Discovering the Oral History Treasure in the National Library of Australia
Jane Brownlee relates the task, with David De Santi of fulfilling the first National Library of Australia National Folk Festival Fellowship.
What a surprise! You suspect there must be all kinds of gems there, but it is not until you’re face to face in the refrigerated tape rooms of the Oral History section of the library that you believe it’s possible to find undiscovered treasure. Of the thirty-three thousand hours of tape there, only a fraction has ever been examined. Even though a percentage of the collection has not been digitally preserved there is enough tape to keep you busy for several lifetimes over.
Our expedition through the lost treasures saw every day filled with joy at finding many tunes and songs lost to our own generation. The library’s own “Building a Nation’s Memory”, gives you some idea of the importance of this type of work. Of a busy initial two weeks in the library David and I came home with thirteen CD’s filled with tunes songs and poems. We created these by selecting individual tracks from hundreds of tapes – possibly thousands. How wonderful it was to not only find undiscovered tunes and songs, but also undiscovered collections.
The collections are the work of a few amazing individuals, who through their foresight recognised the importance of our own culture for future generations. The collections date from around 1951 through to 2004. Each of the collectors worked in significantly varied ways, with different degrees of cataloging and background information. The collections of John Meredith and Rob Willis are staggering in their breadth and thoughtful manner of cataloging. It was genuinely bewildering to realise there is still a mountain of untouched tape in the John Meredith collection. There must be several more Folk Songs of Australia, including the long awaited third book waiting for someone to complete. It was quite emotional to hear John’s voice on his tapes, perhaps laughing at some silly ditty, or someone’s bootleg name for a common tune. What a mighty man he was, with a legacy that will stand the test of time.
I spent a great deal of time looking at the collection of Chris Sullivan, Norm O’Connor and the Wattle collection. These three are of enormous cultural potential, as they are relatively untouched. How wonderful it was to look at the catalogue of Chris’s collection of over six hundred tapes, all with wonderfully personalized recordings. Chris’s approach of recording people several times, gives a comprehensive insight into the memory of sometimes aging minds. It was on return visits where another tune would be remembered, or another verse that you realise the importance of Chris’s approach.
The Wattle collection, which will be familiar to many via the Wattle record label that previously released traditional material in the 1960’s, was wonderful. Founded by Peter Hamilton, there are over seventy tapes in the collection; these are edited with each tape containing just the very best. David and myself knew much of it, but every so often you would find a song that had just been lying in wait. Having Edgar Waters on hand in the library was quite inspirational. Here was a man who was most humble and generous, who has been at the forefront of musical traditions in Australia for over fifty years. His knowledge of all of the collections, but in particular the Wattle was constructive and stirring. The questions he raised in my mind about different parts of the collection will have an effect on me for many years to come.
Of all of the collections in the library that I found astonishing, to me it was the Norman and Pat O’Connor Collection. For me, it seemed the lost collection, as few people I have spoken to knew much about it and what it contained. After days trolling through the many tapes I found numerous tunes and songs that were recorded when my parents were young. The O’Connor’s were at the forefront of the Victorian folk scene. I do believe out of the work they and their contemporaries started many of the festivals in Victoria were established, including Port Fairy Folk Festival. Since returning home I have had an opportunity to speak with Pat O’Connor on the phone. To hear her amazement that someone should be so interested in their collection, and her humble manner, I was treated to a second dose of admiration for these people. Stay tuned for a future article about the O’Connor’s after I meet with them next month.
David spent a great deal of time looking at the collection of Alan Scott. Another marvelous collection of tapes, and it drove home to me the altruistic nature of these collectors. Dave found loads of great stuff and some of it that had been recorded in our local area. How lovely it was to hear Alan’s gentle nature with the people he was recording and the loving way he put their memory to tape.
After a week or so, I really got stuck into Rob Willis’s Collection. Rob who was an apprentice to the legendary John Meredith has an unbelievable collection. He has had some extraordinary people work with him along the way and none better than his wife Olly. This is obvious when using the Ollycat – Olly’s cataloging system- to not only find out what is on the tapes but also an enormous amount of background information on the interviewees.
Well, I have given you all a glimpse of what you might find if you so feel inclined to dig for treasure. I myself feel as though I’ve only just begun. It takes some time to even understand what is there before you can feel as though you can use it in a meaningful manner. The thorough and dedicated staff of the Oral History section has an unenviable job. Imagine arriving to work each day and knowing that you alone are responsible for managing a country’s memory. Having a brief browse into their lives one can only admire the work they do. I do apologise for the daily bouts of laughter from myself that interrupted their daily work. To hear bar room brawls in the middle of a song, or two hours of bleating sheep in the background of a recording, or indeed some of the more risqué lyrics does comical things to your mind.
So here is a thank you to the many collectors for the often thankless work they have done and continue to do. You have inspired me with your generosity of spirit and time. I hope David and myself do each of you proud with our concerts at the National Festival this year and with our future publications and recordings.
To future collectors some advice; make sure the pet dog is not on hand when the fiddle comes out, try to turn chiming clocks off, if possible try to record away from the milking yard, take some fly spray and keep it handy to the microphone (there is nothing worse than trying to squat a fly for an hour all the while knowing it is on the tape), if possible don’t record next to a train line, be careful when recording in pubs, and if brawls break out avoid leaving the microphone where glasses are going to be shattered, try to record them when they’re sober. But the most important advice is to keep doing it.
To future researchers, spend some time getting to know what is there before you plan your research project. You might find a whole new perspective when you see our culture through someone else’s eyes.