Monday, September 7, 2009

Oral Tradition and skewing the truth

Family oral tradition is golden. I love it. The spoken word as offered usually by a member of an older generation is a fantastic, tried and tested means with which to introduce a younger audience to family history. It allows the potential budding genealogist to have their imagination stoked and it provides impetus and the perfect launch pad to the discovery of greater detail, and truth, via new genealogical detective work.

Slipping beyond the veil of oral tradition and its inherent pitfalls can however bring a mixed bag of emotions. Usually, the person offering the family stories, believable or otherwise, is a person who is both loved and respected. Having such a person’s stories potentially turned into dust or into a comical mixed-bag of truth and the wildly inaccurate can potentially drive a newly emerged researcher in the wrong direction – away from oral tradition, if not genealogy altogether.

If great Uncle Bob’s time in the Navy turns out to be the time he spent playing piano in the bar of a cruise liner, should we lose faith in oral history? Should we ignore our source of oral record?

Being discouraged is only natural. It’s all too easy to fall in love with family folklore and the often flamboyant and inaccurate portraits that our family members have painted, but turning away from those stories or discarding them completely would be a dying shame.

Inaccurate oral accounts aren’t worthless. They provide an opportunity, and a starting place where perhaps no other sources are offered. Folklore and skewed oral tradition are as much a part of our histories as the accurate accounts are. They add colour to history and to the hopes and dreams of the times they were conjured, and they deliver to us a colourful backdrop against which we can display the truth.


Laren said...


I couldn't agree more! Since I've started my family history research, I've knocked down a few family stories and backed up some. But often the "wrong" stories are replaced by even more interesting ones and I believe the stories themselves, correct or otherwise, are still important because they were told by people we love and who mean alot to us. The stories are part of them and so are important, whether they are true or not.

John Patten said...

Thanks for the comment Laren. As per usual, I checked out the blog of the person making the comment, and was surprised. You've produced some very cool costumes, and I found your research quite interesting. Not to mention the great taste in cult movies! :)

All the best,