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WPA Recordings Captured Life History Of 10,000 Everyday People


We have a story now of another hard time. During the Great Depression, the government put many unemployed people to work, and some worked documenting America. The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, hired thousands of writers, photographers and artists to capture a sliver of history before it could be dulled by fading memories. Some of their work included audio recordings.


CLYDE SMITH: (Singing) Fish man, fish man, five cent a pound. Folks, I sell them all over town. Come on down and get around. My fish ain't but five cent a pound (ph).

INSKEEP: The singer there, Clyde "Kingfish" Smith, was selling seafood in Harlem in 1939. Here to talk about these WPA audio recordings is Dave Isay, the founder of the modern day oral history project StoryCorps, which was inspired in part by those WPA recordings. Dave, good to talk with you again.

DAVE ISAY: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Besides just putting writers and artists and other people to work, what was the objective of these recordings?

ISAY: Well, as you said, there were about 6,000 out-of-work writers that the Federal Writers' Project put to work. They recorded about 10,000 life histories of everyday people. Almost all of those were written, but a very, very, very small percent were recorded on these massive old hundreds of pounds acetate disk recorders, like Clyde "Kingfish" Smith who's making a living as a fishmonger in New York City doing the best he can to feed his family.


SMITH: In a Spanish neighborhood, I usually sing something Spanish. And I get in a colored neighborhood, I sing something kind of swingy. And I get in a Jewish neighborhood, I sing something like "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." (Singing) Bei mir bist du shoen, yeah, it's ol' fish man again (ph).

INSKEEP: This is just a reminder the value of work. There was this desperate situation and yet this amazing record of that moment in time came out of it, including, if I'm not mistaken, interviews with some of the last living slaves from slave times decades before.

ISAY: Yeah, that's right. One of the big Federal Writers' Projects had to do with recording the last of the surviving slaves. Let's listen to a recording of Fountain Hughes, who was 101 when he was interviewed in Baltimore.


FOUNTAIN HUGHES: My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. We were slaves. We belonged to people. You sell us like you sell horses and cows and hogs and all like that.

HERMAN NORWOOD: Were you ever sold?

HUGHES: I was too young to sell.

NORWOOD: Oh, I see.

HUGHES: If I thought that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and just end it all right away because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog.

INSKEEP: Every sentence in that passage is devastating, Dave.

ISAY: Well, that's the power the human voice. Long before starting StoryCorps, I used to go to the Library of Congress and listen to these things. And, you know, the soul is kind of contained in the human voice. And when you listen to these things, you're just transported back in time.

INSKEEP: There must be amazing recordings just of people describing their lives then in that moment, the 1930s or so.

ISAY: Yeah, that's right. One of the WPA efforts was to record voices from the Dust Bowl. And we have a recording of a guy named Charlie Spurlock, who was recorded in a California migrant workers camp in 1940.

INSKEEP: Oh, so this is a guy who fled the area around Kansas and Oklahoma, ended up in California desperate for work.


CHARLIE SPURLOCK: It come a - what we call a red dust storm. It'd come from the west. And the dust was so thick that you could see nothing at all. You just absolutely couldn't see through it at all. The next morning after the storm was over, the dust was quarter of an inch thick all over everything in the house.

INSKEEP: How long did these recordings go on?

ISAY: So they went right until World War II started. There were some recordings made the day after Pearl Harbor. Some of the folks at the Library of Congress went out on the streets of Washington, D.C., on December 8, 1941, and talked to people.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, I'll tell you, I didn't want us to go to war. But now that we're in there, I hope we go to work on them and really give them something that they'll be sorry for.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How do you feel now that it has begun? How do you feel it's going to go?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, I hope we beat the hell out of them.


INSKEEP: Wow. David Isay, now that we're in this time when unemployment has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression and people are struggling, is there some extra meaning that these recordings take on?

ISAY: Well, you know, I've been thinking a lot. There were these 10,000 recordings done during the Depression. Most people don't talk about the Depression. They talk about their lives. They talk about the people they loved, the people they lost. And that's what we're seeing again as we're recording now during the pandemic. People just want to leave a record of their lives for the future, and that's what happened back then. And that's what we're doing now with StoryCorps Connect.

INSKEEP: David, thanks for the perspective.

ISAY: Thanks, Steve. Great to talk to you. Stay well.

INSKEEP: Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, which during the pandemic is, as he said, recording interviews remotely using a service called StoryCorps Connect, which you can find at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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