Singing Oral History

By Yarber, Yvonne | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Singing Oral History


Yarber, Yvonne, The Oral History Review


OYATE TA OLOWAN: "SONGS OF THE PEOPLE." By Milt and Jamie Lee. Rapid City, S.D.: Lee Productions, 1998. 26 audiotapes, $13 each plus $2 shipping and handling. 3907 Minnekahta Drive, Rapid City, SD 57702, 1(800)486-8940; Web site, http://www.oyate.com; e-mail, milt @oyate.com. Also distributed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio for Peace International.

Oral history can be static or dynamic. It is a broad field that ranges from telling a matter-of-fact chronicle of events in a person's life, to sharing a contemplative personal inner journey, to providing a collection of voices to illuminate a subject. Many of the best oral histories include all three, building a bridge between the seen and unseen--a link between history, the spirit of man and the spirit of place. Then it becomes a story that resonates, teaching the audience something new, providing deeper understanding or a spark of connection and identity.

Oyate Ta Olowan: "Songs of the People" is a dynamic oral history project that resonates in the physical world with its music and in the unseen world with its spirit. It is an ambitious series of traditional Native American music in the form of twenty-six completed half-hour audio programs with twenty-six more to be released in the Fall of 1999. Out of respect for the musicians and observance of protocol, uncut versions of the songs are provided on Side B of the edited half-hour audiotape programs.

Primary funding for this project was supplied by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Four tapes were sampled for this review. If representative of the entire series, they reflect flexibility on the part of the interviewers and success at presenting Native American music as a living art.

The husband and wife team of producers, Milt and Jamie Lee, let the artists speak for themselves through segments of music and interviews, effectively woven together with minimal narration. The narration provides the setting and a brief introduction to the artist and music. The interviews or stories vary with each individual's unique relationship to the songs. Prior to venturing into the field, Milt and Jamie Lee research the music of the communities and people they visit. After twenty years of recording Native American music, they are familiar with collections at the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and local cultural organizations. Despite the preparation and study, Milt says that with each first interview, "We have no idea what we're going to get, and we just trust that it will work out. We try to think of what we do as service--service to the artist and to the public."

The series is not presented as a definitive work but rather a sampling of Native American artists from a wide variety of cultures. Theyvary in age and community or tribal stature. When asked about the criteria for being included in the series, interviewer Milt Lee, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said, "Number one was the music. Secondly, we were looking for someone with a big heart, knowledgeable of their tribal culture, who loves their culture and wanted to share it. …

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