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With In Cold Blood, Truman Capote invented the non-fiction novel and turbocharged the genre of literary journalism. S-Town, a podcast by the team at Serial and This American Life that dropped online March 28th as seven bingeable “chapters”, has unleashed aural literary journalism that is as masterly in its evocation of place and character as exemplars by Didion, Wolfe and Capote himself.

S-Town had 10 million downloads in the first four days, far surpassing even Serial, and has caused waves in media circles as a new form of ‘novelistic’ audio storytelling; it was a Critics’ Pick of the New Yorker and has been rapturously reviewed by The Atlantic, The New York Times  and respected podcasting critic Nicholas Quah in Vulture. It has also been described as “morally indefensible” (The Guardian) for its intrusion into the life of a mentally ill man and panned for breaching privacy, glossing over racism and misrepresenting aspects of gay sexuality.

In order to engage with the debate, it is vital to consider not just the ‘what’ of S-Town, the journalistic content, but also the ‘how’: the art form that is choreographed audio storytelling, which S-Town exemplifies.

Front and centre of S-Town is the mordant, self-destructive genius that is John B. McLemore, a forty-something fixer of antiquarian clocks who is both shaped and shackled by his small Shit Town (S-Town), actually Woodstock, Alabama. Literary journalists can only write about delicious details they unearth; Capote gave us artfully reconstructed scenes and boasted of faithfully recalled dialogue, but S-Town gives us the real deal: we hear first-hand the magnificent rants about climate change, chicanery and ignorance that McElmore delivers with rococo Southern musicality and a stand-up’s timing.

Listen here to how producers Brian Reed and Julie Snyder craft one rant around an operatic aria, delivering a kind of acoustic alchemy that both counterpoints and elevates McElmore’s vitriol.

We ain’t nothin’ but a nation of goddamn, chicken-shit, horse-shit, tattle-tale, pissy-assed, whiney, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-lookin’, damn twerk-fest, peekin’ out the windows and snoopin’ around, listenin’ on the cellphones and spyin’ in the peephole and peepin’ in the crack of the goddamn door, listenin’ in the fuckin’ Sheetrock: Mr Putin puh-lease, show some fuckin’ mercy, I mean drop the fuckin’ bomb, won’t you?”

Opera swells in the background to climactic end, then he emits a heavy sigh.

 I gotta have me some tea.

To add opera to a landscape of trailer trash, tattoos and “titty-rings” might seem incongruous, but in true literary journalism tradition, it is grounded in interview; Miss Irene Hicks tells Reed in a Blanche DuBois voice when he inquires after her grandson, Tyler, John B.’s hired hand: “I have my medicine and I have my [Andrea] Bocelli.”

In S-Town, journalism meets art. The episodes unfold via evocative scenes, intensive interviewing (perhaps a hundred hours  Reed thinks) carefully placed encounters, metaphorical musings by Reed on the “witness marks” left by clock-repairers and the notion of time itself; but all is driven by sound and voice and the unalloyed intimacy of listening, in real time.

Bypassing our bigotry

We meet Tyler via the click, click, click of a chainsaw he’s sharpening, tooth by tooth. Tyler doubles as a tattoo artist whose pop up parlour has a secret Whites Only bar out back. Its misfit denizens are unfazed by a reporter with no camera, only a microphone; Reed records their casual racism and bravado. “Tell ‘em,” one implores.

I’m so fuckin’ fat I don’t care no more. I’m a six-foot, 350 lbs bearded man in a John Deere hat with FEED ME on my belly.

We listen in appalled fascination; audio can bypass our bigotry and suck us in to places where we normally wouldn’t go. As S-Town producer, Julie Snyder, recently told me:

 In audio, it’s much easier to connect with the people in the story. You’re hearing their natural way of talking. You hear emotion, it’s not a polished thing. In film… you judge, the way they look, the way they’re dressed, the setting they’re in.

julie-snyder-and-brian-reed-serial-productions-s-town.jpg

Julie Snyder and Brian Reed of Serial Productions, S-Town. Photo: Elise Bergerson

In this medium, language achieves added force, the poetry of the South laced with the affective power of sound. Tyler’s Uncle Jimmy, speech-damaged after a bullet lodged in his brain, echoes Tyler with strangely beautiful ejaculations reminiscent of Gospel affirmations. “Beacoups and beacoups of stuff,” he sings out, after the murder Reed is investigating at John B.’s request gives way to another, more tragic, death and an unseemly feud about the estate of the deceased.

One thing we don’t hear in S-Town is John B. pissing in the sink, his personal contribution to mitigating global warming by reducing toilet flushing. Right after he tells us about that, we get the mother of all jaw-droppers. Tyler’s sister-in-law rings Reed: John B. has killed himself. While on the phone to the town clerk. By drinking potassium cyanide.

Reed’s shock and grief are real. Like many literary journalists, he has become part of the story. He knows John B. is his subject, not his friend, but he cared about him. Reed’s immersion grows after John B.’s suicide, taking him to S-Town “nine or ten” more times.

John B. asked Reed to come to S-Town to investigate a murder, critics say, not to have his own suicide and life become the focus of the story. But it’s clear even before Reed meets John B. that the “murder” is less important to him than having the ear of a national radio reporter. “We’d end up on the phone for hours, Reed says, “with him going on and on, not just about the murder, but about his life, and his town.”

Socially, intellectually and sexually isolated, John B. yearns for meaningful, non-judgmental contact. He is candid about his depression: he keeps a suicide note on his computer and has emailed the town clerk a list of people to be contacted in the event of his death. His mental illness, it will be suggested by Reed, probably derives from mercury poisoning; he has been ingesting mercury vapour for decades due to “firegilding” and other alchemical operations he practises when mending clocks.

 Listening is bearing witness

In my experience as an oral historian, people greatly value being attentively listened to. When mortality looms, the impulse to place something on the record for posterity, to avoid being erased, can deepen. John B. talked openly about his suicide ideation and probably knew he did not have long to live. He reeled Reed into his life because Reed was the ideal person to bear witness: intelligent enough to engage with a swirling canvas from the epic (John B.’s Critical Issues for the Future Manifesto) to the everyday (dogs, takeaway pizza), undeterred by his “virtuosic negativity”, an outsider with no prior relationship with S-Town and a relatively unobtrusive means of recording all he encountered.

It felt as if by sheer force of will, John was opening this portal between us.

Once he stepped through that portal, into the “proleptic decay and decrepitude” John B. described, Reed felt compelled to carry on: not to needlessly invade a life, but to honour the splendid, scabrous, sprawling complexity of the man who chose him as his chronicler.

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Brian Reed, host of S-Town, in the Alabama woods.   Photo: Andrea Morales

S-Town pioneers a form of aural literary non-fiction in service of what that great Southern writer William Faulkner, from whose pages John B. could have stepped, declared to be the only subject “worth the agony and sweat” of the artist: “the human heart in conflict with itself”. In so doing, it validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore.

The other characters also deepen as we explore John B.’s life: is Tyler (who at 25 has four kids by four women) John B.’s surrogate son or the object of thwarted desire? Tyler’s would-be eulogy for John B. is touching and frank:

Whenever I left him there, he’d say, “I love you man.” Every time. And I’d say, “I love you, too, John B.” And sometimes he’d say, “Just because I say I love you, don’t mean I’m trying to get up your butt or anything.” And I said, “I know John B. God damn.” Because he knew, I mean, he mighta had a little sugar in his tank.

S-Town validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore

 

In its treatment of John B.’s sexuality, S-Town treads on dangerous ground. A self-described “semi-homosexual”, he has had few and mostly unfulfilling relationships. Chapter Six, devoted to this, opens with John B. uncharacteristically reticent. Off the record, he tells Reed about a relationship with a married man. Reed later interviews the man, though does not play the tape; he justifies including these and other details because two others had confirmed them on the record and because John B. is by now, in his own view, “wormdirt”. However, by mentioning that the man once worked for John B, Reed does risk making listeners participate “in the unwitting outing of one queer man over the dead body of another”, as an insightful Vox article suggested.

The final chapter provides disturbing detail on what John B. called his “church” ritual with Tyler, where “Wild Turkey is the Holy Water… the tattoo needles are the reliquaries”. John B. describes church as getting “drunk as hell in the back room”, talking about everything from life and death to black holes and quarks. Tyler reveals, somewhat uncomfortably, that it involved increasingly painful tattooing  that gave John B. “an endorphin high”. John B. got “addicted”, says Tyler, “like a damn dope fiend”. Some critics  – ironically – go into graphic detail to argue that including this element crosses an ethical line. It is shocking, certainly. But the way it unfolds in the inflected voices of Tyler, Reed and John B., the listener can only empathise with John B. and appreciate how truly anguished he must have been to crave this momentary expunging of mental pain. It is a vital part of seeking to understand the man. And that was Reed’s simple, profound purpose.

I think it’s worthwhile trying to understand another person.

The series ends up as a vivid, engrossing portrayal of a community. It dodges the sociology of its rampant racism, but provides insights into the “fuck it” philosophy of the disenfranchised, self-identifying white trash who would shock the world by helping Trump get elected.

The ability to evoke empathy  is a cornerstone of audio and its deployment in S-Town is both timely and provocative. As Snyder told a Sydney Opera House audience last year:

Things that make them human, you relate to that … There is nuance, there isn’t a monolithic way that certain people think, the Republicans think this way and Democrats think that way.

As Uncle Jimmy would say, Amen to that.

______________________________________

An abridged version of this article was published in The Conversation, 27 April 2017, as  ‘S-Town Invites Empathy Not Voyeurism”.

That’s one of the topics up for no doubt heated discussion at a session I’ll be chairing next week (6 Sept) at University of Wollongong. The two-day Expanded Documentary public seminar questions where the boundaries of documentary sit these days, on a spectrum from art to journalism to performance to God knows where. Great range of speakers, including keynote Ross Gibson. Info here.

A geo-spatial approach to documentary. But what about the story?

My session goes back to an old but hard chestnut: where do power, truth and creativity meet in engagement with the disenfranchised. Stories will range from the Mexican Borderlands (Colm McNaughton) to new SBS Online interactive documentary The Block in Redfern, to the broader Indigenous landscape (Susan Moylan-Coombs, NITV).

To get things going, I’ve put together this ‘provocation’. Love your feedback!

To ignore and exorcise subjectivity as if it were only a noxious interference in the pure data is ultimately to distort and falsify the nature of the data themselves.  (Portelli 1997:80)

An award-winning 1974 analysis of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, written by Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman, focuses on the economics of slavery: the conditions under which slaves worked and the efficiency and organisation of Southern American slave plantations. Among their painstaking data, they note that  slaves tended to be whipped an average of 0.7 times a year. That’s a fact. But it bears little relation to reality. Because NO slave could ever have been whipped 0.7 times. You were either whipped or not whipped.

Former slave Frederick Douglass was less in thrall to facts. When he set out to write his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), he was advised by well-meaning abolitionists to stick to the facts, so as to gain credibility. Instead, he included observations and opinion, discussing for instance, not just how often he was beaten but the degree of sadism with which the beatings were executed. Far from being irrelevant, his judgements are both liberating and illuminating, contends the Italian oral history theorist, Alessandro Portelli. ‘The discovery of difference, especially inner difference, is the first step toward recognising the humanity of one’s oppressors and thus affirming their own, which their oppressors deny: ‘I therefore began to think that they [white people] were not all of the same disposition…’ (Portelli 1997:80)

So is difference a positive or a negative force when it comes to one person documenting another’s lived experience? And how do different differences play out in the recorded exchange: gender, class, age, culture, power?

Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer prize-winning American broadcaster and author, recorded some 9,000 interviews with people from all demographics. He did not see the everyday lives he revealed – clerks, hookers, conveyor belt workers – as ‘ordinary’, but as ‘uncelebrated’. He did not see the exchanges as interviews, but as opening ‘the sluice gates of dammed hurts and dreams’. (Terkel 1972: xx)  A white, leftist, secular Jew, his work documents quintessential themes of American society, from race and class to war and capitalism, from a multiplicity of perspectives.

One of his biggest discoveries was that listening matters. Not so much WHO listens, but the act of being heard. He often talked about a poor black American woman he impulsively recorded one day. Seeing her, with two or three children, staring into an empty shop window, Terkel politely asked what she was looking at.

‘Oh, dreams, I’m just looking at dreams.’ So I’ve got my tape recorder and I switch it on and I say ‘Good dreams, bad dreams?” And she starts to talk… and when she stops talking after eight, maybe ten minutes or so, one of them [her children] says, ‘Hey mom, can we listen to what you said?’…  so I play it back and she listens to it too. And when it’s over, she gives a little shake of her head and she looks at me and she says, ‘Well until I heard that, I never knew I felt that way.’

(Terkel in Perks & Thomson 2006:126-7)

So, a sense of validation can be a positive outcome for a subject of the documentarian impulse. But what if her story had been found in the archives and used as proof of, say, the fecklessness of an unemployed welfare recipient? Does the documenter elevate, mediate or misrepresent the raw data he/she gathers? And how do we know, if we only see the end product?

What of the documentarian’s duty to interpret? As Italian scholar Luisa Passerini observes: ‘All autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, [and] for which purpose’ (Passerini 1989:197). Does this dictum bridge the gaps across power, class, race, culture?

Portelli recently published a forty-year study of Kentucky coal miners (They Say in Harlan County, 2011). He is white, Italian, middle-class, male. His interviews with poor American miners,both black and white, male and female, in his second language, are an exercise in Otherness. Even his transcriptionist was so far removed from the territory she misheard the drawled word ‘serpent’ as ‘servant’. Yet perhaps because of this striking difference, rather than in spite of it, the book is an exemplary portrayal of an isolated community.

Fieldwork is by necessity an experiment in equality based on difference. There must always be a line of difference across which the exchange becomes meaningful, but there must also be at least a line along which we can communicate the desire for a common ground and language that makes the exchange possible – our deep-rooted common human nature.    

(Portelli 1997: 60)

So how does this axis of Otherness apply when telling Indigenous stories in Australia? In 2000, Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson advised SBS that   ‘issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.’ (Peters Little 2002). But not all Aboriginal filmmakers believe that only Indigenous people should tell Indigenous stories. Frances Peters Little, Indigenous filmmaker (The Tent Embassy) and historian, argues thus:

The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers (who) have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability (are) involved.

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Some argue that ‘prosumer’ film-making will redress power imbalance: anyone with a smartphone can theoretically make a film these days, distribute it online and even have it financed by crowdfunding. SBS is actively developing democratising initiatives in the user-generated field of documentary, as online producer John MacFarlane can testify. Other practitioners, such as Hegelian Marxist and radio documentary-maker Colm McNaughton, eschew film in favour of sound, in order to mitigate issues of trauma and power. Liz Jessen, a Danish radio feature maker, also believes radio to be a far subtler form of storytelling:

In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen.   (Jessen 2004: 5)

But how do art and aesthetics marry with politics and ideologies? These are key questions this session will raise. A final thought from filmmaker Ken Burns:

You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit… What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story … I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student…. and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that … I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.

(Ken Burns 2010)

References

Burns, K. (2010). “Why Everyone Is Not a Filmmaker “. Retrieved 3 September 2010 from Big Think website at http://bigthink.com/kenburns

Jessen, L. (2004). “All you need is Love, God, Power or Money — an essay on radio narrative”. Retrieved 3 December 2009 from International Features Conference website on http://ifc.blog-city.com/essay_on_documentaries__lisbeth_jessen.htm.

Passerini, L. (1979). “Work ideology and consensus under Italian fascism”. History Workshop. No. 8: 82-108.

Peters Little, F. (2002), “The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films”, Art Monthly

http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-Jan-2003/peterslittle.html

Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press,

Terkel, S. (1972). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. London, Wildwood House.

Terkel, S. (2006). “Interviewing an Interviewer”, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London, New York, Routledge, pp123-128.

 

Every so often, the Oral History Discussion List  [H-ORALHIST@H-NET.MSU.EDU] posts a hopeful query from a newbie, asking for advice on which voice recognition software to use to transcribe an interview. The last one prompted me to respond, as follows.

NO computer will register the nuanced meaning of voice tone, rhythms, breathing, expression and non-verbal utterances such as sobs or catches in the throat. The meaning of oral history is about much more than words. We’ve had this audio vs print transcript debate for decades now. I forget who said this, but it expresses it well: ‘a transcript is a map, but audio is a landscape’.  Using a computer to generate a transcript would be like using a mud map – very limited sense of landscape.

I favour the timed summary-audio retrieval system used by the National Library of Australia. This allows you to browse an interview or collection digitally by keywords, then click to bring up the associated audio segment. (A print transcript may or may not be available as an ancillary text.) By LISTENING to the audio, you get a rounded sense of the speaker as well as what is said and how it is said. The keywords are manually entered by the interviewer, accompanied by a brief summary.

See here as example: interview with Howard Florey, the Australian scientist who invented penicillin.

http://www.nla.gov.au/amad/nla.oh-vn1944249

This timed summary/audio retrieval methodology has also been built into a current major oral history project, Australian Generations (in which I play a small part as a field interviewer), led by Professor Alistair Thomson of Monash University in Melbourne. This page summarises the theoretical debates about use of audio vs. transcript.  See http://arts.monash.edu.au/australian-generations/project/significance/index.php

New practitioners, brace yourselves: (1) oral history is all about LISTENING. Once, in the interview itself; and afterwards, again and again, as you seek to interpret and understand what was said. (2) There is no way of listening to someone EXCEPT IN REAL TIME. That’s partly why oral history is so revelatory – because we do someone the courtesy and privilege of listening to them wholeheartedly for an extended period, which creates an intimate and unique space between two people, and allows for openness, reflection, disclosure and discussion. To cut short the process in the second, post-interview, phase by bringing in a mechanical interpretation via voice recognition software is to traduce the human exchange at the heart of oral history.

As to what computers CAN do, check out this story:

Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

Australian Generations is an epic oral history project – the most multi-faceted undertaken in Australia – and I’m proud to be part of it!

Project Leader Al Thomson (standing) with oral historians

A team of interviewers – some of the most experienced oral historians in the country, with thousands of interviews behind them – will gather 300 Life Story interviews from Australians born between the 1920s and 1930s to 1990.

Jeannine Baker, Rob Willis and Jo Kijas try out retro Sony mic

The aim is to document people’s life pathways over the last 90 years or so, and see how attitudes and experiences have changed over that time (or not). A key aspect is to explore what makes a generation actually identify AS a generation – it’s not just about having a common birth era, it’s about being shaped by seminal shared public events.

If you want to be involved and have YOUR story recorded for posterity, click here.

WANTED!

We’ve been swamped with applications from well educated middle-class women in their 40s and 50s (good on you) but now, to redress the balance, we’d REALLY like to hear from:

Young Blokes (20s and up)

Post-War Migrants

Working-Class Folk

The Induction Day at ABC Radio National in Sydney yesterday was instructive and fun. Kevin Bradley, sound preservation guru at the National Library of Australia, waxed lyrical on the project’s state-of-the-art recording equipment (called, not very imaginatively, Sound Device!).

Kevin Bradley, audio guru, explaining a cardiod microphone.

He talked us through its use – always strange for me, as a radio person, to move from one hand-held mic to a stationary mic per person. But oral history interviews being so long (2-2.5 hours in this case), in situ microphones prevent interviewer fatigue. The separate mics also record on  two distinct channels.

Besides audio engineering (don’t get him started on anechoic chambers or fluorescent lights!), Kevin specialises in making oral history AUDIO easily available online. We provide a timed summary of the interview, with keywords, and browsers can retrieve the relevant audio with a click. SO MUCH better than using those tired and misleading transcripts. As Kevin said, a transcript is just a map, whereas the audio recording is a whole landscape.

The oral history will be mined for a radio series by Hindsight EP and Project PI Michelle Rayner at ABC Radio National, and also drawn on for two books. It’s a great project, runs till end of 2013, so there’s plenty of time to put your hand up.

Imagine someone listening to the story of YOUR life in 2099!

Siobhan trying out Sound Device with interviewer Jill Kitson. I must remember not to hold the mic!

From the elegant brownstones of Brooklyn to the chilly pavements of Montreal, my study tour of North America was an illuminating insight into how oral history and radio connect us through the sharing of personal stories. At the Brooklyn Historical Society, on the twentieth anniversary of the Crown Street riots between Hasidic Jews and West Indian and African-American communities, curator Sady Sullivan was developing the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations project, which explores ‘mixed-heritage families, race, ethnicity, culture, and identity’.  Although the demographics and history of Brooklyn are very different from here, she found resonances with my research into mixed marriage and sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants in Australia, published as an ABC radio documentary, Marrying Out. It was a thrill to learn that my experiences of interviewing were part of a training course in cross-cultural research at BHS.

At Harvard, while students lounged about the famous square and a boisterous group sang Happy (375th) Birthday to its founder, more synergies became apparent. At a seminar hosted by the Harvard University Native American Program and chaired by Professor Mick Dodson, the visiting co-Chair of Australian Studies, I played the voices of Indigenous Australians I had recorded in the West Kimberley. Native Americans listened sympathetically as they described being taken from their mothers as toddlers to be reared by Catholic nuns, losing not only their family but their language and culture. The suffering of the Stolen Generations is well documented in the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) co-authored by Mick Dodson. But even he was shocked by the conditions endured by Native Americans. In the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., we read about the Chiricahua Apache nation, several hundred of whom – men, women and children – were removed from their lands by the US military in 1886. Some remained official ‘prisoners of war’ for 28 years.

Siobhan, Prof Mick Dodson and Shelly Lowe, Navajo nation and Executive Director, HUNAP, at Harvard

In Washington, I visited the sombre Vietnam War memorial wall, and the memorial to the military nurses, discussed in my book Minefields and Miniskirts, an oral history of Australian women’s roles in the Vietnam war. That book was reviewed in the US by Donald A Ritchie, a prominent oral historian. Don’s day job is as US Senate Historian. So it was an extraordinary privilege to be escorted round the Capitol by Don, who has worked there since 1976, and recently edited the transcripts of the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy trials. Amidst the splendid statues of former US presidents, he pointed out a bronze sculpture of Helen Keller, unveiled in 2009 by then Governor of Alabama, Bob Riley. Don wondered if the very conservative Riley knew, as he praised the deaf and blind woman’s resourcefulness, that Keller had gone on to become a radical activist who championed the causes of women’s suffrage and workers’ rights.

The crafting of oral history for radio documentary so as to harness the affective power of voice, was a major theme of presentations I gave at places as diverse as Boston University, Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital  Storytelling in Montreal, and the impressive Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University, set in a classic Southern Mansion complete with white rocking chairs on the porch. My favourite was my talk to rookie radio makers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, the small and charming town that is the unlikely site of the oceanographic institute that discovered the wreck of the Titanic. It is also home to Transom, a visionary public radio showcase established by the indefatigable Jay Allison, who invited me (and luminaries like This American Life’s Ira Glass) to share their passion for the medium. Jay is a True Believer in the importance of radio to serve and connect the community; over four decades, he has pioneered numerous broadcasting initiatives, from the airing of early documentaries on child sexual abuse to his current public storytelling event, The Moth, lauded in the Wall Street Journal. It was a delight to engage with such a kindred spirit – my interview with Jay and others will feature in a forthcoming book (2013).

Jay Allison and Siobhan at the lovely town of Woods Hole MA October 2011

The trip ended, fittingly, in Chicago, with a homage to Studs Terkel, whose 9,000 oral history interviews are being digitised at the Smithsonian. There I met Studs’s son Dan, at the home where Studs crafted his mesmerising tomes of American life, which revealed the ‘precious metal’ he sought to divine in everyone he met.  A burglar broke into this very living-room late one night, Dan told me, and was surprised to find the sofa occupied by Studs’s ailing wife, Ida. Studs was sleeping in a chair alongside, to watch over her.  He readily handed over his wallet and the burglar made to go. Then Studs politely asked the intruder if he could lend him $20 from the wallet, to buy Ida’s medicine next day.  Taken aback, the burglar handed over the money.  As he headed for the window, Studs intervened and cordially escorted him out the front door.

Studs’s interviews were driven by sheer fascination with the human condition. His gravestone, he once remarked, should be inscribed ‘curiosity never killed THIS cat’.  In the end, Studs dispensed with any gravestone, preferring to have his ashes co-mingled with those of his beloved Ida and buried at the Chicago equivalent of Speakers’ Corner, known as Bughouse Square. After Studs’s death in 2008 at the age of 96, Dan placed his parents’ ashes in an unmarked spot in the park. It seemed an entirely appropriate place to end a trip that celebrated the politics of connection and the democratising power of voice.

Enjoying a classic Chicago hot dog with Dan Terkell

In real life, I talk a lot. Like way too much! Sometimes I even bore MYSELF, going on and on in broken record mode about some ancient grievance or tedious domestic whinge. But when I get out my audio recorder to capture someone else’s story, I morph into a model of mute and rapt attention. Someone called it aerobic listening, which describes well the intensity with which I absorb what the person Read the rest of this entry »

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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