Mama joined the StoryCorps. She didn’t enlist. She was drafted, at the suggestion of one of her daughters-in-law, and dragooned into service one sunny January afternoon. I think she served with honor.
If you drive by or work near the Civil Rights Institute, you may have noticed a shiny aluminum Airstream trailer parked all month long in the vicinity. That’s where the magic has been happening, day after day, over two microphones in the soundproofed rear of the vehicle. It’s just another stop along an endless road for the nomadic archivists of the Peabody Award-winning StoryCorps.
A guy named Dave Isay had this idea in 2003 (and subsequently won a Macarthur Foundation “genius” grant for it), but the inspirational concept is as old as intelligible speech: one person tells another his story for posterity. Through storytelling have passed the great sagas of history, enacted by personages long gone yet whose names live on through the recounting.
However, even more arresting than the story of people from long ago is the sound of people from long ago. Some of the most astonishing human artifacts you’ll ever hear are from a device called a phonautograph, invented by a Frenchman named Edouard Leon Scott de Martinville. Scanned by computer experts in the 21st Century, his etched representations of sound waves revealed actual voices from 1860, more than a quarter-century before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It is ghostly and stirring to hear someone reciting poetry and singing “Au Clair de Lune” a century and a half ago. Just as photography’s first captured light helped fix an otherwise fleeting world, recorded sounds give tangible dimension to the past.
StoryCorps captures the present in a similar way. Since Isay opened his first StoryBooth in Grand Central Station, the archivists of StoryCorps have recorded over 31,000 interviews with ordinary people, the electronic transcriptions of which are preserved at the Library of Congress in the American Folklife Center. The key word here is “ordinary”. Posterity is keen on retaining the utterances of the rich and famous, but usually cares diddly about the rest of us, unless our bones and pottery fragments happen to be dislodged by a bulldozer updating infrastructure. As Isay explained to his radio mentor, Amy Goodman, during a 2009 interview, “StoryCorps is about taking the time to really listen to the people who you wouldn’t necessarily notice walking down the street. And when you do listen, you see the poetry and grace that, you know, is in all of us.”
The StoryCorps fleet of Airstream trailers—there are two—has rolled into all fifty states in search of that poetry, and some of it is shared with the nation weekly on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” broadcast. What’s interesting to me are the timbres of the voices from all over the country telling these life stories. We tend to lament the homogenization of the nation, as America, thanks to fast transportation and faster communications, seems to have morphed into one gigantic shopping mall from sea to shining sea, but the StoryCorps segments, compelling our attention to two voices for a few minutes each week, remind us that we still are an amalgam of individuals.
One of the most well-known of these narratives involved Danny and Annie Perasa, who recorded for StoryCorps several times. Their story was essentially that they were in love with each other, and they testified to it in voices unmistakably straight outta Flatbush. Reading a transcript of their interviews is one thing, but listening to this betting clerk and this nurse elevates their love story to the level of Heloise and Abelard (which, if you’re not up on your 12th Century bodice-rippers, is a pretty lofty altitude).
(Danny and Annie also merited becoming one of the first StoryCorps interviews turned into a film short by the Rauch brothers animation team. If you didn’t catch the six cartoons, oddly reminiscent of Ren and Stimpy, on PBS last summer, you can catch up with them now at the StoryCorps website.)
Should you want to tell a tale to StoryCorps while the mobile recording booth is in town, and they’re here through Saturday, you must make a reservation, since the archivists can enact only eight interviews a day. There’s a nominal charge, but if you can’t afford it, you don’t have to pay, and that succinctly explains why StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization.
Each session lasts forty minutes. You can bring your own interviewer or one of the two historians traveling with the gear will be glad to facilitate the conversation. The chat is recorded directly to CD recorders, and at the end, one of the disks goes home with you and one goes to the Library of Congress.
That latter detail was a bit off-putting to Mama, who fretted that her life story might not merit such high-toned storage. Yet when the disks began to spin and facilitator Jackie Sojico gave the high sign, Mama’s recollections started turning to gold, right before our ears. It wasn’t just the details of her upbringing—though if I’d ever known that Granddaddy named his 1926 Oldsmobile Josephine, I’d forgotten—but the fact that she was telling them, in her own voice for all to hear forevermore.
In this small way, words are given life. You may not be able to get in for a StoryCorps session this time around, but if you can’t, I know a couple of recording studios hereabouts that can replicate the experience for you, though without the distinct charm of an Airstream trailer. Otherwise, use a digital recorder from OfficeMax or turn on your FlipCam and sit down with your people to collect their stories. As Dave Isay puts it, “Listening is an act of love.”
Preserve the memories that you can, any way you can. If we do not honor the past, it is impossible to respect the future.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.