During my career as a journalist, I've conducted hundreds of interviews, questioning celebrities about everything. I've talked to the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, Lisa Marie Presley, and Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker. I've quizzed bass fisherman Bill Dance, wrestling promoter Jimmy Hart, and dwarf actor Eugene Pidgeon. But, I'm ashamed to admit, I've never interviewed a member of my own family.
Asking a relative to sit down and tell his or her story is important, says Zachary Barr, advance coordinator for StoryCorps, a national project that's dedicated to collecting what he describes as "extraordinary stories from ordinary people."
"You don't even have to record it," Barr says. "Just do it. Turn off the television, sit across from someone you love, and talk to them. Take notes, so you have stories to tell your kids."
Earlier this month, Barr came to Memphis to set up MobileBooth, StoryCorps' traveling recording studio that is housed in a 26-foot Airstream trailer. The MobileBooth is currently parked at the Peabody Place trolley stop just outside the Center for Southern Folklore. Over the past five months, it's stopped in dozens of small towns and medium-sized cities, including Morgantown, West Virginia, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and, most recently, Murray, Kentucky.
"Every city's really different," Barr says. "We look to be located in an iconic spot in the heart of each city. Small towns have been particularly thrilling. In Murray, our storyteller facilitators were given the key to the city, and everyone befriended them. They were given casseroles and lasagna dishes, and college kids took them to concerts. In Memphis, being on the same block as the Center for Southern Folklore has been fantastic."
Participants in StoryCorps -- billed as the world's largest oral-history project -- can make reservations via a 1-800 number for a 40-minute recording session. After choosing a partner, they can review potential interview questions online. Once aboard the Airstream, they'll sit in a booth with a storyteller facilitator, who will make a digital recording of the interview for a suggested $10 donation. Contributors receive a CD of the session, which will also be archived in the Library of Congress. Some stories are also broadcast on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
"The relationship between the participants shines through, superceding any natural tendencies they have to be interviewers or listeners," Barr says. "When people sign up, we do train them a little bit and give them tips about follow-up questions. And on our Web site, we have a do-it-yourself guide for people who can't make it by the booth."
Barr says that StoryCorps has collected oral histories from WWI veterans, Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and everyone in between. "The love stories," he notes, "are solid gold."
Maisie Tivnan, a facilitator who arrived in Memphis a few weeks ago, confesses that she occasionally tries to size up participants, to no avail. "There aren't any real patterns. You never know what kind of talker they're going to be," she says.
"These stories are homogeneous in all the right ways," she continues, listing universal themes found in romantic tales, immigration experiences, and early childhood memories that are often recalled by StoryCorps participants.
"The value of these stories is twofold," Tivnan says. "First, we're creating a comprehensive personal oral history of Americans at the start of the 21st century. These recordings will be valuable in the future, when researchers and teachers want to know about our everyday life. And for families, this project is profound. Imagine if you could access a recording of your great-great-great-grandmother -- hear her voice and get a sense of her personality."
Since she embarked on her work with StoryCorps, Tivnan says that she pays better attention to the stories told by her own family. "I'm a lot more interested," she says. "Talking to someone can be extremely powerful, but with this project, it's about so much more."