Great historic moments are brought to life with vivid authority by the personal testimony of those who were there
This August is a month of anniversaries – the 100th year since the opening barrage was fired at Passchendaele, and 70 years since Indian independence and the terrible trauma of partition. And the narrative of each historic event has been illustrated by the voices of people, mostly long dead, who lived through it. The magical power, the tingle, of hearing the authentic voice, catching each pause, the particular pitch of bravado and the tone of remembered horror: this is not the history of document and textbook, it is not the word of money or power; it is what happened to working men and women.
Oral history, the collection of the reminiscences of ordinary people as a valued part of the story of a time or an event told from the perspective of those who were caught up in it rather than from the view of the elite that orchestrated it, is younger than either of the two anniversaries commemorated this month. It has developed only since the 1950s, dependent on portable recording equipment and an appetite for a new, democratic history pioneered by Charles Parker’s radio ballads. He, with the folk musicians and activists Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, recorded the working lives of fishermen and steelworkers, railmen and miners, and the women who worked alongside them. They produced a series of radio documentaries quite unlike anything the BBC had ever produced before: a mix of voice and song with nothing else to break the spell of time and place.
Link : The Guardian view on oral history: the power of witness | Editorial