A library burns

I’m currently taking an online course via the University of North Carolina on Southern folklore traditions. It’s a free course offered through an organization called Coursera and this is the fourth book burningsession I’ve enrolled in.  Most of the offered courses offer the option of earning a certificate but I just proctor the lectures and take the quizzes just for the heck of it.

The professor who is teaching my folklore class titles himself as a folklorists and has done something in his life I’ve always kicked myself for not doing. Early on he took the time and effort to record the people and characters he met along life’s road. Armed with a decent movie camera and recording equipment he filmed many of the old timers from whom he learned life’s lessons. He has films and audio recordings of a well-known local auctioneer of his boyhood days in rural Mississippi, a local black preacher delivering a Sunday sermon in the call and response tradition of the black church, young black boys verbally competing with derogatory lines about each other’s family and friends, and many performers rooted in the traditions of storytelling, field chants, country music and the blues. Without this man’s efforts so much cultural richness would have been lost forever.

All of us can relate to this in someway. I am now 72 years old and in my life have met countless people worth writing stories about. The problem being, I never recorded the details of these people and while I recall them I don’t recall their stories. As a child I sat in neighborhood grocery stores, barber shops, town hall benches, and filling stations listening to old men spin their tales. I heard men talking about nights spent coon hunting and drinking moonshine whiskey, things that happened in the Great War, stories about hard times during the Great Depression, and so much more. I love hearing stories and unfortunately I’ve forgotten far more than I’ve remembered.

But, wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch an old 8mm home movie of a Friday night at Buck Harris’s Auction Barn in the 1950s, a Saturday afternoon in downtown Greenfield, or who’s sitting on the waiting bench at Wagner’s barbershop on a Saturday morning?  Some of the tales told by Eddie Smith or Lee West when they rolled into John Buck’s Pure Oil station. How about a movie of the B&O streamliner, The Cincinnatian, roaring through Greenfield twice a day or kids jumping off Red Bridge on a steaming August afternoon.

While a history student in the late 1960s I was required to do an oral history project. I took a small 3″ tape machine to an elderly couple’s mobile home and talked with them about all the changes they had witnessed over their lives. They had once lived without electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, flying machines, automobiles, and most of what made up modern life in 1968. America was just a year away from landing a man on the moon and these folks were of the firm belief that we were going against God’s will by playing around in space. The old woman actually said, “If God meant us to fly He would have given us wings.”

I typed up the dialogue and submitted it, along with the tape, and haven’t a clue where either is today. A great regret in my life is that I didn’t continue collecting the oral histories of those I’ve met over the years. Given the technology most of us carry on our persons today we have little excuse for not doing so. Several years ago our daughters took the time and video taped interviews with their grandparents so that future generations will actually be able to see them as they were in life and experience some of their wisdom. Such will never happen for my generation. All most of us have are a few faded black and white photos of our grandparents and parents. I have one photo of my paternal great grandfather and know nothing of his personality or life.

This doesn’t have to be the norm any longer. We all have at our fingertips the tools to keep our family’s story alive for posterity. We need to encourage our children and grandchildren to assume this responsibility and pass it on to their progeniture.

There’s an old African proverb that I heard again in the folklore class I’m taking that bears repeating, “When an old person dies a library burns to the ground.” Old people will always die but we shouldn’t permit the libraries of knowledge and wisdom that resides in their brains to pass with them.

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