Getting Down to Story
When I sat down with my grandmother Elizabeth Moore Evans in 1990, I thought I was documenting a particular type of African-American sacred singing. When I listened to the tape years later, I realized I’d captured my family relationships and, of course, the voices of my elders.
Now that they’re dying, I realize my tape is invaluable. My grandmother became a great-great-grandmother about a year before she died. She saw the little ones, but they won’t remember her. My family is known for stories, so her descendants will know about her. But they’ll be able to hear her talk and sing because I sat down with a cassette recorder.
When I conducted the interview, I was only a print reporter. We knew about the Internet in 1990, but “multimedia”, “synchronicity”, and “digital storytelling” hadn’t entered the vocabulary. I thought I’d be writing until I couldn’t. Ironically, that certainty was part of my frustration. I wanted to include photography in my storytelling, but didn’t know how. Daily journalism wasn’t entertaining the idea of a writer/photographer.
So my goal was simple. I wanted to tape my grandmother talking about a musical genre that had all but disappeared.
Among African Americans, long-meter refers to the structure and performance of a group of hymns. Most of the songs go back to the English and Scottish churches. Meter refers to the number of syllables per line. Long meter hymns have eight syllables per line, while common meter have eight syllables in the first and third lines and six syllables in the second and fourth lines.
In long-meter singing, the leader chants the first two lines:
“Jesus my king, I long to find
Pray tell me where he dwells.”
(You can hear an example of long-meter about a minute into this video.)
The congregation repeats the couplet, but extends the vowel in each syllable by singing a meandering melody. African-Americans also call the hymns “Dr. Watts” after Isaac Watts. He was a notable British theologian and hymn writer. He wrote the lyrics to “Joy to the World,” which is in common meter.
I grew up listening to long-meter hymns, but I think my generation was the last to hear them regularly. For some reason, the practice died. I’ve played gospel music for more than 40 years at churches all over the country. Yet I can’t remember when I’ve heard long-meter singing. My grandmother was the only person I knew who could still sing in that style. I wanted her story.
I think it’s good I didn’t aspire to anything more. As a novice audio producer, I fret over getting good levels and clear audio. I worry about clipping and wonder whether I could eliminate the 60khz hum without distortion. I’m annoyed when my omni-directional microphone picks up stray sounds from a television. Ignorance is bliss. In 1990, I only wanted to interview my grandmother without interference.
That was the hard part. Just getting her to sit at the small table took several days of negotiation. When I finally settled down, my mother, great aunt and great uncle pulled up chairs, too. I shook my head as I turned on the cassette recorder.
I knew I was a reporter, but my family knew me as daughter, niece, granddaughter. Even though I was 35, my family still saw me as a brainy kid. I knew what I was doing, they knew better. Of course, I had lots of advisers. Of course, they ended up on tape.
Of course, they were right. Those arguments and asides make the recording so precious to my family. The full tape has disagreements over names, dates and places. My mother fusses when my grandmother detours into an extraneous memory. My grandmother shushes her older brother -“Joe, she’s taping,”- and contradicts him when he talks anyway.
My tape is raw story.
Since leaving daily journalism, I’ve become a digital storyteller. I wish I could say that transformation changed my perception of the interview. But that’s not why I pulled the tape out of a box. I was teaching at a college when I learned that every time a format changes, vital information risks loss. Although I’ve digitized my grandmother’s interview, I keep the tape and a small cassette recorder.
Just in case. Just in case.
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is a content producer who lives in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. You can hear more of her pieces on PRX . Afi Scruggs is looking for collaborators. If you’d like to work with her, drop a line at http://www.aoscruggs.com/contac/