Reading about and discussing group oral history interviews last class got me to start thinking about alternative ways of conducting oral history interviews than the traditional one-on-one method. Although the group interviews had several downsides, including individuals being silenced by the rest of the group or topics being rapidly changed, they offered unique insights into how individual memory can be influenced, suppressed, and even altered by the power of collective memory. This alternative approach made me interested in how memories can be transferred across generations, from those actually experiencing events to their descendants merely retaining the accounts which they are told.
Both of my grandmothers have long had an interest in retaining and uncovering the family history. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, and stories that they remember being told by older members of the family, whether it was their parents or other extended family members. When I try to recall some of these stories, many of them are vague and seem very distant from myself. Others, I can almost quote word for word because they were told to me many times. Some of them I found more interesting than others, and will occasionally share them in conversation when topics make me recall them. However, I am stuck thinking about the accuracy of these memories. After all, we know that our own memories are fallible, and that they are constantly changing throughout the course of our lives. How much more would these alterations to memory build up if they are also transferred between multiple people? It is like trying to play the telephone game.
This research would not be an effective way of gaining information about a particular event, however, like the group interviews, it has an alternative benefit. Looking at how memories can be transferred between multiple people can help oral historians, psychologists, and sociologists to better understand memory retention and transmission levels of people who are not primary owners of the memory. This can help to analyze how contributing factors, such as changing public perception and personal interests, influence the levels of retention. With the telephone game, the purpose is to see if, or to what extent, meaning can be transferred from the original individual to the last individual through multiple participating bodies. This would be interesting to see if the core meaning of memories can be effectively transferred, despite the fact that subsidiary details may be altered or tweaked by memory over time or the desire of the teller to increase the stories interest value for the listener.
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.
Isla’s post also reminds me that I now need to prepare for the interview I’ve agreed to undertake. Some of that will have to be about method. It must be more than a decade since I undertook an oral history interview with a translator (it’ll be Sylvia this time). There is not much literature in this area. Luckily, however Bogusia Temple has just published a relevant article in Oral History (Autumn 2013, 14,2; 100-9). This article is much more than a ‘how to’; it raises key questions about how language produces identity, and shapes our worldviews. Bogusia also suggests ‘casting a wider net’ and considering other disciplinary insights into cross language work and translation.
I will also need to get up to speed with the history of Roma. Briefings by the Support Group help here. There are some excellent materials produced by the group, including from an earlier project with the Museum of London ( sadly the Museum no longer does this work). However, I will still need to identify other reading. I’ll begin by searching Google Scholar…
Tucked half way up Barking Road in Newham is the office of the Roma Support Group. Surrounded by a cultural and religious mish-mash of mosques, Christian Churches and Caribbean fruit sellers, this is where the Roma of East London come for help making sense of their new lives in the UK. It’s also the location for my first meeting with Sylvia and Tania, the two ladies who are responsible for keeping the advice centre going.
As we chat over a cup of tea, Sylvia tells me about what she calls the ‘carrier bag’ problems the Roma bring to them. She describes how many will arrive with a plastic bag full of letters and junk mail, ignorant of their contents but hopeful that someone will read and explain them. It’s a reminder of how difficult it is to function in a society when you don’t understand the language and struggle with literacy.
My tutor Graham then reminds me of the Roma’s strong oral tradition, passing their stories from generation to generation through speech, music and song. In many ways, this was the first type of ‘oral history’ and one that has enabled Roma culture and their past to survive.
It appears to have instilled a sense of identity and belonging in a group that isn’t a homogenous nation and doesn’t have a state of its own. Both are areas I would like to explore further in my interview. Another is how, or if, the barrage of bad press the Roma receive from certain sections of the UK media is undermining that identity.
Tania and Sylvia tell me they notice the development of an inter-generational tension within Roma families in the UK. They say the younger generation can be reluctant to describe themselves as Roma because they believe it carries a stigma and is a barrier to their progress. Cultural traditions and past-times are also a battleground as a new generation increasingly adopts the values and lifestyle of the country they’ve grown up in.
It’s clear from our conversations that the interview itself will present a number of challenges. Language and trust are top of the list. After much discussion, Tania says she will try to arrange for me to speak to Dudek, a musician, in his 40s, originally from Poland. He came to the UK ten years ago as an asylum seeker. However, she warns me to keep my questions short and simple, as his English is competent but patchy.
I’m relieved that I don’t have to conduct my first interview through an interpreter but I have roped Graham into a little extra work. The hierarchy of the Roma community is such that Sylvia thinks the group’s President Rosa should be interviewed first. That interview must be conducted through an interpreter. Graham kindly offers to take on the task.
This week the Home Secretary promised yet again to “get tough” on immigration. Theresa May’s Bill is designed to reassure a public who are warned daily, by the press, of an impending ‘invasion’ of Roma migrants to the UK. It’s a well-rehearsed dialogue that has been at the forefront of political debate since the E.U. opened its internal borders in the late 1990s. More than 15 years on, the script remains the same. We hear from the press. We hear from Government ministers. Occasionally, a few members of the British public are asked to give their thoughts. But, where are the Roma? Their’s is the ‘hidden voice’ in this debate and that is why I’ve chosen to interview a member of the Roma community in the UK for my Oral History task.
I hope it will give me a glimpse beneath the stereotypical image. Why have they chosen to come to the UK? How did they travel here? And, how long did they intend to stay? Many of the older generation experienced life under Communism and persecution after it. Their stories have not been told because their countries denied them citizenship and forced them to move on. Where is home for them now?
I would like to explore the question of identity, including its public denial by some Roma. Also, how, and if, that sense of identity survives attempts to assimilate and integrate them into a new host country.
The average Roma lives to just 50 years of age so it is important to capture their memories now before the voice of the late Twentieth Century Roma is lost forever.