Good Listeners

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh holds history. The most obvious form of history housed here may be the written word, but the spoken word lives here too, in both recordings and transcripts.

I read in today’s newspaper that James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, announced that a collection of recorded interviews has been donated to the Library of Congress.

More than 25 years ago, retired music executive Joe Smith accomplished a Herculean feat—he got more than 200 celebrated singers, musicians and industry icons to talk about their lives, music, experiences and contemporaries. The Library of Congress announced today that Smith has donated this treasure trove of unedited sound recordings to the nation’s library.

Yesterday I leafed through Joe Smith’s book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. In entries of only a page or two, the individual voices of 200 musicians gleam like select gems.

Oral History as a scholarly discipline emerged with the advent of portable recording devices, which allowed taped interviews with subjects where they lived and worked. John and Alan Lomax, father and son oral history pioneers, collected folk songs as well as interviews with singers, preserving not only the music, but also the stories behind the songs. One of Alan Lomax’s best known projects is his 1938 recording of interviews with and performances by Jelly Roll Morton. The result is nine hours of recordings that fill seven CDs—Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. An eighth disc includes a PDF document containing a complete transcription of all dialogue and lyrics on discs one through seven.

Studs Terkel, who helped establish oral history as an important historical genre, began his career with the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the WPA. The FWP produced written guides to each state. Part travelogue, part local encyclopedia, these books and pamphlets include material from oral histories collected from residents throughout the United States, many from previously unexplored and unrecorded regions. A history of the FWP was published in 2009,  Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, and a companion DVD, Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story: A Unique & Powerful Portrait of 1930s Americana.

Division Street: America, Studs Terkel’s first book of interview transcripts, debuted in 1967. Two companion books followed, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). One reviewer stated, “His success is, I think, due less to the questions he asks than to his genuine interest in people and his genuine curiosity about their points of view. He is that rarest of birds among radio or television personalities, a good listener.”

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to a few more good listeners who documented musicians’ stories and songs, in both written and recorded forms.

Happy listening!



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4 responses to “Good Listeners

  1. Don

    And thanks, too, Mr. Lomax, for the recordings of Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. Great, quirky interviews and superlative music.

  2. The Awkward List

    Wow.. that sounds really cool. I’ve heard a little about Joe Smith before, he did some pretty awesome stuff :) thanks for sharing this!


  3. Joelle

    Don’t forget our own Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh interviews!

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