Saturday, March 02, 2013

Telling Stories

Willie Watson
I had the good sense many years ago to invest in a cassette recorder. At that time they were as big as microwave ovens and almost as expensive, but somehow I knew it was important to have one.
With that marvel of technology in hand, I went back to the place where I was born and interviewed old friends, neighbors, and members of my family.
Maybe they trusted me, I'm not sure, but I had a knack for making people feel comfortable. They all opened up and told me their stories. I heard intimate details of their lives that I'd never heard before.
I came across a recording of my grandmother recently that I'd made over 20 years ago. She told how my grandpa made moonshine back during the depression. He was bad to drink, but he also managed to keep the family fed by making whiskey and selling it to business people throughout the county.
He often left her and the four kids alone at night while he walked deep into the woods on moonless nights with 50 pound sacks of yeast and sugar on his back. The yeast and sugar were components that made the whiskey.
One night my grandmother Willie heard footsteps crunching the brown autumn leaves in the front yard. She and my grandpa had a signal worked out so she'd know that he was approaching in the night.
That night there was no signal, so she silently slipped out of bed barefoot. She said the heart-pine floors were cold as ice on her feet as she eased into the front room.
She kept an unbreached 410 gauge shotgun by the door with a load of buckshot in the barrel. She heard the timbers on the front porch squeak under the weight of someone. It was so quiet she could hear the ancient clock ticking on the mantel.
She remembered calling, almost in a whisper, "Charlie". When there was no answer, she grasped the  handle of the shotgun with the barrel of the gun on the hardwood floor and clicked the barrel into a breached position which makes it ready to fire. For those who have never heard a single-shot shotgun being breached, let's just say, there is no mistaking what comes next.
The intruder leap off the porch and ran for dear life. My grandma kicked the door open and fired a shot in the direction of the crunching leaves.
I remember becoming so engrossed in her story that I forgot about the recorder. I couldn't believe I'd captured that on tape.
Tonight Jilda and I watched a documentary on Katherine Tucker Windham. She is a remarkable woman who lived in Selma, Alabama. She was a newspaper reporter and reported during the civil rights era in Selma which was ground zero for that movement.
Later in her life, she became a master story teller. When she died in 2011, Alabama lost a treasure. Watching that documentary reminded me of this story about my family that I recorded all those years ago, and I wondered how much of the oral history of our lives has been lost because for some reason, we didn't capture it. I wish I'd done more.


  1. Isn't it fascinating to hear stories from the people that shaped us?
    I can remember never being able to get enough of my grandmother's stories - ( and I was probably far too young to hear most of them lol )
    She was Irish - and loud and boisterous - and cursed a lot which made it even more fascinating - although I was always being shooed out of the room by some adult or another.........I can still remember quite vividly stories from the " war " times.
    So incredible that you actually have a taped conversation - what a treasure!

  2. Wow! What a wonderful thing to have on tape. I could feel my heart speeding up as I read it (it's ok I have low blood pressure!;>) I wish I had recorded my own father and relatives, too. My Gramma Stella had the sweetest voice I ever heard. Great post, Rick- xoDiana

  3. Your grandmother was a brave and resourceful woman - like not a few of the women of her generation.

    How terrific that you have such recordings at all, even if there are not as many as you would like. Great story!

  4. What an interesting story, my granny is also special. I had the pleasure of meeting also 3 grand-grandparents and I also have many stories from them. But you are right, much of the oral tales fade away and ut is a pity!

  5. I've always loved the stories our elders tell...I remember hearing so many tales about my great grandmother. She divorced an abusive husband before the Depression, not easy at that time, and supported them by running a boarding house and with her winnings from poker games.

    We can't save all the tales, sadly, but you and your recorder? You did enough. =)

  6. Excellent post, Rick. I love to hear stories from the past and to learn about people's lives. It is so interesting. I recorded similar conversations with my grandmother years ago.

  7. You are a great story teller and your grandmother provided you with masterful material.

    Our vice president would be proud of her.

  8. What a treasure trove you have in those tapes. I was completely engrossed in your grandma's story- amazing!

  9. Oh what I wouldn't give to have some of the cassette tapes from my youth so I could listen to all the recordings I made!!!

  10. I love hearing stories from my families past... it would have been so wonderful if I had some of it captured :)

  11. A very interesting story!

  12. I love reading biographies of people from the past. They tell some fascinating stories like this one.

  13. What a treasure that is! I also have an old tape of my mother and father telling stories of when they were young. I really should get it put on a CD before it breaks. None of their stories was exciting as your grandmother's story though. What a woman!

  14. What a great story from the old days. How fortunate to still have that recorded.

    Just last week as I was cleaning a drawer I found an 18 year old taping of my first granddaughter and me trying to play the guitar when she decided she would accompany me by pounding on the piano.
    Have a great week.

  15. That's a great story! Thanks for sharing.


  16. Me too. They took everything with them. The stories, the recipes, the tricks of the trade. lol
    Many times I wish I could still talk with them but they are not here. Even the pictures fade as do the videos and tapes.Nothing you can do. I go back to the streets I grew up in and they are all gone. New houses new businesses new people more cars.
    Not as nice anymore.
    I think we were born in the best of times. Had no expectations, lived laughed worked played all innocently.
    Today listening to politics and news , .... not good.

  17. Wonderful story! When my Mom was forced to leave her job due to her leukemia, I gave her a recorder and microphone and asked her to record her story. Unfortunately, she didn't have the strength to do it and I was sorely disappointed that I hadn't thought of it before.


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