September 11, 2001, Documentary Project
Megan Ogulnick lights a candle
at a memorial tribute near the Pentagon. Photo by Mary
Hufford, September 22, 2001.
American Folklife Center Collects Reactions to the September
11, 2001, Terrorist Attack
by James Hardin and Ann Hoog
(This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Folklife
Center News, Vol. XXIII, No. 4)
The American Folklife Center has called upon folklorists and other
cultural specialists across the nation to document on audio tape
the thoughts and feelings expressed by average citizens in reaction
to the tragic events of September 11, 200l. These recordings and
supporting documentary materials will become part of the Center's
Archive of Folk Culture.
The September 11, 2001, Documentary Project is modeled on a similar
initiative from sixty years ago, when Alan Lomax was serving as
the head of the Archive of American Folk Song. On December 8, 1941,
Lomax sent an urgent message to folklorists around the United States
to collect "person on the street" reactions to the bombing of Pearl
Harbor and the declaration of war by the United States. Recordings
were made in all parts of the country in which people expressed
their immediate reactions to this cataclysmic event. Interviews
were conducted with shoemakers, electricians, janitors, oilmen,
cab drivers, housewives, students, soldiers, and physicians. People
of many ethnic groups and ages expressed their opinions on the
political, social, economic, and military aspects of the attack.
The recordings were sent to the Library of Congress, where they
were used to create a radio documentary program that was broadcast
on the Mutual Broadcasting System. The program was part of a series
that was then distributed to schools and radio stations.
A soldier views one of the many memorials at the Pentagon. Detail of a photo
by David Taylor, September 19, 2001.
Sixty years later, in this time of national crisis and mourning,
the Center has issued a similar call to the folklore community
to help create the September 11, 2001, Documentary Project. The
project was suggested by reference specialist Ann Hoog, who noted
the comparisons being made in media reports to the bombing of Pearl
Harbor. Peggy Bulger, director of the Center, who is also serving
this year as president of the American Folklore Society, has emailed
folklorists around the country to "document the immediate reactions
of average Americans in your own communities to yesterday's terrorist
attack and to what many have called an act of war."
In Baltimore, folklorist Rory Turner, program director for the
Maryland State Arts Council, has already heeded the call (see "Just
for the Record," by Stephanie Shapiro, The Baltimore Sun, September
21, 2001, pp. E-1 and E-5). At a Chinese food and barbecue stand
in the city, for example, Turner speaks to Douglas H. Strachan,
pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, who is happy to share his
thoughts: "You can't let your hatred for one nation and one people
destroy your belief in humanity."
The Center will collect and preserve the audio-taped interviews
and supporting materials that present the personal experience stories
of average Americans in the wake of the terrorist attack. What
were they doing when they heard? How have their lives been changed?
In addition, the Center will collect photographic documentation
of the memorial tributes that have sprung up near the Pentagon
and at the site of the World Trade Center disaster. These temporary
memorials include posters, photographs, flowers, flags, and other
memorabilia through which those connected to the disaster victims
and others express their grief and sympathy. (Folklife Center staff
James Hardin, Mary Hufford, and David Taylor have photographed
the memorials, located on a grassy slope overlooking the Pentagon,
in Arlington, Virginia.) The Center would like to have all documentation
by December 1.
Audio field recordings are especially valuable elements of our
historical record, Peggy Bulger says. And storytelling and other
forms of expression help people to manage their feelings: "It is
cathartic to tell stories [about] where you were when you heard
about the attacks." While the Folklife Center is also accepting
some of the more poignant of the countless email accounts in circulation, "nothing
replaces the recorded voice," says Ann Hoog. "When you listen to
those voices from 1941, along with the street noises in the background,
you are better able to imagine the whole context of that particular
time and place."