The Interview Beckons

When I first heard that we might be working on a project involving interviewing female science graduates from Royal Holloway and Bedford College I must admit I was a little apprehensive. I was worried that I might not have a sufficiently scientific background myself to do the interview justice. What if the person I was allocated was going to talk to me about some extremely complicated piece of post-doctoral chemistry? How would I respond? Would I make the right noises? How would I even know what was going on? I could foresee despondency and panic. Alternatively, thinking about experiences with some of my own older relatives, there were alternative scenarios in which the interviewee was either extremely deaf resulting in a great deal of shouting and confusion, or else prone to repeat the same story several times in one sitting interspersed with the statement “I’m eighty-four you know” at regular intervals.

As it turns out, I was worrying over nothing. When I spoke to my interviewee over the phone to arrange our interview dates she was very friendly, joking that she was glad I called when I did as she was working in the garden and needed an excuse to come in doors to make a cup of tea. She gave the impression that she is very much looking forward to taking part in the project and I must say I’m looking forward to interviewing her.

My interviewee is a Physics graduate from Bedford College (so I must be careful to not refer to the project as if it is solely about Royal Holloway) and this is interesting in itself as there will be lots to ask her about life at Bedford and around Regent’s Park in the 1950s. Born in the 1930s, I’m hoping to find out about her memories of life as a child in wartime Britain and if that was one of the things that drew her towards science as a career. After University she worked as a secondary school teacher and it will be interesting to perhaps explore the many changes she would have seen in post-war education, especially as her career spanned the rise and fall of the grammar schools. I also know that she was involved in local politics after retiring from teaching and maintains an interest in the arts, so I’m looking forward to hearing about that part of her story too.

All of this is great, but now I have some more worries. Will two 90 minute sessions be enough? Will my batteries hold out? Will we go off on an interesting tangent and not talk about Bedford College enough? At least with two interviews we have a bit of flexibility to allow for problems like these. My other worry, is striking the balance between not speaking too much myself (because it’s not a normal two-way conversation) and making sure that she knows I’m interested and engaged in what she’s saying.

It will be a good thing to record my interviewee’s memories, not just for our college archives but for her own family. Over the years I heard a lot of stories and anecdotes from my older relatives, but rarely wrote any down and certainly never sound recorded any because I foolishly kidded myself that they would be around forever. Now they’re gone and I wish I’d have had the foresight to carry out interviews like this on my own parents.

Oral History and the English Folk Revival

Given a choice, the topic I would like to explore for my initial oral history project is the post-war revival in English traditional music.

There are two main areas I’d like to look at. The first is the development of the music as a genre, looking at how skiffle and the work of American artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger encouraged an interest in playing simple folk songs and how this gradually morphed into a whole range of interpretations of traditional music culminating in the emergence of electric folk bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, as well as free reed/brass combinations like Brass Monkey, Home Service and Bellowhead. I’d like to look at how the musicians working in this genre searched for and revived these old songs whether it be looking in the archives of the great Victorian folksong collectors, collecting new material from the Traveller community or from sources such as the Copper Family. I’d also look at the individual paths which had brought musicians into this kind of music and how their interest in the genre developed. Another aspect to explore would be the clash of attitudes over what was and wasn’t permissible in terms of instrumentation and arrangement during the “folk wars” of the 60s and 70s, and the influence of key figures such as Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd in shaping these attitudes.

The second area to explore is the social history behind the folk music revival. What sorts of people were attracted to the music? How did folk clubs and folk camps develop? How big a part do formal organisations like EFDSS play in the lives of performers, and does this relationship differ between amateur and professional musicians? English traditional folk music has always been somewhat marginalised compared to the folk traditions of other countries. Whereas folk music in much of Europe is often linked to national identity (and thus to a degree nationalism) this is less the case in England where on the whole English folk musicians have been of the left, and have had an internationalist outlook. Many English folk songs address the problems of class, poverty and conflict, and this tradition has often been carried on in the subject matter of contemporary songs written by musicians working in the idiom. A major aspect of the project would therefore be exploring the participants’ political beliefs and discussing the political events that have had an impact on their music. It would also be interesting to explore the importance of local or regional identity with those performers whose music is strongly rooted in a particular community.

The folk revival is worthy of an oral history study in itself as a significant social movement in the latter half of the twentieth century and because much of the contemporary output it produced reflected the social concerns of the day. At the same time it is significant in that it has recovered and made available voices from our lost past. We can’t do the oral history of 18th and 19th century working people and they are often missing from the historical record, so the revival of their songs is one of the main ways we have of understanding their lives and concerns.

There are many names that spring to mind as obvious candidates to interview for this project, but if I had to narrow it down my first choice would be one from a shortlist of Martin Carthy, Peggy Seeger, John Tams and Shirley Collins.