Tag Archives: Oral History

Slowing down

Lately I’ve been busy–I’m sure almost everyone reading this can relate. You would think that the busier I get, the more I would look to finding faster ways of doing things, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. Lately I’ve been drawn to activities that can’t be finished quickly, but force me to take my time and think in terms of long-term goals, rather than short-term. For instance:

Gardening: I’ve gardened in the past, but the difference this year is that I got my act together and planted seeds (from our amazing seed library!), rather than just waiting until mid-June and transplanting seedlings. I’ve been having a lot of fun going out to look for sprouts with my children, although honestly I think I’m more amazed at the little green shoots than they are. (Because, wow! Green things growing from practically nothing!)

Quilting: Full disclosure–I haven’t actually made (or even started) a quilt yet. It’s one of those things I thought I’d never be interested in, and yet I find myself inexplicably itching to make a quilt. And if I’m going to go down this road, I reason, wouldn’t it be neat to hand quilt, rather than use a machine? Part of me thinks that this is insane, and yet I can’t get the idea out of my head. I have no interest in machine quilting, but I’m in love with the idea of doing it by hand.

Oral history: My mother recently told me a story about her childhood that I had never heard before. It was just a passing reference, but it sparked my curiosity to know more about her life and the life of others in my family, and the idea of compiling an oral history of my family popped into my head. This was another one of those niggling ideas that I couldn’t stop thinking of, and now I’m knee deep in a fascinating oral-history project. I’ve been reading some oral histories for inspiration, like this one (one of my favorites!) and the Pittsburgh oral-history project that you can find on our website.

Running: Two years ago I started running again after a long hiatus. Here is the amazing thing about running: first you can’t run at all, struggling to get through a mile, and then you can run two miles, and three, and one day you find yourself running a half marathon. The thing about running is that distances start to seem skewed in your mind; 13.1 miles doesn’t seem very far when you meet all these people who are running 26.2 miles and you start to wonder why you don’t just do that distance. I’ve been reading this book, and I dare you to not feel inspired to try running a marathon after reading these stories!

-Irene

 

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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!

—Julie

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