Kelly Porter, a dancer out in Seattle, WA, is going forward with an idea that is long overdue. She is encouraging people to talk to their older relatives about life and dancing in the early half of the 20th century and is creating a web site designed for anyone to share this information. The site is called Jazz Era Voices, http://www.jazzeravoices.org/
This archive will be a place where you can upload oral histories and the photographs of your loved ones who remember dancing and music in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, and so share the wealth of their stories with the world.
The passing of Frankie Manning this year serves as a reminder that many first hand eye witnesses to that time won’t be with us forever.
Here is the important part: this archive will open for submissions on the 10th of January 2010, and it will close to submissions on July 21st, 2010 (what would have been my grandfather’s 88th birthday). The reason for the short time frame of the project is simple: people tend to put things off until tomorrow if they can, and as I learned from the case of my grandfather, we do not have an infinite amount of time to ask for these stories. After the archive closes to submissions I am investigating the possibility of collaborating to put together an online exhibition based on the materials collected. I will also be using this space along the way to talk about the things you send in and keep you updated on news relating to the project. In the coming weeks details of how you can contribute will be posted here, and I encourage you as you see family and friends over the coming holiday season to talk about the project to those close to you who might have memories to contribute.
I think this is a great idea, and I applaud Kelly for starting this initiative and making it easy for anyone to participate. I’m sure she’ll have more information on her site soon, but until then I can recommend a couple of online resources that could be useful to any would be interviewers out there.
First, The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution has a number of resources relating to this kind of grassroots historical work. In particular, “The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide” offers detailed tips for conducting interviews.
The Library of Congress is also sponsoring the “Veterans’ History Project” which focuses more on the stories of those who have served in the military. I pass by the office for the Veterans’ History Project all the time, and every time I look in, it seems like the coziest place in the building. I think that’s because they want to it comfortable as possible for people coming in to interview. That’s one of many tips they offer in their own online interview kit.
Full disclosure: I used to work for the Smithsonian and currently work for the Library of Congress, but I don’t work directly with either of these offices.
It’s never to early to start thinking of the past. Remembering things from so long ago can be pretty difficult, so if you have a chance, check out I Am Lindy Hop, and take a few moments to fill out a profile. This is Ben & Sheri’s project to help us document our own histories with Lindy Hop.
If that’s too public for you, then I would still encourage you to write a little summary of how you got started and why you like dancing. Who did you learn from and who influenced you the most? What kind of music do you like, where did you go dancing on a weekly basis, and what events did you attend? Etc., etc.
You don’t have to share it now. Just write up a rough draft and put it away somewhere. If we’re lucky, and someone is interested in Lindy Hop at the turn of the 21st century, you can just haul out that little essay instead of trying to reconstruct memories from decades past.
A couple of years ago we started a feature on The Jam Cellar blog called “Those Who Paved My Way.” A different dancer told the story of their development by linking together various online videos of people that had an impact on them. We got entries by Andy Reid and Naomi Uyama before we sputtered out. But I’m working on my entry and I know a few of the other Jam Cellar people are too, so hopefully you’ll see those online soon.
One other thing. If you post videos on YouTube or anywhere else online, I can't stress how important it is to label then properly with the dancers in it, where and when it was recorded and who is playing the music in the background. A lot of dance clip collectors can tell you how much a pain in the ass it is to do detective work on home movies recorded 40-60 years ago. Heck, a lot of instructors can't even tell you were they were last weekend.*
Speaking of history, for those of you like me who like a side of history with their jazz, here are a couple of my favorite vintage jazz history blogs.
Finally, as an example of an interview that can both go right and oh so wrong, I’ll leave you with an interview with Jon Hendricks. He's the legendary jazz singer who performed at Frankie Manning’s memorial service at Frankie 95.
Beware because he’s a salty dog, and much of his language and his stories are not safe for work. Here’s his opinion of the importance of remembering our past. I made a couple of minor edits, on top of the edits of the original interviewer, to make this a little more family friendly.
"[The classical station] plays music by dead people from three hundred, four hundred years ago. Why the f#@k can't we? Ours is newer, just about a hundred. Oh, the music will survive, but these little sh!ts [the CD spinners –he wouldn't dignify them by calling them DJ's which is more-or-less a profession] are going to stomp it into the ground.”
*If some of this sound familiar, it’s because part of this blog is self plagiarized from something I posted on Yehoodi a couple of years ago.