For the last three years, I’ve been using the clip below when teaching others about conducting oral histories. This is an excerpt from an oral history my uncle and I recorded on Thanksgiving Day 1987 with my paternal grandfather. The entire interview took about three-and-a-half hours and was the first time I heard a detailed account of my father’s family and learned how they wound up in Asheville, NC.
I find it useful for teaching for a number of reasons:
The story my grandfather is telling was not triggered by a direct question about his last drink. Instead, we were questioning him about his career as the foreman of a road construction crew in Western North Carolina. This type of unexpected discovery is one of the thrills of doing oral histories.
The setting was one of the least desirable for conducting an oral history. Typically, if you are conducting an interview you want a quiet room with no external distractions. As it happens, the noisy, holiday atmosphere created an environment where my grandfather felt comfortable opening up and speaking candidly about his life. I’m not sure we would have gotten as much if we were in a closed studio.
You may notice a buzz of voices in the background from my aunts and cousins but you never hear the interviewers during this clip. The one lesson I’m always struggling to get across to new would-be oral historians is the importance of shutting up. It’s incredibly difficult. Social convention teaches us we have to use place-holder words to be active participants in a conversation but oral history is about listening.
These types of “life stories” are valuable and should be preserved. The original recording was done on an old cassette recorder and was subsequently transferred to compact disc. I’ve since converted them to audio files (WAV). When I’m teaching, I try to bring in all these formats to show students how the media has evolved but the recording is the same.