I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~
A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky

Field Notes from Harlan County, Kentucky

Alessandro Portelli

Next | Contents


There's a Steve Earle CD, just out, called The Mountain. On it, in a Bluegrass mode, Earle sings, "I'm a Harlan man," and makes it synonymous with "I'm a family man . . . I'm a mountain man . . . I'm a union man." It's 1999, and Harlan is still a powerful symbol for memory and resistance: "I'm a Harlan man, you won't catch me whining 'cause I ain't that kind."[1]

Alessandro Portelli, 1999. Source: Charles Hardy.
Alessandro Portelli, 1999. Source: Charles Hardy.
"It's a long way to Harlan, it's a long way to Hazard," Merle Travis sang; and more recently, The Seldom Scene echoed: "Are you really leaving Harlan now?" (written by Phil Rosenthal). Harlan is a place in thought, a place to which people go looking for a future (activists in the 1930s and 1960s), looking for a past (social scientists and social workers looking "for our contemporary ancestors," in William Goodell Frost's 1899 phrase), or looking for both (myself in the '80s and '90s). And Harlan is a place that people leave: exiles from the industrial struggles of the 1930s (Sara Ogan Gunning: "I Hate the Capitalist System"; Aunt Molly Jackson: "Join the CIO"; Jim Garland: "Let's Sink This Capitalist System in the Deepest Pits of Hell") and migrants from the deindustrialization of the '50s and '60s. And finally, it's a place where people stay, to which they come back: an imagined place, a remembered place, and an actual place. None of the three can be understood without the other two.[2]

In Harlan, people are fond of saying that "There are two sides to everything."[3] But it designates less the conciliation of opposites than the drama of contradiction. As Florence Reece's memorable song about Harlan's struggles of the 1930s reminds us: "They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there." There may be two sides to everything, but: "Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on?"

Part I

In 1979, just as I was beginning to think seriously about the theory and practice of oral history, I wrote: "Oral sources are oral sources. Scholars are willing to admit that the actual document is the recorded tape; but almost all go on to work on the transcripts, and it is only the transcripts that are published."[4]

I was then at a methodological crossroads. Though I was not a musician or a musicologist, my experience was rooted in the folk music revival and in the collection of folk music in the field, and therefore I was oriented toward presentation in and of sound by means of the long-playing record. Yet my scholarly orientation as a teacher of literature moonlighting as a historian was increasingly geared to the analysis of words and narratives. Thus, as I became aware that my approach to the study of folk music was becoming more and more inadequate, I realized the political and cultural need to step beyond mere presentation and documentation of people's cultures and oral cultural materials and step toward analysis and scholarly treatment.

Furthermore, the market and the technology for the communication and presentation of sound, or at least of the sounds and the voices in which I was interested, was increasingly inadequate. The audience for folk music was shrinking, and turning toward more commercial or exotic sounds; the LP and the audio cassette did not lend themselves to the analytic treatment I had in mind. However, just as I prepared to shift from the record to the printed page, I was very much aware that I was paying a serious price. For one thing, I was giving up the music; for another, I was restricting the expressive range of recorded language. As I put it in one of my earliest essays on the subject:

We hardly need repeat here that writing represents language almost exclusively by means of segmentary traits (graphemes, syllables, words, and sentences). But language is also composed of another set of traits, which cannot be contained within a single segment but which are also bearers of meaning. The tone and volume range and the rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing—unless, and then in inadequate and hardly accessible form, as musical notation. . . . By abolishing these traits, we flatten the emotional content of speech down to the supposed equanimity and objectivity of the written document.[5]

There was, however, much to be gained from this change. As Jack Goody among others has shown, writing objectifies language, thus enabling us not only to preserve it, but also to analyze it and to endow it with an awareness of itself.[6] On the other hand, the invention of recording seemed to make the same operations possible also with regard to the spoken word. As Gianni Bosio pointed out:

Just as the rise of print marked the transition from the city-states [Comuni] to the princely city-states [Signorie] [in the Reinaissance], from a shared culture mainly entrusted to oral means of communication to culture as an expression of the ruling class, now the magnetophone again endows the culture based on oral communication with the tool it needs in order to emerge, to become aware of itself, and in fact to unravel all the cultural forms that exist against, rather than along with, the disciplines and genres of the dominant culture [. . . .]

The possibility of stabilizing on tape ways of being, acting, communicating (just as film enables us to stabilize in motion celebrations, rituals, spectacles) returns to the culture of the oppressed classes the possibility of preserving the forms of their own self-awareness, that is, of their culture.[7]

The work of Gianni Bosio and of the Istituto Ernesto de Martino he founded in Milan in 1964 had long been predicated on the need "to include in our mental horizon the presence of this fact"—i.e., the oral culture of the non-hegemonic classes, and the new possibilities created by technology for its study and preservation. The basic point was that the transmission and preservation of this culture ought not to take place exclusively through reduction to print. The most immediate medium available, then, was music, and so the artists gathered in the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano presented the songs that were being collected by the researchers of the Istituto de Martino in concerts and rallies. During their first major appearance (the 1964 Spoleto Festival), the NCI singers were literally chased off the stage by police for singing antiwar folk songs. The irruption of the oral culture of the folk in the temple of highbrow culture could not have been more dramatic.

Bosio, however, was also willing to experiment with forms that look forward to what Charles Hardy III invites us to call "essay-in-sound." The long-playing record seemed to offer the space and time-span for articulate discourse, and this is what the Archivi Sonori (Sound Archives) series of the Istituto de Martino attempted to do. Bosio's ambition was to re-tell a class history of Italy in sound. This resulted in a number of long-playing records in the 1960s and 1970s: La prima internazionale in Italia (on the First International); Addio padre. La guerra di Belochio; Palma e Badoglio (World War I); Arrendersi o perire (the Resistance). These were still tentative experiments, groping toward a form; they combined oral testimony and music with historical documents and literary texts read by actors. This hybridity, however, was not just the symptom of an unfinished form, but also the expression of a strategy in which the cultural class conflict was not only expressed by the content of discourse but also made audible in the different sounds and accents of the voices.[8]

Meanwhile, the Sound Archives were also documenting contemporary struggles: student-police clashes in Milan, a factory occupations in Bergamo and Milan, the homeless in Rome. It was in this last project that the sound documentary, as it was then possible, found its form.

At the time (1968-1970), I was involved in social work in Rome's worst slums, and in organizing the homeless movement—two forms of involvement that were really the same thing. I was also just beginning to work with the Istituto de Martino, so I started doing interviews and taking the tape recorder along at demonstrations, occupations, rallies, meetings. I later put this material together for an LP project in my kitchen, with two erratic Uher machines, scissors, and slicing tape.

Though the quality of the recordings was poor, the material was wonderful, both in sound and content. Giovanna Marini, the most accomplished musician and musicologist in Italy's folk revival, recognized the rhythm and melody in the voices of women shouting back to the police from the windows of an occupied house, and transcribed them in musical notation—for which she had to invent new signs and codes that she later perfected for the transcription of folk music. Bosio suggested that, as all the voices on the first version of tape came from the homeless themselves, we should add some hegemonic voice, some voice from the dominant classes, to create perspective and represent the conflict not just in content but also in form. Fortunately, I had done a field interview with the Mayor of Rome on the homeless situation, and when the record was finally produced (Roma. La borgata e la lotta per la casa) the inflections and audible embarrassment in his voice were the ideal "envelope of sound" (Ron Grele's phrase) for his hypocritical and embarrassed words.[9]

Ultimately the whole idea fell through. The records simply didn't sell and didn't make an impact. There were historical and political reasons: as opposed to Ewan McColl's earlier and coeval "radio ballads" in Britain, the Archivi Sonori were excluded from the state radio, where all controversial material was censored. Later, when the state monopoly came to an end, the radical stations were too involved with immediate political agendas and neglected long-term discourse on history and culture, while the commercial stations that came to dominate the airwaves were just not interested.

But most of the problems lay in the technology and its uses. In the first place, it became almost impossible to break the listeners' habit of thinking of the LP in terms of entertainment, a consequence of the cultural and industrial division of labor between the publishing and the music industries. And the entertainment value of these records was very limited. We paid little attention to the quality of the sound (also due to limited means in production); there was also an ideological tinge of austerity in Bosio and his collaborators that pointedly eschewed any pleasantness that could seem even remotely like "pandering" to commercial compromises. Most important, however, was the fact that the record was meant for continuous, linear, uninterrupted listening; it was next to impossible to listen analytically. Later, the audio cassette made it a little easier, but its flimsiness and the sense that it could not be stored and preserved indefinitely discouraged its use for independent, in-depth projects (with some exceptions, like Cesare Bermani and Franco Coggiola's Antonio Gramsci da Torino operaia al carcere di Turi, a collection of testimony on the life of Antonio Gramsci, which anticipates the work presented here by using the subtitle "saggio sonoro" ("essay-in-sound").[10]

The other, important limitation of these projects was that one tended to be carried away by the documentary impulse. The possibility of presenting documents first-hand, rather than just writing about them, was accompanied by the unspoken persuasion that they were all but self-explanatory. This problem seems to persist in most video productions in oral history, where both the deceptively objective (and unexplained) documentary montage and the banal, often boring explanatory "talking head" (often, in mere transposition of written discourse) are equally authoritarian, especially when accompanied by an esthetics and rhetoric of discourse dominated by the grammar of television documentary aimed at an impressionistic, quick fruition. Most importantly, by suppressing the researcher's presence in the field (either by eliminating her altogether from the final product, or by separating her commentary from the documents), these modes of presentation frustrate the most original contribution of oral history to the practice of field work and to the forms of presentation of field material: the dialogic approach, the interpersonal encounter between researcher and narrators, from which both emerge with a new, different awareness.

The tantalizing possibilities of audio and video, therefore, are frustrated again and again by the failure to develop a scholarly, analytical discourse in those media that may promote the shift from documentary to what Charles Hardy designates as essay-in-sound (or in video): a text in which documents are included along with the interpretation in ways that do not sacrifice the documents' expressive power and yet in which an interpretation is offered (not imposed, not removed).

Charles Hardy's challenge ("You talk about oral history: how about presenting it aurally?") was, thus, an opportunity to go back to the original forms and motivations of my work, but also an occasion to step beyond those 1960's and 1970's experiments, to seek a new form of scholarly presentation in non-print media.

In this sense, sound was ideal (or at least, so it seemed to me, because it still highlights the verbal aspect of communication; besides, I was trained in that medium rather than video). In sound, we could include interpretation and analysis on the same level as the voice of the narrators, and yet (thanks also to my non-native English) distinct from them. The solution we found was for Charles to interview me about my thoughts and experience. This created a continuity between our dialogue and the dialogic interviews in the field. It created a space in which I could articulate my hypotheses and conclusions, but make them tentative, dialogic, imbued with my own subjectivity and history as a corrective to the impersonal authoritarian attitude of the scholar analyzing his data. I was not even in total control of the agenda. When Charles asked me, unexpectedly, "Why are you so concerned with death?", he forced me to look at the relationship between my times in Harlan and my life in Rome in ways that I had not articulated before, and to understand them both (and myself) better. It may not be a coincidence that after that interview I went back to Rome and started working on an oral history of the Nazi massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome during World War II.[11]

Next | Contents

Notes for Introduction and Part I:
  1. Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (Grapevine, GRACD252). [Return]
  2. “Harlan Man," written by Steve Earle, in Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (Grapevine, GRACD252); Merle Travis, “Nine Pound Hammer,” in Folk Songs of the Hills (Capitol Vintage 7243-8-35810-23); “Leaving Harlan," written by Phil Rosenthal, in The Seldom Scene. Act Four (Sugar Hill SHCD-3709); William Goodell Frost, "Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains," Atlantic Monthly 83 (March 1899): 311-19; Sara Ogan Gunning, "I Hate the Capitalist System," in The Silver Dagger (Rounder Records 0051); Aunt Molly Jackson, "Join the CIO," in Aunt Molly Jackson, Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder Records 1002); Jim Garland, “The Death of Harry Simms,” in Jim Garland, Welcome the Traveler Home, ed. by Julia S. Ardery (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), 169-71. [Return]
  3. Shauna Scott, Two Sides to Everything: The Constructions of Class Consciousness in Harlan County, Kentucky (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1995). [Return]
  4. "What Makes Oral History Different?" in Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other Stories. Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1991), 46. [Return]
  5. "What Makes Oral History Different?" 47-48. [Return]
  6. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). [Return]
  7. Gianni Bosio, "Elogio del magnetofono" ("In Praise of the Tape Recorder"), in L'intellettuale rovesciato (Milano, Jaca Book, 1998), 157-66. [Return]
  8. Gianni Bosio, ed., La prima internazionale in Italia (Dischi del Sole DS/301/33); Gianni Bosio et al., eds., Addio padre. La guerra di Belochio, di Palma e di Badoglio (Dischi del Sole DS/116/18); Giovanni Pirelli, ed., Arrendersi o perire. Le giornate del 25 aprile (Dischi del Sole, DS/107/9). [Return]
  9. Alessandro Portelli, ed., Roma. La borgata e la lotta per la casa (Istituto Ernesto de Martino, Archivi Sonori, SdL/AS/10); Ronald J. Grele, Envelopes of Sound. The Art of Oral History (Chicago, Ill.: Precedent Pub., 1985). [Return]
  10. C. Bermani, F. Coggiola, M. Paulesu Quercioli, eds., Antonio Gramsci da Torino operaia al carcere di Turi (Saggio sonoro, Istituto Ernesto de Martino, Archivi Sonori, SdL/AS/13). [Return]
  11. A. Portelli, L’ordine è già stato eseguito. Roma, le Fosse Ardeatine, la memoria [An oral history of the Nazi massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome during World War II] (Roma: Donzelli, 1999). [Return]

I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~ A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky
Copyright © 1999 by The Journal for MultiMedia History