January 23rd, 2013 / 12:00 pm

The Joys of Oral History

Life is not organized, logical, or factually accurate. Yet we require this of our history books, which must contain names, dates, verifiable pieces of evidence, and claims about cause-and-effect. Event A leads to Event B. Event C happened on December 15th, 1910. Person X was at Place Y During The Conflict of Z. It can all get rather drab and unrealistic. There is something particularly dulling about reading a list of dates and proper nouns and thinking these alone compose our lives. Where’s the hilarity, hurt, daily bafflement, and sense of fun? History books miss out on a lot, particularly the general pell-mell-ness that pervades life, where cause-and-effect is displaced by the indecipherable and happenstance forces that influence our actions and beliefs. This is why oral histories rule.

Oral histories are collections of voices all jousting to be heard. Whether they’re about a life, an era, or a single event, oral histories convey the necessary complexity, where details collide and thesis statements don’t matter. They are messy, chaotic, and incongruent—patchwork quilts of anecdotes, recollections, non-sequitors, and stories that begin with a promise but don’t really end, stories filled with incorrect information, nostalgia for even the worst events, positive memories of mean people, and much more, stories stuffed with dreams, debris, and insignificant moments—the true fabric of the history.

Here are 5 great oral histories:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Please Kill Me is a wicked traipse through the gutter-glamour of ’70s New York. There’s Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Jayne (né Wayne) County, and the Ramones, plus a whole slue of record industry insiders, drug addicts, scenesters and weirdoes. The music is great and the talk uproarious. From tales of Jim Morrison’s depravity to anecdotes about those doomed birds Sid and Nancy, there is something for everyone in Please Kill Me. “There was never a yesterday or a tomorrow,” says one punk rocker. Only an insane today. This book is funny, gross, and outrageous, an underground oral history that is a riot of voices.

Nightmare of Ecstasy: An Oral Biography of Ed Wood, by Rudolph Grey

One intriguing thing about oral histories is how two contradictory statements can appear side by side and it’s no problem. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, two people talk about B-movie director Ed Wood. Harry Thomas says, “I never seen Ed drink on the set. Never. In all the pictures that I was on, he never took one drink on set.” A page later Marge Usher says, “He’d get blotto by the end of the day, and then they’d shoot at night. He just was bombed out all the time.”

The tricky question is, Who’s right? Was Ed Wood inebriated out of his mind—keeping pace with his ghoulish star Bela Lugosi who had a heroin habit—or was Ed a good boy who never touched the stiff stuff when he worked? Oral histories allow for this ambiguity. Just like in life, when reading oral histories we’re constantly asked to make meaning out of uncertainty, contradiction, and inaccuracy. It’s invigorating.

Through a Night of Horror: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm, by Casey Edward Greene and Shelly Henley Kelley

In 1900, they did not have Doppler radar or sufficient weather-forecasting technology to warn them of the hurricane that was coming, a hurricane that would claim 8,000 or so lives, inflict a Biblical amount of destruction on the city of Galveston, and be the deadliest natural disaster in American history.  “Everything was chaos,” writes one survivor. “I will begin by saying I am alive,” writes another.

The editors of Through a Night of Horror weave together reports from the U.S. Weather Bureau, letters written right after the hurricane, memoirs penned decades later, and interviews recorded more than a half-century afterward. One intriguing element concerns the outlook of these Galveston citizens, many of whom believed this hurricane was the actual wrath of God being visited upon their lives. It’s fascinating to learn how they coped and carried on. By giving voice to regular folks wrecked by disaster, this book shows how oral histories provide a perspective the textbooks lack, allowing us to peer, however briefly, into the lives of these survivors who spend most of their energy rebuilding their drowned lives while mourning lost friends and ruined homes.

Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It, by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff

Hear that?—a man whistling on the street, the sound of footsteps outside an apartment window, people walking, pipes rattling. “I remember,” Duke Ellington says, “I once wrote a sixty-four-bar piece about a memory of when I was a little boy in bed and heard a man whistling on the street outside, his footsteps echoing away.” That’s jazz, the history of jazz. Oral histories revel in these types of tidbits, the forgotten, misplaced, and unacknowledged fragments that make up so much of life. Strange memories come back, the key players and big names get pushed aside, background figures take center stage. Those who history has dismissed reemerge. Here, just like in Please Kill Me, we learn about everyone behind the music who made it happen. Oral histories allow the daily insignificance we all experience to be understood in a new light. The tales, snippets, rumors, and tidbits are sung out loud like a lost song now played at full blast.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel

Published in 1974, Terkel’s Working chronicles the lives of everyone from a piano turner to a prostitute, a gravedrigger to an ex-boss. It’s about how we spend most of our time—at work, grinding away, making money, doing good, doing nothing, toiling. Terkel, a well-known Chicago radio man, is incredibly good at getting people to look deeper into their lives, to interpret and explain what their lives mean. “Maybe with coffee I give them a little philosophy,” says veteran waitress Dolores Dante. The same could be said of almost every page of this book. While Terkelis extremely good at capturing odd and poignant details, he’s even better an exploring the everydayness of life, how we go to work, go home, talk, shop, marry, and raise our children, and how little, ostensibly, we have to show for it. Working has the might of a great novel and is a masterpiece of oral history.


Alex Kalamaroff lives in Boston. He is 25 years old. He likes adventure, fabulousness, and coffee. You can email him at alexander.kalamaroff@gmail.com. He is writing a novel about Los Angeles.

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  1. Nick Mamatas

      NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY, the oral history of Ed Wood’s filmmaking career and personal life, is also a great one.

  2. postitbreakup

      don’t forget Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey!!!

  3. Richard Grayson

      Thanks for the excellent compilation.

  4. L.A. Webb

      I love this oral biographies. A couple of other good ones are :

      Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction
      Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live
      The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater

  5. L.A. Webb

      Although Please Kill Me stands at the top of the list.

  6. deadgod

      Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered is an entertaining “oral biography” (by Peter Brazeau) that offers a look–many looks–at the poet as a person: son, husband, father, insurance-company executive, art collector, and so on. Your view of the quality of the poetry probably won’t–and, in my view, certainly shouldn’t–be altered by almost anything you read about the poet’s private life, but if you love (or hate) Stevens’s poetry, which often seems “as if it were written from nowhere” (from Perloff’s blurb), you might find many tidbits from his life casting an odd light on the poems.

      But, as opposed to a standard biography, most of this oral biography is told in the voices of witnesses (exactly as with “oral history”).

      For an example of his private life that might color a previous reading of his poetry, Stevens’s father didn’t approve of Stevens’s Greenwich-Village wife, so, after the old man skipped his son’s wedding, Stevens never saw his father again. That might affect your reception of his poetic use of the words “love”, “woman”, “father”, “family”. I find his day job to be sometimes-interesting, too: he drove around the eastern US approving insurance claims (or not). On the gossip-for-its-own-sake front, his semi-famous fist-fight with Hemingway in Key West is discussed.

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  9. Dana Spiardi

      One of my favorites is the oral history of Edie Sedgwick — “Edie: American Girl” –edited by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. And, of course, “Please Kill Me.”