The Art and Tradition of Oral History

Perhaps the single most defining trait of the human species is information transference.  Consider the device on which you’re reading this currently, and all the steps it would have taken to concoct from the natural world a multifaceted electronic machine–generations of electronics engineers, metal workers, computer programmers, plastics processing, design and composition, and the endless other factors that go into creating a computer from the ground up.  Your device would not exist if not for thousands of years of technological advancement and teamwork, all born in light of free and transferable information.  You also wouldn’t be able to work the device, read the words on it and understand them if not for the information passed onto you by schoolteachers, family, and friends.  But where the dissemination of technical knowledge is man’s primary skill, the act of passing down information in the form of oral storytelling is man’s first art.

Storytelling has existed for as long as language has existed, if not longer (e.g. cave paintings).  Cavemen would tell mystical tales that explained natural phenomena around them, as parents do with their young children to this day.  Ancient Roman students would learn to read and write by copying Homer’s epics, and entertainers would memorize full through and recite the texts word-for-word.  The most famous stories we pass on–of religious origin–have been passed down generation-to-generation, unyieldingly, for centuries.

The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Oral histories, unlike written, or pictorial forms, are uniquely intimate yet particularly volatile.  Where text and images exist on their own, with their own physical permanence, oral stories are rarely ever delivered twice the same way.  You and I could describe the same exact event totally differently, and neither of us would be wrong, even if the end results are very unlike one another.  The game “Telephone”–where a group of people sequentially translates a phrase or sentence by whispering into the next person in line’s ear–capitalizes on people’s tendency to mess up the translation from input to output.  In real life, this manifests in how we remember events and people.  The proverb “history is written by the winners” is quite literally true, in the sense that whoever ends up surviving a historical encounter, with enough influence to disseminate their version of whatever events transpired, ultimately decides how future generations will interpret what happened.  Think about it: you don’t really know what happened in, say, World War I, you’ve only heard about it second-hand, through re-tellings very much founded on the perspective of those who lived to tell of their experiences.

Today, stories passed down from parent to child are how we remember loved ones lost, define the history and character of our lineage, and allow us to make sense of our own identities therein.  Consider the authority figures you modeled yourself after, either consciously or not, as a child–we all have that grandfather, for instance, who we hear was a great man, lived through grand wars and always remained dignified.  Of course, at least from a statistical standpoint, all our grandfathers couldn’t have been among the greatest men of their time.  Yet while these narratives tend towards exaggeration as they age, the morals and examples they set for us never diminish in value.

Most of all, stories passed down will remain the most effective means of being remembered by generations to come.  At least for those of us who never attained (or sought) broad fame, the way we’re remembered by our closest family and friends may be all that’s left when we go.  Every one of us worries about death, and in a giant world, in a terrifyingly indifferent universe, stories are just about all we’ve got.

-Nathaniel Nelson

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