Sorting through the contents of a box pulled from the attic, I found the cassette recorder that I had used in college to record lectures for note taking. Some of the instructors spoke so fast that handwritten notes were almost impossible to keep up with. For studying, I could playback the recording and fill in the information that they covered in their lectures, but didn’t make it to handouts or get written down during class.
Feeling somewhat nostalgic, I remembered my first tape recorder as a boy. I would sneak my recorder into the room where my dad was playing guitar and singing. On occasion he would have accompaniment with one of his cousins, but most of the time it was a solo performance of his favorite Hank Williams songs or a rendition of “Country Roads”, a ballad made popular by John Denver.
As we discovered over the last several months, oral history projects are very important to preserve our family stories, provide a background for our research, and can provide many details that simply following a paper trail for our generations past cannot provide. While we are most familiar with interviews in printed form such as a book, magazine, or newspaper article, an audio recording of an ancestor speaking can give us so much more than the written word.
One such interview was conducted with my Great Grandmother Laura Mae (Bell) Conner by a cousin, Jackie Lynn Snow and later transcribed for publication. Entitled “No Cars and Not Much School”, it won second place in an Oral History project at Green County High School in Kentucky. The two-page article appears on pages 16 and 17 from the Spring, 1978 Convention issue (Vol. XIX, No. 3) of KENTUCKY HERITAGE, a magazine of the Kentucky Junior Historical Society. Unfortunately the taped interview that had been submitted for the contest was never returned.
“Granny” Conner spoke about many issues about life in the early 1900s in rural Russell County, Kentucky. Some of the stories I had heard before but had been forgotten, such as the September 12, 1931 Baseball Game shooting. However, there were many other details in the interview that I was not aware of prior to reading it. For instance, I had not known that the baseball shooting had actually occurred at a field that was built at the Conner family farm or that she kept several of the bullets that had been fired that day.
From the interview, I learned that Jesse James had passed through Russell County during his exploits and swapped horses with one of my relatives while fleeing after a bank robbery. I was also unaware that my great grandfather had left his family and his farm to take factory work in Indiana for a season. There is so much that can be learned from an oral interview if you simply ask.
Popular long before the telephone became commonly found in every household as families began spread farther apart geographically, many would make cassette recordings that were mailed in place of handwritten letters. Especially helpful when a relative had vision impairment or couldn’t read, hearing the voices of a loved one across the miles can bring comfort to those longing for a little bit of home that a paper and ink letter cannot provide. My mother had some of these cassette mailers that were among the items in a box that I inherited upon her passing, so I’m sure to discover audio letters and recordings as I go through her letters when continue my genealogical research as part of a future Do-Over project.
I received one such cassette tape from cousin Terry Conner that was recorded by his father Jay during a visit with his parents. Recorded sometime prior to his death in December 1970, my Great Grandfather Willie Conner gives a brief audio recital of a poem or verse he learned during his childhood with Granny Conner providing correction in the background. I am hopeful that someone will be able to recognize it and let me know where the verse he quoted was from. It does not contain much in the way of informative content, but I am ecstatic to have an audio recording that has my great grandparents speaking.
Recently becoming more common to genealogy are battle accounts recorded with service members. I was able to determine more information about my uncle Roger’s service in Vietnam and the battle in which he and his best friend were killed in action. Accounts of their heroic service as told by their fellow soldiers has been preserved at the 4th Cavalry Association.
In addition to written and audio accounts, video recordings such as the Veterans History Project conducted for PBS may be available for our ancestors. Accounts from those still living can provide valuable insight into military service even after our direct ancestor who served has long since passed. Our local PBS station conducted an interview with Harley Richardson who served in World War II.
I was able to record the interview and share with many of his family members who were unable to view it when it originally aired, but more importantly preserve it my son who is directly descended from Mr. Richardson on his mother’s side. The Richardson and the associated branches schedule family reunions every five years. They hired a local company who attended the reunion and created a video which was made available for purchase by family members. As time went by, family members themselves conducted interviews with their elders which were included in the videos.
You may want to enlist the services of a talented relative to create a recording of your own family reunions as well as the stories of the older generations. If your relatives can bring a video camera to the next gathering, this should be a project given priority throughout the day.
In 1999, the Conner family made a tribute video with a segment for each of Willie and Laura’s twelve children. Each of the children living spoke for a few minutes sharing their own personal memories and segments were created in remembrance for those who had already passed. In a wrap-up segment, my great uncle Norman Conner narrated several reel-to-reel videos from his collection that he had recorded during the 1970s.
We have come a long way in our ability to preserve audio and videos:
Edison’s cylinders Early Photography Discs made of wax and vinyl Animated Stills Reel-to-reel Silent Films 8-tracks Colorized Movies Cassettes Portable Video Cameras Compact Discs YouTube & Vimeo Mp3 Smart Phone Cameras Cloud Music Library Digital Movies
Luckily I still had an old boombox for the cassette conversion and a VHS player to convert the video tapes to DVD. One of my projects this year is to make each video available digitally and preserve for future generations through storage in the cloud. Over the next several months, I will be looking into various technologies to conduct interviews through Skype, Facetime, or web-casting as a means of recording and preserving our family interviews.
The first step in your preparation should be a choice between “paper or plastic”. Will you use a pencil and notebook paper or will you use a tape recorder, camcorder, or cell phone that can be preserved along with the transcribed interview? If you do not have the means to purchase good video equipment or rent an audio studio, then you make due with what you have available now.
The next step in your interview preparation should include familiarizing yourself with the technology you have available. For instance, if you plan to record your interview, you should be aware of any time constraints or software limitations prior to actually scheduling any interviews. Find the best software apps and tools that are suited for your needs then spend time in practice to ensure quality results. You may even want to have redundancy and backup plans in place before hand.
Conducting interviews face-to-face is preferred to phone conversations or letter writing exchanges. You can get visual cues from their facial expressions as whether or not to continue with any uncomfortable topics. It would be a good idea to come with some questions already prepared prior to the interview, but also allow the conversation to direct your line of questioning and good follow up questions rather than sticking to a scripted interrogation.
In some cases you may want to provide a list of questions you intend to ask so the person you are interviewing can prepare but also allow for flexibility when their retelling requires additional clarification. You will want to have a pen and paper with you to make notes even if the interview is being recorded.
Set a specific time window that you plan to conduct the interview and try to keep as closely to the time allotted as possible. You should want the person being interviewed to remain open to future interviews so you should respect their time and ask for additional time at a future date if needed or they seem open to further sharing and time does not allow the interview to continue until another time.
Conduct as much of the general genealogy as possible in advance. Your questions can then be narrowed to specific areas and help to develop direct questions for the interview far ahead of time. There are plenty of example questions online that can be utilized for a reference, but I think many are far too generalized for what I would choose to use.
I would also prepare a timeline of family and historical events to refer to throughout the interview and may ask a question such as “what is your earliest childhood memory?” to determine a starting place and ask the questions in a logical order rather than jump around.
Many of our ancestors have their personal stories and memories preserved through letters, publications, and both audio or video interviews. We can hire out the service to others, or with a little bit of preparation, we could conduct interviews with our oldest living relatives ourselves to ensure the details of their recollections are recorded for posterity and shared with future generations.
The best advice is to get started now! If you have any recordings from past reunions, published interviews of family members, any audio interviews or recordings of our family on cassette or VHS tapes that you would like to make available through digital means, please let me know.
This month I am launching several new areas of the website and am now offering automatic delivery of the monthly newsletter directly to your in-box! New subscribers this month will get immediate access to download the free Worry-Free Interview Checklist. Hurry, it’s only available for a limited time. You won’t want to miss what we have planned for next month!
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