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September 11, 2001, Documentary Project

Megan Ogulnick lights a candle
                          at a memorial tribute near the Pentagon.
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.
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."


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   May 15, 2015
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