By PEGGY BULGER
In the beginning all history was oral. The great bards of Britain, the seanachies of Ireland, the griots of Africa and the tribal elders of the Americas passed on the collective wisdom and cultural memory of their respective peoples through a spoken tradition. These literal "walking encyclopedias" were the most revered and sought-after community scholars in all societies. They were entrusted with the cultural education of the people—without their knowledge of the past there could be no informed future.
Information systems change, however, over time. As the written word replaced oral raconteurs down through the generations, history became an academic pursuit that was based on written facts and dates. It was meant to be permanent and unchanging—an "accurate," yet sometimes dry, record that was passed on in books and manuscripts. At the same time, the historical record has always been enlivened by eyewitness accounts. Now, at the turn of the 21st century, oral history is experiencing an extraordinary renaissance, bolstered by the emergence of storytelling as an oral art used in myriad settings. For many, this is folk wisdom at its best.
Despite the rise of literacy and many centuries of written communication, the power of the voice to convey nuanced and compelling information has persevered. A master storyteller or folk historian can create riveting sound portraits and oral landscapes that broaden and deepen the textbook accounts of great events. Emotions—-joy, fear, tenderness and bravery—are all conveyed through the voice, and listening to a personal oral history breathes life into the factual data of history, bringing animation and humanity to the mute transcript or manuscript.
In addition, oral history breaks down the caste system and class barriers one encounters when reading the official historical record, which has been created by the few, the great, the educated and the credentialed. Far from a replacement for the history texts that recount the who, what, where, when, why and how of the powerful policymakers, politicians, celebrities and great war heroes, oral history documents the experiences, emotions, actions and reactions of people who live everyday lives—ordinary people experiencing sometimes extraordinary events. Their stories add the flesh and sinew to the bare bones of historical timelines and genealogical charts. These narratives also provide the emotional glue to hold the intellectual pieces of the past together.
Everyone has a story to tell, and individual stories provide an understanding of what it means to be a human being and a participant in major events—those events that are considered "history." With oral histories, personal journeys of discovery told from a unique perspective are passed on to future generations.
Since the beginnings of recorded sound, oral histories have been collected and preserved, and literally thousands of these sound recordings reside in the collections of the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress. This is history without the fog of a third-person filter, history that is composed of personal human experience. This is not the story of the famous and the few, but the overlapping cacophony of the masses; for history is not a solo story, it's a chorus of experience. These sound biographies are intimate, compelling and sometimes shocking in a way that transcends our academic knowledge of the past.
For instance, it is absolutely chilling to listen to Fountain Hughes, an ex-slave from South Carolina, calmly recount the acts of torture and abuse he endured under that "peculiar institution." It is heartbreaking to hear John and Elaine Leinung tell stories about a vibrant John J. Battaglia, their 22-year-old son, who was a risk consultant working on the 100th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. And it is absolutely heartwarming to hear the "StoryCorps" interview of Danny Perasa as he tells his wife, Annie, that "marriage is like color TV; once you have it, you never want to go back to black-and-white."
The American Folklife Center was established by Congress in the Library of Congress in 1976 to "preserve and present American folklife." As part of that mission, the center collects and archives the oral histories and personal narratives of everyday Americans. These recordings span 115 years and are preserved in all formats, from the wax cylinders of the 1890s to the digital compressed audio files collected today. Without oral history, scholars would have only a small fraction of information on which to base their understanding of the past, because folklife and folk wisdom are essential cultural components of all societies.
Audio Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture
There are literally hundreds of oral history collections and personal narrative interviews in the collections of the AFC. These are just a few of the audio treasures to be found in its Archive of Folk Culture:
- American Dialect Society Collection. These are selected recordings collected for the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada. Recorded on discs in the 1930s, they include oral history, personal narrative, recipes and family folklore from throughout the nation. Among the recordings are personal memories of slavery, the Civil War, working on whaling ships and other 19th century life experiences.
- Aaron Ziegelman Foundation Collection. In 1994 Aaron Ziegelman created his foundation and initiated the Luboml Exhibition Project to preserve the history and the memory of his birthplace, Luboml, a shtetl (market town) in Poland, whose Jewish community was destroyed in World War II. The collection includes photographs, letters, maps, posters, artifacts and oral histories from more than 100 families. This collection is invaluable in preserving the memories and history of a town that exemplifies the everyday life of a Jewish community before the Holocaust.
- Arete: The Memories of Greek-American Women: An Oral History Collection Project. This collection contains oral history interviews with people of Greek descent living in the United States, collected during 1987-88. This is only one of dozens of oral history collections in the AFC archive that document the lives of ethnic Americans.
- Beard Interview. One 7-inch tape of an interview with Dewey Beard, the last Sioux survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer's Last Stand), which was recorded in Rapid City, S.D., June 18, 1955.
- "Custer's Last Stand" Related by Col. Willard Webb. One 7-inch tape of Col. Willard Webb describing Gen. George Custer and relating the events he witnessed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The tape includes a Sioux song written in celebration of the Native American victory. Recorded in Washington, D.C., November 1951.
- Gen. Julius Franklin Howell/Tales of the Confederate Army. Recordings of Gen. Julius Franklin Howell (age 101) of Bristol, Va., in the Recording Laboratory of the Library of Congress, June 2, 1947. Howell gives his oral history of experiences in the Confederate Army.
- Brevard County, Fla., Oral History Project. Under the direction of Nancy Yasecko of Vanguard Productions of Merritt Island, Fla., in 1992, this project documented and preserved the regional, occupational and ethnic heritage of Brevard County, Fla., through videotaped interviews of longtime residents. The interviews are with a variety of individuals who, through personal reminiscence, bring life to the history of Brevard County, spanning a range of time and subjects from old Florida to the Space Age.
- Sterling Brown and Lewis Jones Recordings. Records made by Sterling Brown of Howard University and Lewis Jones of Fisk University, consisting of personal narratives by an African American barber in Nashville, Tenn. Made in 1945, this oral history throws valuable light on Southern life and lore, especially as they involve race relations.
- George Carey/Interviews and Narratives from Maryland and Virginia. Tapes containing more than 200 interviews, narratives and oral histories recorded on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1968 by folklorist George G. Carey.
These are examples of collections that can be heard by coming to the Library of Congress and the Folklife Reading Room. However, many of the center's oral history collections have been digitized and are now available through the AFC Web site at www.loc.gov/folklife/, including the following:
- Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories. Almost seven hours of recorded interviews that took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, the coercion of slaves, their families and freedom.
- Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection. 363 sound recordings and accompanying photos document the life, work, music and cultural traditions of residents in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) migrant work camps in central California from 1940 to 1941.
- After the Day of Infamy: "Man on the Street" Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. A presentation of approximately 12 hours of opinions recorded the days and months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor from more than 200 individuals in cities and towns across the United States.
- Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project. Told through oral history interviews, memoirs, diaries and correspondence, these heartfelt accounts make one laugh, cry and remember. These stories are not a formal history of war, but a treasure trove of individual feelings and personal recollections. The Veterans History Project Collection, with more than 40,000 interviews, is the largest oral history collection in the nation (see p. 154).
- September 11, 2001, Documentary Project. Almost 200 audio and video interviews, drawings, photographs and narratives that capture the heartfelt reactions, eyewitness accounts and diverse opinions of Americans and others in the months that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93. Patriotism, sadness, anger and insecurity are common themes expressed through the material.
In addition to these diverse collections, the American Folklife Center is a partner in a new, national initiative called StoryCorps (see related story, p. 139). This project, created by MacArthur Award-winning radio producer David Isay, is a revolutionary national effort to instruct and inspire Americans to record one another's stories in a sound studio. Begun in 2003 with a single recording booth located in Grand Central Terminal in New York, StoryCorps now has two mobile recording booths touring the nation and a fourth booth located at "Ground Zero" on the site of the 9/11 tragedy in New York City. This project allows everyday Americans to record broadcast-quality oral history interviews with their relatives or friends under the guidance of a trained facilitator. At the end of the 40-minute session, the participants receive a CD of their interview, and a second copy becomes a permanent part of the American Folklife Center's archives. This project is fast becoming one of the most popular oral narrative efforts in the nation.
Oral history is concerned with authenticity, not necessarily accuracy, and with emotional connection, not objectivity. It is real, it has grit, and it opens doors to a deeper understanding of humanity. Oral history is captured through the language of experience—-defining place and time on a very human, intimate and personal scale. This is the very essence of the nation's cultural heritage and traditional knowledge. The American Folklife Center is proud to be capturing this important historical information for the scholars of tomorrow.
Peggy Bulger is the director of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.