Capturing everyday stories seeks to preserve traditions

September 28, 2006

THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO W/ VIET Q STUFF, BUT I LOVE THE IDEA OF IT. I’LL DO IT WITH VIDEO ONE DAY.

– VIETQ

The StoryCorps Airstream trailer sat in front of Town Hall in Burlington, Vt., last month so people could tape their stories.
The StoryCorps Airstream trailer sat in front of Town Hall in Burlington, Vt., last month so people could tape their stories. (Geoff Forester for the Boston Globe)

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Hugh Pittman crossed Lake Champlain by ferry to reach the shiny Airstream trailer parked in the heart of this small city. There, on a brilliant Saturday morning last month, he settled into a dimly lit recording studio in the cozy back room of the trailer.

He had come to tell the story of his father, a hard-working Southerner who was forced to take the helm of the family farm when he was still in grade school. The 40-minute recording will become part of an ambitious new national archive of oral history, one of thousands of interviews with ordinary Americans collected by the non-profit group StoryCorps.

Due to arrive in Boston on Thursday , after a stop in Portland, Maine, the silver StoryCorps trailer is the most eye-catching evidence of a rising interest in recording history. As development diminishes the distinctive character of New England — extending its reach into ever more remote and scenic enclaves — some observers say changes in the landscape have highlighted vanishing traditions and sparked increasing efforts to preserve uniqueness in the face of homogenization.

The StoryCorps project, with its embrace of common experience, reflects a shift in public interest in the past, from a fixation on well-known events and public figures to “a recognition of the importance of the everyday and the local,” said Jo Radner, a Maine storyteller and past president of the American Folklore Society.

In Maine, the state humanities council has seen strong demand for classes, taught by Radner and offered since last year, that teach local historians how to record interviews. A new book of essays about the history of the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, compiled at Franklin Pierce College, is poised to serve as a model for other collections of regional history. The StoryCorps tour, sponsored by National Public Radio, has generated much enthusiasm in New England. In Vermont, two weeks of interview slots made available online were snapped up in six minutes, organizers said.

“There is such a sense of changing times in New England, and people want to try and capture what’s disappearing or what’s been lost,” said Erik Jorgensen, assistant director of the Maine Humanities Council.

Pittman, who traveled from Vermontville, N.Y., to visit the StoryCorps trailer in Burlington, said increasing urban sprawl in his native North Carolina helped him realize that his father’s way of life was disappearing. A few years ago, he visited the old family farm with his father and asked him to talk about his life there. Now, his father is in failing health, adding urgency to Pittman’s quest to record his story.

“To the day I die, I’ll never forget driving down that road with him, talking about the farm,” Pittman said. “A lot of people don’t understand the struggle that went on before them.”

In Madawaska, on Maine’s far northern border, a coalition of cultural groups is recording a CD that will trace 400 years of culture and history in the St. John Valley. In the valley, where many residents still speak both French and English, geographic isolation has been a double-edged sword: The remoteness has helped preserve traditions, like the 17th-century French ballads still sung there, but it has also driven industry from the region, in turn driving away younger people.

“It’s an oral culture here, so a lot of the heritage is passed down through families,” said project director Sheila Jans. “Most of the job is left to women, and it’s so vulnerable. It can stop in a generation, and it has.”

Social change also prompts reflection on the past. Five years after Vermont legalized civil unions for gay couples, the gay and lesbian community center in Burlington interviewed 14 of the state’s gay elders and commissioned artists to interpret their stories. “The Dialogue Project” is now on tour.

Increasingly, explorations of local history are seen as tools for solving problems. Besides preserving a rich culture, the Madawaska project has another purpose: boosting awareness of the region and its distinctive flavor, in hopes of fueling a new economy based on cultural tourism.

In Alexander, Maine, an oral history project also functioned on two levels. In recent years, the tiny Down East town saw an influx of newcomers, but natives and new arrivals failed to mingle, said Radner. The town’s history project, titled “Meet Your Neighbor,” tapped members of both groups for interviews and photographs last year, preserving memories while starting conversations.

A similar goal inspired the New Hampshire anthology, titled “Where the Mountain Stands Alone.” The 350-page book, published last month, includes essays on Monadnock regional history, from the native Abenaki to sheep farms and long-lost ski areas.

The stories offer newcomers a way to connect with longtime residents, said John Harris, director of the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place & Culture at Franklin Pierce College. To help spark connections, the institute has scheduled a series of “story circles” around the state next month and also set up a website, http://www.monadnockstories.org, where users click on an interactive map to find history from their own towns. A daylong field trip last month to three of the historic sites featured in the book sold out.

“People [today] feel less comfortable connecting, yet there’s enormous hunger underneath to connect with each other,” said Harris.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.  

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