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.