OCTOBER 2021 ISSUE of WestVirginiaVille.com
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1) EDITORS/NOTE: It’s a character thing
2) ART/WORKS: Charly Jupiter Hamilton speaks for himself
3) ART/WORKS: The art of Public Art and artistic coffins
4) ART/WORKS: Hippo hearts & Shakespeare meet in West Virginia
5) LISTEN/IN: Michael and Carrie Nobel Kline on the Art & Craft of Listening
6) REVIEW: Considering the Life & Times of Dorothy Parker
7) THE/PAST: When Eugene Debs was locked in WV’s pen for speechifying
Michael Kline and Carrie Nobel Kline are notable performers of music as both entertainment and social history. They are also artisans of the recorded story and spoken history. They have spent years recording music and spoken narratives from Cherokee, North Carolina through the southern coalfields and mountain farms of Kentucky and West Virginia, documenting mountain experience and music in industrial cities from Cincinnati to New England. Learn more about their work at Talking Across the Lines, the name by which they share a rich motherlode of songs (they have put out two dozen CDs) and histories from the front lines of peoples’ lives. What they do is fundamentally important. They protect and pass forward the art and craft of deep listening — a spiritual act, really. This paves the way for the truest stories to be shared and the most fruitful songs to be sung and preserved. WestVirginiaVille is happy to share this deep dive into a genuinely deep subject. Click the Soundcloud files to hear directly what they are talking about in our Q-and-A ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
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WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What are the origins of “Talking Across the Lines”?
CARRIE NOBEL KLINE: “Talking Across the Lines” began as the name of a radio series we produced in the mid-1990s for WWVA, home of the Wheeling Jamboree. It was a 22-part series of 15-minute programs, interweaving excerpts from 163 life story interviews we recorded with people in the Wheeling area. Wheeling was then working on becoming a National Heritage Area. So, we were hired to gather local stories and use them to create interpretive audio programs. We find that the stories and images that kindle emotion in visitors are also what touch local people. It’s the deep memories that bind together humans, images of childhood, depictions of jobs in the mines and the mills, kitchens and restaurants and so much more — aspects of the American experience.
We find that the stories and images that kindle emotion in visitors are also what touch local people.
We published portions of the interviews in the Sunday News-Register, sewn together like a quilt of memory with old photos and weekly themes, featuring men and women in the steel mills; Bloch Brothers Tobacco (“Chew Mail Pouch.”); faculty, staff, and students at Wheeling’s Black Lincoln School; and much more over 32 weeks.
When we were commissioned to make a human rights series for WWVA, the station provided us with their gold discs of top-40 country songs. So, snatches of any song with a theme of home, longing or unity likely wove its way between the narratives.
So, “Talking Across Across the Lines,” then and now, is not so much people standing across a line of division and literally finding ways to talk. Instead, we interview people for an average of 90 minutes where they feel most safe — homes, fields, pickup trucks …. Then, we render the narratives as audio landscapes, conversation-weaving memory, and interpretation from many vantages. We’re currently sharing these pieces on our podcast, also called “Talking Across Across the Lines.”
MICHAEL KLINE: The origins of “Talking Across the Lines” didn’t originate with us, but, as I remember it, with an English oral historian named Olivia Bennet, visiting from London, from whom Carrie and I took great inspiration in our work together. The name reflects the goal of finding common ground among an uninterrupted flow of diverse, recorded memory and thought — one voice or many — which Olivia called “testimonials.”
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Such significant spoken documents are encouraged by a technique she called “listening for a change.” It seemed to us, thirty years ago, to fit our own goal of giving voice to those not commonly heard from at the “table of public discourse and policy-making.” So much so that we named our business enterprises regarding oral historical research and memory preservation “Talking Across the Lines.” The name has served us well in our journey of exploring listening for a change.
It’s an open-ended style of interviewing in which the interviewer is essentially non-verbal and allows narrators wide latitude in laying out their own life-story narratives. It also makes space for thoughtful silences, in which to reflect on the content of what they have told and we have heard. Thus, we treat our so called “informants” as experts on their own experiences, quite capable of assembling their thoughts and memories in their own way without external direction.
It’s an open-ended style of interviewing in which the interviewer is essentially non-verbal and allows narrators wide latitude in laying out their own life-story narratives.~ Michael Kline
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Our body language reflects our emotional response to what we are hearing without a lot of chit-chat and interjection. In some cases, we might repeat a word or verbatim phrase as a further indication that we are hearing what is being said, or desiring more detail. Pursuing this technique we have discovered that in telling us what they know, people discover what they think about their own lives and work, which often leads into a whole arena of interpretive reflection.
This simple concept of listening for a change is actually quite difficult to achieve because it is such a strict departure from the conversational aspects of ordinary communication in our mainstream society, laced with interruptions and distractions, which can lay waste to a continuity of thought and memory. Dennis Tedlock, with whom I studied at Boston University 30 years ago, called this continuity, or flow, “narrative performance.” It seems that most of us have previously constructed narratives about our lives which we frequently contemplate. These story lines are available to us in our musings, but not often summoned — experiences we might be able to share if only someone would listen.
The results of such an opportunity to be fully and appreciatively heard can be stunning, and being allowed to testify openly and without interruption can prove quite therapeutic for the teller.
In finding their voices, the people we interview come away with more evolved self-concepts — as people with important things to say and knowledge and memory worth preserving. For many, it is a new pathway to exploring their resistance to oppressive forces surrounding their lives and communities, often the beginnings of organizing effective actions and alliances — the stuff of social change.
WVVILLE: For each of you, what was the original motivating inspiration and impetus to record stories and songs, oral histories and tales?
CARRIE NOBEL KLINE: I internalized the music and lyrics of the songs that went round and round on the vinyl records of my childhood. They included the sounds of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Billie, Bessie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, Holly Near, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs, along with compilations of traditional singers from the Western Plains, the Ozarks and Appalachia. I revered the records, sung along, and played guitar.
I would sit up late at night in that New York City apartment, hunched in a chair, my ear close to the speaker playing at the lowest possible volume, read the words and feel every scene in every song.
I also listened closely to the stories of family — the immigrants like my grandpa “squashed like sardines” in steerage below deck traveling to America. And my grandma with eyes bright like the sea that carried her here. She loved the dancehalls and bellowed for tenants rights in the Lower East Side. I pictured her husband — my Grandpa Jake — with his horse-drawn produce cart. My other grandma and family elders knitted for soldiers, gave haircuts to raise funds, and organized meetings for justice and anti-fascism. I pictured Rusty, my grandpa’s cousin — “a swashbuckler” they said — for whom my mother was named, who lost his life working for the liberation of Spain from Franco and the fascists.
I also listened closely to the stories of family — the immigrants like my grandpa “squashed like sardines” in steerage below deck traveling to America.~ Carrie Kline
I felt desperate to leave my New York City home and begin to feel the pulse of rural America, to meet the people who lived stories like those in my favorite songs. And I wanted to get to work for justice in rural America. I had already begun to work against hunger locally. But I wanted to immerse in other dialects and ways of life. So, I set out for the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia, a few days out of high school, to put my shoulder to the plow in a small way.
It wasn’t until I met Michael Kline in Western Massachusetts eight years later, in 1992, that I witnessed someone devoting his life to chronicling peoples’ experiences through oral narratives and the musical soundtracks of their lives. I paid close attention and a few months later I walked up to him and said, “What you’re doing — I think I might want to do that for my life’s work.”
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MICHAEL KLINE: I was blessed as a child with severe dyslexia, growing up in the 1940s and 50s before anyone knew what it was, and graduating from high school as an illiterate 20-year-old. I found my niche in higher education when, through the study of Anthropology, I came upon oral history, a profession I was able to explore throughout my life as a non-reader.
When only a child, I was drawn to the ways of rural communities with compelling oral and musical traditions, ways of telling that cultivated strong memory and a passion for story. The fulfillment I found in rural relationships followed me into adulthood in the southern Appalachians, with increasing realization of the severe injustices I found in the evolving coal fields. Strip mining and ecological degradation were displacing families, destroying communities, and turning the region I loved into a national sacrifice zone. I channeled my love of people challenged by these disasters — and their way with words and neighboring — into cultural and political activism.
These new pursuits were punctuated by songs of work and freedom in the tradition of Woodie Guthrie, Hazel Dickens, and Sarah Ogan Gunning. The songs became my weapons of the spirit, and the studied oral history of the academy transformed into listening for a change on the front porches and picket lines I visited throughout the region. My partnership with Carrie Nobel Kline beginning 30 years ago brought new levels of organization and effectiveness, as well as a singing duality that addressed the injustices we documented together.
The songs became my weapons of the spirit, and the studied oral history of the academy transformed into listening for a change on the front porches and picket lines I visited throughout the region.~ Michael Kline
WVVILLE: What do you hope the legacy of these interviews and recordings will be?
CARRIE NOBEL KLINE: It feels both lofty and insurmountable to hold a hope for the legacy of my work/our work. Yes, I think there is tremendous wealth in each interview, not to mention the thousand — or thousands — we’ve recorded. And, then, there’s the music we’ve recorded. But I think the act of recording, listening and honoring is life-changing for people on both sides of the mic.
So, while it’s reassuring to imagine academic and family researchers finding and learning from the recordings, witnessing examples of resiliency and creativity, the process itself stands on its own.
More than anything I would be happy if many, many people grabbed a recording mic, trained themselves in deep listening, and got busy. I have witnessed the unburdening, relief, and downright joy, that people feel after being heard, uninterrupted, for an hour or more. Giving an oral testimonial is really a birthing. The interviewer has to be willing to immerse in all the fluids of a birth, and to quietly but actively encourage a telling.
Musicians, too, can feel when someone is fully present and celebrating their offering. We teach this deep listening in a workshop we call Listening for a Change. The world will be a much saner place when people feel heard. And, especially, when we find ways to weave together and share the mix of experience and views that make up a human community.
“I think the act of recording, listening and honoring is life changing for people on both sides of the mic.”~ Carrie Kline
MICHAEL KLINE: I dream that these songs and recorded voices will become icons of inspiration and action for future generations — invitations to effect local and regional change in the lives and communities of people striving for the humanity and cooperation implicit in their own traditions and local knowledge.
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WVVILLE: How do you pick and find folks to interview?
CARRIE NOBEL KLINE: People often ask this, but really life seems to put people in our path. Sometimes a family will hire us to preserve the memories of its patriarch or matriarch. Often, a group will have secured funding and hire us to do interviews. In these cases, we make sure to remind folks that with public money — and in some ways, all money is public if you look far enough — it’s important to include everyone.
So, when we helped celebrate Hampshire County’s 250th Anniversary, we told our advisory group that in addition to the local old-time band that spearheaded the grant, we needed to look far and wide for musicmakers. So, we included the voices of the Black janitor who lived in the basement of the County Courthouse. The sparse local Black church members. Young children, old people, newcomers and oldtimers. Original songs, American popular and traditional.
The same was true when the Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce hired us to make a 4-CD, oral history-based heritage driving tour. We made sure to include people from diverse backgrounds and points of view, whether or not people in that rural county enjoyed everyone’s company on a personal level. In all cases, people have ultimately been willing to broaden the projects, and the results have been stronger for it.
MICHAEL KLINE: We mostly locate people to interview through word of mouth: “Oh, you should interview my Aunt Zelda. She went out on that picket line after my uncle was arrested.” If we’re doing a community-wide listening project, it’s not long before a whole web of voices presents itself — and continues to grow as the project expands. Sometimes a newspaper story about the project will elicit responses locally. Our work in schools with kids, just asking them, produces important sources. We talk to people in checkout lines and laundromats, in churches and flea markets. There’s no end to the possibilities.
Most of the music and stories we’ve recorded seem to revolve around persevering through hard times, making it, succeeding against the odds, and drawing on the strengths of people’s own roots.~ Carrie Kline
WVVILLE: What do you feel the significance of songs and stories to be? What role in the culture do they serve?
CARRIE NOBEL KLINE: Most of the music and stories we’ve recorded seem to revolve around persevering through hard times, making it, succeeding against the odds, and drawing on the strengths of people’s own roots.
It might be a person of color talking or singing about triumph over meanness and oppression. It might be an immigrant talking of fleeing. Maybe it’s a coal mining family talking about getting black lung from living near a mountaintop removal site.
Sometimes, it’s a family living downwind of a gas compressor station and suffering from neurological and respiratory ailments. Sometimes, it’s the feeling of a gospel song that expresses this musically even more than the lyrics themselves, but they seem to carry the sense of “How I Got Over.” And we all need to know what our neighbors near and far have been through, to feel empathy and to exchange recipes for survival.
We need to celebrate resilience. We need to imagine visiting together again, porch to porch, stoop to stoop, on riverbanks and picnicking on mountaintops, carrying ourselves to the pinnacle, together.
MICHAEL KLINE: The significance of our “data gathering,” both songs and stories, is that it affirms the depth and breadth of cultures under siege by forces of systemic oppression often threatening their very existence.
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