22 August 2009

Tonight we will be talking with the director and members of the Oroville Living History project, conducted this past summer.  Dusty Taylor, Dustin Rollins, and Thunder Her will tell us their experiences collecting the memories of Orovillians for the archives of the Butte County Historical Society.

Listen to the show.

Background on Oral History

This might, initially, seem a bit removed from our usual topics on this program, which often focus on environmental issues.  But we see oral history as being central to an “Ecotopian” vision of the world, a meeting place of the ecosystems we explore on this program.

John Rouse once wrote in the magazine Media and Methods: “We are all storytellers, and our lives are the stories that we tell.”   We are spinners of yarns, for the most part “true” in our minds, but nevertheless turned into stories that, in turn, come to represent our world.

So just as witnesses at an accident scene present very different “fictions” to the police—all “true” in the witnesses mind, storytellers sift, interpret, and create a narrative. In fact, a truly “objective,” comprehensively detailed report of experience—what Donald Graves calls the “bed to bed” catalog of events—is pretty dull reading. We want our storytellers to separate the wheat from the chaff, the essential from the nonessential, to condense their experience into a good yarn.

In fact, we’ve probably all had the experience of the compulsive storyteller who doesn’t condense and extrapolate, but just starts talking, talking, talking.  Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is about a guy who has a story he must tell, and at one point, desperate to be free, Coleridge’s narrator says, “Unhand me, greybeard loon!.”

So oral historians have an interesting task: On the one hand, they want to collect detailed memories, but they often edit and select, preparing focused stories, the sort you hear on  Story Corps, broadcast by NPR.  Since 2003 this independent nonprofit has recorded 50,000 stories that will be archived in the Library of Congress to celebrate the lives of everyday people.  www.storycorps.org

And you hear good oral history in Ira Glass’s “This American Life” on NPR,  where stories are clustereed by themes to crreate what they describe as “movies for the radio.”  Sometimes these are told by well-know people like David Sedaris, but they are often from everyday people who have extraordinary stories to tell.


As many listeners know, these contemporary oral history projects are part of a rich tradition of oral history that goes back to the Federal Writer’s Project of the Great Depression.  We read from the home page of that project, whose documents are now part of the Library of Congress:

The Federal Writers’ Project materials in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division are part of a […] collection titled The U.S. Work Projects Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey. The holdings from Federal Writers’ Project span the years 1889-1942 and cover a wide range of topics and subprojects. Altogether, the Federal Writers’ holdings number approximately 300,000 items and consist of correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, graphs, charts, preliminary and corrected drafts of essays, oral testimony, folklore, miscellaneous administrative and miscellaneous other material.

Well over one-half of the materials in this record group pertain to the American Guide, the sobriquet for the critically acclaimed state guides. The remainder of the material reflects other areas of interest that developed as the project grew in maturity. They include a rich collection of rural and urban folklore; first-person narratives (called life histories) describing the feelings of men and women coping with life and the Depression; studies of social customs of various ethnic groups; authentic narratives of ex-slaves about life during the period of Slavery; and Negro source material gathered by project workers. In addition, drafts of publications and intended publications are included. These publications express concern with the direction America was taking and with the preservation and communication of local culture. Titles include Hands That Build America, From These Strains, Lexicon of Trade Jargon, and Pockets in America.

The Federal Writers Project had its origins in FDR’s new deal, where (and we continue to quote from the Federal Writer’s Project home page):

The plight of the unemployed writer, and indeed anyone who could qualify as a writer such as a lawyer, a teacher, or a librarian, during the early years of the Depression, was of concern not only to the Roosevelt Administration, but also to writers’ organizations and persons of liberal and academic persuasions. It was felt, generally, that the New Deal could come up with more appropriate work situations for this group other than blue collar jobs on construction projects. […] The Writers’ Project, later characterized by some as the federal government’s attempt to “democratize American culture,” was approved for federal monies in June, 1935. […] As the Project continued into the late thirties, the director was powerless to stop increasing criticism by reactionary Congressmen who were intent on shutting down the enterprise. In October 1939, the Project’s federal monies ceased, due to the Administration’s need for a larger defense budget. After 1939, emasculated, the Project sputtered along on monies funded to the states, closing completely one year or so after America’s entry into World War II.


The struggles of the Writer’s Project have also been told in a wonderful feature film, “The Cradle will Rock.”

So the connections with an Ecotopian vision are pretty clear: Oral histories provide a network, a sense of community, and history that, if we are wise, can guide us into a better future.

Our Conversation with Dusty, Dustin, and Thunder

  • Please tell us about how you became involved with the project. What did you think when you first heard about it?
  • Did you have any oral history or interviewing experience before you began?  What did you learn about how to do good interviews?
  • Who were the people you interviewed?  How did you locate them?  They were all interesting people, but are there stories that you found especially interesting or enlightening?
  • During the past week, you did some audio editing of the interviews. How easy or difficult was that to do?  What sorts of decisions did you have to make as you edited the tapes?
  • You brought along a sample of an interview—Let’s play it.
  • Play interview tape.
  • As you reflect on the project, how do you think oral history helps us understand our community?  Did you personally learn some lessons from your interviewees?
  • The products of the project will be placed with the Butte County Historical Museum—tell us what you know about when and how they will be available.


Do-It-Yourself Oral History

We come now to the do-it-yourself part of the program, and as we talk about oral history, we sort of have to say, “Do what we say, not what we do.” For we both have regrets that we never quite got around to recording interviews with our grandparents (we would have had to use an old fashioned reel-to-reel recorder) or our parents (whom we could have gotten on cassette).

But with the wealth of digital equipment out there you can avoid our error and do really neat oral history projects inexpensively and with high quality.

At KZFR, we use digital recorders that only cost about $200, have great microphone sensitivity, and record directly onto a memory chip that you can slip into your computer.

The big thing is just do it. Instead of vowing to get granny on tape, set up a time:

  • Family visits and holidays.
  • Hospital or nursing home visits.
  • Birthdays, anniversaries.

Other technologies:

  • A lot of oral historians also use home video cameras to record interviews.
  • And if you have a computer at home, it probably already includes audio and video editing software that allows you to tighten up the interviews and maybe insert some commentary of your own.
  • You can also use PowerPoint software to do neat stuff that can include audio and video clips as well as photographs.
  • And many families are creating entire websites using the Jumla program or WordPress (which we use for Ecotopia), programs that make it easy for you to put up texts, photos, audio, and video.
  • Plus as former English profs, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention writing. Although many people have a something of a block on writing or are nervous about grammar and spelling, with a little encouragement many older (and younger) folks we’ve worked with can get hooked on journaling (the written form of blogging) that can produce material you can edit or use as is as part of your family history.

If you need to learn more, there are a number of web sites that will help you get started including:





Just google for “oral history” or “family history” and add “how to” to the search term.

Playlist for Ecotopia #48  Oral History

1. Reckoner  4:50    Radiohead          In Rainbows

2. Tell Me a Story     2:08    Frankie Laine And Friends     20 Great Tracks

3. Story of My Life    3:19    Rich Cronin        Billion Dollar Sound

4. Story of My Life    3:10    Chris Hoch    Shrek – The Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

5. Tell Me a Story     4:08    Krista Detor     Mudshow

6. Weave Me the Sunshine           4:28    Peter, Paul And Mary          The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. A Place Called Home     3:43    PJ Harvey   Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea

8. The Story   3:31    Ani DiFranco      Ani DiFranco            Alternative

9. House You’re Living In   4:18    Voices On The Verge      Live In Philadelphia