

He drew the background information from books and websites and scoured firsthand-account letters and images to use as primary sources. He chose to create a documentary because he was familiar with the technology and program needed for filmmaking.

Schuller said his favorite part of History Day, for which he begins preparing every August, is learning “cool facts” about his chosen topics. This year, for example, he was particularly interested to learn that the troops had only 1 inch of clearance on either side of their makeshift bridge as they crossed through the Funchilin Pass, and that the aircraft that dropped the bridge parts in the area were so new that their safety features hadn’t been added to the manual yet.

The National History Day competition draws more than 600,000 participating students worldwide in at least the school level, said Heather Van Otterloo, Schuller’s teacher and History Day adviser at South Middle School. Schuller placed third at the national level out of 103 documentaries in his category, she said.

The Press Enterprise: These young Inland historians showed their knowledge at National History Day

Allison Bushong, center, stands with California delegates during a luncheon in the U.S. Capitol. Bushong won first place in her division at the 2019 National History Day competition for her documentary, “Triumph of Representation and Tragedy of Repercussion: Silent Gesture of 1968.” (Courtesy of Leslie Bushong)

For these Inland high school and middle school students, history is more than a school subject.

Several students took their projects to the National History Day contest at the University of Maryland, College Park, in June, and left with more accolades than King Henry VIII had wives.

Allison Bushong, who will be a junior at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, was recognized as a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar for her documentary on the black power salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics. She also won a three-day visit to Washington, D.C. as part of the Anne Harrington Award from the Better Angels Society. She will meet filmmaker Ken Burns later this year.

Titled “Triumph and Representation and Tragedy of Repercussion: Silent Gesture of 1968,” her work — along with Springs Charter School student Rafael Ibarra’s documentary on race riots in Birmingham — was showcased with 21 others at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. in June.

Haley Hocking, of King High; and Sarah Runyan, from Riverside’s Poly High School, received state distinction for their documentary on the formation of the Special Olympics.

Students who also competed at the National History Day competition include Leslie Madrigal and Brian Garay from Summit High School in Fontana; Ivy Hatch, Mehreen Suzaan, Natalia Fernandez and Michelle Apanco-Verduzco from Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley; Peyton English from Vista Heights Middle School in Moreno Valley; and Lorelei Tang from El Cerrito Middle School in Corona.