Voices from the Days of Slavery
February 7, 2010 1:25 PM   Subscribe

"If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun and just end it all right away." Audio recordings from interviews with former slaves, conducted by WPA folklorists and others, including the Lomaxes and Zora Neale Hurston. Only these twenty-six audio recordings of people formerly enslaved in the antebellum American South have ever been found.
posted by Miko (16 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Argh, we just finished the New Deal in the US history class I'm student teaching in! I should have thought to search for these audio recordings last week. Thanks for this! I will have to find a way to work them in somehow.
posted by lilac girl at 1:32 PM on February 7, 2010

Lilac Girl, if something is good enough and interesting enough, they'll check it out on their own. Send out an email to the class (or do a 1-page write up).
posted by Decimask at 1:37 PM on February 7, 2010

You can find written copies of the WPA interviews on Project Gutenberg, like this one
posted by fallingbadgers at 2:07 PM on February 7, 2010

Actually, transcripts for all the interviews are available through the linked site as well- you have the option of hearing or viewing when you click on an individual interview.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:08 PM on February 7, 2010

Although these are the only recordings that exist, thousands of interviews of ex-slaves were made by the WPA. These interviews later formed the basis for George Rawick's 1972 study of slavery, From Sundown to Sunup, the first book in a 41 volume collection of all the interviews.
posted by CCBC at 2:32 PM on February 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Although it would be better for historical purposes if the stories were more linear and clearer, I love the language of transcribed interviews. I've written a lot of fictional ones.

Particularly moved by an anecdote from Aunt Harriet Smith (Part 3 of 4):

Harriet Smith: [. . .] these white people, this boy that killed [her husband], old W. B., I nursed him when he was a baby before I was ever acquainted with my husband.

John Henry Faulk: Well what I was, what I'm trying to, to find out is, how come him to kill your husband. Was it over politics?

Harriet Smith: Uh huh, politics and different things you know. [mumbles] Poor white people.

[. . .]

John Henry Faulk: What did they do to W. B.?

Harriet Smith: Well, you know how that was. He lived up in there, you know. They would tell any kind of tale. Didn't do nothing, didn't hang him up, put him in jail about, seemed like (unintelligible]. But his brother-in-law killed him.

John Henry Faulk: Is that right?

Harriet Smith: Sure.

John Henry Faulk: They must have been a-shooting a lot of folk up in them days.

Harriet Smith: Oh yeah, Them peoples was poor peoples you know. Rich white people don't bother nobody.

The result of an ancient strategy.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:34 PM on February 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

From the interview with Aunt Harriet Smith, part 1:

John Henry Faulk: Well what would the preacher preach about in them days?

Harriet Smith: I don't know. I didn't go. He'd preach about you know, maybe something or another.

John Henry Faulk: They didn't preach like they do today?

Harriet Smith: No. They wasn't educated, you know, and they uh, uh, would, would tell you how to do, and how to get along, you know, and how to treat the white people and so on.


John Henry Faulk: Well would the white preacher tell you to behave yourselves and be [Harriet Smith interrupts]

Harriet Smith: Oh yes, they [John Henry Faulk interrupts]

John Henry Faulk: Be good to your master and mistress?

Harriet Smith: Oh yes. That's what they preach. We, sure, didn't know there was any such thing as God and, and, and God, you know. We thought that was a, a different man, but he was our master. Uh, our white folks, you know, preachers would refer to the white folks, master, and so on that way. Preach that way. Didn't know no better. All of them, all of them would go up there to church. Then after we come to be free, you know, they begin to, preach us, you know. They, we begin to know, you know, there was a God and so on.

posted by Marla Singer at 2:43 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bob Edwards talked to David Bradley about the Federal Writer's Project. Very interesting listening (link to mp3).
posted by sleepy pete at 3:41 PM on February 7, 2010

Also, I had the chance to transcribe a bunch of interviews (not by FWP) for the Brown vs Board of Education museum. They were really wonderful and enlightening.
posted by sleepy pete at 3:43 PM on February 7, 2010

I had no idea these existed. Thanks. I hope the "The Civil War was worse than slavery!" crowd take a long listen.
posted by Justinian at 3:57 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

They are indeed an incredible resource - thanks, I have read many of the written transcripts, but never actually listened to any before. It's worth noting, though, that historians generally consider the WPA interviews flawed in some ways due to the methods used to collect them. Most notably, the interviewers were all white, did not follow the standards generally used by oral historians (which of course did not exist at the time), and the collection and recording methods varied dramatically person to person. A good short piece about the debates historians have had about how to properly analyze and use them can be found here: The Art and Science of Reading the WPA Slave Narratives.
posted by susanvance at 7:42 PM on February 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Great find, Miko.
posted by shothotbot at 9:40 PM on February 7, 2010

historians generally consider the WPA interviews flawed in some ways due to the methods used to collect them

Good point, and this isn't limited to just the slave narratives. I recently read two popular books and a handful of articles based on the America Eats WPA project, and both authors highlighted the difficulty of the material, in most cases created by the heterogeneity and lack of consistent oversight of the WPA's regional editors and writers. It's true that the fields of oral history and folklore fieldwork was completely nascent at the time, but you can really see why those professions rapidly began to standardize their approaches by the 1960s. The material is inconsistent, interview methods are inconsistent, the interviewees and subjects are often haphazardly selected, cultural context is ill understood and often not especially well documented, sometimes the interviewers themselves insert themselves and their cultural biases into the work to a large extent, and the management and oversight of the writer/reporters was all over the map.

The overall effort itself was wonderfully visionary, and the resulting materials a treasure trove and a great contribution to American culture, but it's also hard to look over the work of the WPA and wish it could have been done according to contemporary standards.

Still, I found this moving and interesting, even as someone who has worked with WPA material including the transcripts of slavery narratives before. It's the power of the human voice - the awe of realizing that the person whose voice you are listening to, as if they were sitting right here talking to you, is bearing witness to events that took place over 150 years ago. The immediacy of audio has such impact.
posted by Miko at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, I absolutely agree, Miko - I hope I didn't imply otherwise. My comment was intended just as something to keep in mind while reading or listening, especially since others had mentioned an interest in using them for things like school projects.

It's particularly amazing to me that they were able to carry out a project of this scope before tape recorders were available, and that they even managed a few actual recordings. Visionary is certainly the right word.
posted by susanvance at 10:57 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is great material. I've been working my way through the CDs in "The Art of Field Recording Vol. 1" which chronicles folk music. The character and regionalism expressed in these interviews really reminded me of those songs.
posted by rattenweiler at 4:10 PM on February 8, 2010

I hope I didn't imply otherwise.

Oh no, you made a great point and I just wanted to build on it!
posted by Miko at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2010

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