The challenges of Oral History in Public History through popular music

A relatively new challenge is in the field of oral history is in using popular music as reliable historical evidence, particularly focusing on the period of the 1960s and 70s, as this era captured in the music of many artists through their songs, the mood of the time.  Many musicians voiced political and social themes on civil rights, war, feminism and sexual freedom and through this recorded a powerful oral history of that time.

On writing my essay on Oral History in Public History I will explore the difficulties and challenges of assessing social and political history in popular music. The author B. Lee Cooper suggests that ‘song lyrics can provoke the sense of ‘social remembering’, enabling the historian to examine social change in challenging areas including religion, sex, war, poverty and drugs within that period.’  In the new seriousness of music during this era, young musicians were voicing a growing contempt of American society and politics.  Many ordinary people identified with this mood, and the popularity of this music was demonstrated by the enormous sales of records.  For a historian, there is much qualitative and quantitative research that could be gathered through the sales and marketing of popular music.

Reflecting on this module on Oral History in Public History , I have found this subject fascinating and thought provoking. I have enjoyed the lectures immensely and also the experience of producing an oral history interview.  Thank you Graham.

In preparation for my interview this Thursday

I am planning to interview Mr. W. this Thursday.  As very little has come to light on his time in 249 squadron, I will direct the main part of my interview on his time in Bloemfontein, South Africa, as a young 12 year old evacuee. Mr. W. was also very keen to talk about this particular event and he seemed to have very vivid memories.

At the time, British Pathe made several films of evacuees arriving in the British dominions.  These films portraying the children looking happy and excited in anticipation of a great adventure ahead of them, in the warmer climates and safely away from the dangers of the war back home. This was a skillful peace of propaganda to make parents feel that sending their beloved children half way around the world had been the best decision for their safety and wellbeing.  Though, in reality transporting these children out to sea in the midst of a war proved more dangerous than keeping them at home.

Mr. W. would have spent most of the war away from his family. By the time he returned at the end of the war in 1945, he would have been an 18 year old man, hardly recognisable from the 12 year old boy that had left in 1939.  I would like to discuss with Mr. W. how he felt about leaving his family, whether his time in Bloemfontein was a happy one, how he felt about the family he left behind when returning to England, and whether this long period of separation had a lasting effect on his relationship with his parents. This is was a very emotive event in his life; therefore, it is important that the interview is approached sensitively and unhurried.    I would also like to ask Mr. W. if the portrayal of the British Pathe films really did reflect the mood of the children at the time.

For my background research I have referred to the following sources: The National Archives ‘The Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB)’ and ‘The Absurd and the Brave: C.O.R.B. – the True Account of the British Government’s World War II Evacuation of Children Overseas’ by Michael Fethney.  For guidance on my interview preparation, I have referred to Voice of the Past: Oral History by Paul Thompson.

I am looking forward to interviewing Mr. W. on Thursday, and I do hope that he will equally enjoy the experience.  I would also like to make him aware that by giving his time and his oral interpretation of this particular poignant experience in his life; a major historical event of the Second World War, he has made a valuable contribution to oral history.

Further questions for an oral history interview

Moving on from school days:

  1. Was there anything at school that inspired you to become a historian?
  2. When you left school did you go straight into higher education or did you follow another path?
  3. If you went into HE how did you choose your university?
  4. Were they happy times?
  5. Was there periods when you struggled or doubted what you wanted to do?
  6. Did you do any part time work or an internship?
  7. If you followed another career path, what did you do?
  8. What made you decide to change your career path?
  9. Why did you want to do your Masters in this particular field of public history?
  10. Do you have any plans for a career or PhD after your Masters?


Interview Topic – Last surviving member of 249 Squadron

For my oral history interview I am hoping to interview an ex RAF fighter pilot. At 99 years old he is the last surviving member of RAF 249 squadron.  This squadron fought in the Battle of Britain, which proved to be the most decisive battle of the war in ensuring that Great Britain was not invaded by Germany. According to historian A.J.P Taylor ‘it was as great and decisive as glorious as the battle of Trafalgar’.  Although the Battle of Britain has been historically well documented, I feel that to capture this pilot’s memories of his experiences and his thoughts orally of his part in this battle, could be an extremely valuable and unique piece of history

Through this interview I would like to explore not just his memories of events, but how he emotionally equipped himself for such a task. Like many other pilots during this time, he was young, only 26 years old in 1940.  I would like to understand what motivated him to go into battle; how did he overcome his nerves and how he felt about the great responsibility of his task?  However, there could be a risk that my interviewee would not be willing to allow me to explore his memories at that level.   Recognising that he was of a different generation, more stoic and less emotionally open than our generation of today, I would like to further investigate whether this inherent characteristic of his generation could have possibly played a part in preparing him to go to war and not just physically but emotionally surviving the war