In praise of the cultural oral history

oral history

Never met an oral history I didn’t love.

Oral histories are the perfect format book for the time poor. You can open at any page and learn something or entertain yourself in five minutes flat. I first got hooked in the early 90s, starting with Days in the Life* (Jonathon Green’s seminal deep dive into London’s 60s counterculture), swiftly followed by his equally brilliant It: Sex Since the Sixties* (more 60s rompage) and later, Them: Voices from the Immigrant Community in Contemporary Britain*, a fascinating investigation into British immigrant life (Green mentioned recently that he’s planning an update, which is amazing news).

Then there’s the classic, Edie: An American Biography* by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, and Truman Capote* by George Plimpton as well as two punk bibles; Please Kill Me* by Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain, and Punk Rock: An Oral History* by John Robb.

I’m fascinated by the art of the oral history. In the late 90s I had ambitions of doing my own on dance music and club culture. I managed about five interviews and then got distracted by actually earning a living. Interviewing/transcribing/editing is time consuming and that’s before the dark art of somehow piecing the various accounts together into a coherent timeline. Does one even try to fact check? I guess not, which is part of the beauty of the oral history. It’s every interviewee’s own version of events as they recall them. Which makes for a few contradictory reports which the editor then needs to decide whether to include or leave out.

Next on my list: Jean Stein’s 2016 Tinseltown tell-all, West of Eden: An American Place. (Stein herself sounds like quite the legend.)

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGE: Navaz Batliwalla / Disneyrollergirl
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here

CLICK HERE to get Disneyrollergirl blog posts straight to your inbox once a week
CLICK HERE to buy my book, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman
CLICK HERE to buy my beauty book, Face Values: The New Beauty Rituals and Skincare