Over the Christmas holidays, I listened to my father-in-law and two of his sisters talk about their childhood growing up in Pinch, West Virginia. There was some disagreement between the three of them over who did what and when, but the thing that struck me was the stories they told. They were kids; going hunting, butchering a chicken and their father’s “issues” with driving. They were just chatting, totally unprompted, and my father-in-law even (mostly jokingly) told me to stop taking mental notes as they talked. I really wished I had my recorder with me.
Before I began the Voices of War documentary project to capture oral histories from West Virginia war veterans, I never thought about the power of an audio recording. I’d worked as a writer and as a photographer. Those were my tools to tell stories. For me, audio recordings were just a way to capture interviews that would then be used to write a story. I also thought video had pretty much replaced video. What was the point of just listening when you could see the person speak, too?
Audio has a distinct advantage over video though. People aren’t intimidated by audio. You can set up a recorder, hit the record button and then ignore it. Video cameras often make people self conscious. They worry about the way they look and they fidget. And there is nothing more boring than a poorly lit video of a talking head. Audio recordings have power on a different level, though. You listen, rather than trying to watch. You hear a catch in the speaker’s voice when he thinks about someone lost. Or hear the pure joy when she thinks of a private time with her father.
Smartphones and laptop computers have the ability to capture high quality audio. I have a free application on my smartphone that can record up to 30 hours of CD quality sound into a replaceable memory card. Ipods and other MP3 players have given us freedom to listen while we do other things, like driving or working out at the gym.
We live in an age where it’s possible to create Do-It-Yourself documentaries. Not the kind of documentaries that will get shown on public television and win us awards, but the kind that capture memories for future generations. My dad likes to tell stories. They usually begin with “Back in the day…” which always makes my daughters’ eyes roll. In 20 years, I’m betting they will want to hear those stories again and will listen with completely different ears…even if they do laugh at Papa Ralph.
If you want to record some family histories, but don’t know where to begin, check out the National Day of Listening from StoryCorps. That was an effort to record memories online on a certain day, but the listening wall is still open. There are some great tips on how to record and how to interview. You can also use a service called SoundCloud to record and share your recordings with friends and family.
Set up the recorder and listen. You won’t regret it.