Just for the record

Voices: Folklorists capture people's reactions for the Library of Congress.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 21, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Exactly one week after terrorism struck the country, Rory Turner places his mini-disc recorder and microphone on a counter as construction workers, firefighters, cops, mothers with young children and business professionals grab lunch at the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore.

Turner, a folklorist and program director for the Maryland State Arts Council, finds a relatively quiet corner behind a Chinese food and barbecue stand. He turns to customer Douglas H. Strachan, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Curtis Bay, and asks how he responded to the attacks. Strachan is happy to share his feelings with a stranger.

"You can't let your hatred for one nation and one people destroy your belief in humanity," Strachan tells Turner. Their conversation roams over several aspects of the crisis, from the reaction of fundamental Christians to the need for the United States to act "rationally, not emotionally."

In the background, vegetables sizzle on the grill and an employee rinses a large colander of noodles. The clanging commotion of the lunch spot is absorbed by Turner's recorder, as are Strachan's words, so that listeners 100 or 1,000 years from now will know the sounds of lunch in the early 21st century as well as the pastor's impressions.

Turner's interview with Strachan and others having their noon meal is bound for the permanent collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington. As a national resource, the library's acquisition will be publicized and made available to researchers, schoolchildren, writers and producers, anyone curious about how ordinary citizens grasped the sudden transformation of their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

Turner and colleagues around the country are working in the tradition of earlier archivists. Urged by Alan Lomax, then director of the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, to collect "person on the street" reactions on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, those archivists fanned out to record the fears and opinions of oilmen, janitors, cab drivers, homemakers, physicians and many others.

After 60 years, it is a revelation to listen to their thoughts as background noise -- from car horns and crowded sidewalks -- evoke place and time on about four hours of tape recorded from Dec. 8 to Dec. 10, 1941. Back then, citizens thought of the fateful event as a dividing line between "before and after," just as they are doing now. And just as they do now, citizens were anxious to obliterate the enemy.

In an interview on a Washington street, a man named Stanley Hutt says to an interviewer: "Well, I tell ya. I didn't want us to go to war. I mean, like everybody else we'd like to keep out of it. But now that we're in there, I hope [we] go to work on them and really give them something they'll be sorry for."

One man tells the interviewer that he expected to be drafted at any minute. At an African-American pool hall in Washington, another man says to Lomax: "I say as far as my concern, this country is involved in war, and I think we should be patriotic regardless of creed, color and condition."

At the Library of Congress, the Pearl Harbor field recordings were made into a series of radio programs called "Dear Mr. President." More recently, they were used for "The Day after Pearl Harbor," a radio program made by the production company Sound Portraits and aired on National Public Radio.

Returning to the streets with microphones after last week's events would not only preserve first impressions, but also reveal how common motifs, beliefs and behaviors are manifested at different times in United States history.

The idea occurred to Ann Hoog, a reference specialist at the American Folklife Center, the day after the attacks. Peggy Bulger, the center's director, agreed that it was a worthy endeavor.

By e-mail, Bulger asked folklorists to "document the immediate reactions of average Americans in your own communities to yesterday's terrorist attack and to what many have called `an act of war.' What were they doing when they heard? How have their lives been changed?" So far, about 100 interested folklorists have responded to the request.

The value of such field recordings transcends historic documentation, Bulger says: "It really is cathartic to tell stories [about] where you were when you heard it."

The process is therapeutic "for the interviewer and interviewee," Hoog says. "When [a fieldworker is] documenting, they're not as outside the event as it might seem."

Between conversations at Cross Street Market, Turner, 38, reflects on his work and its value at a time when the media is all over the story. When eliciting accounts, folklorists are perhaps more alert to themes, frameworks -- the way a story is told -- and beliefs than are journalists, says Turner, a man with a slightly woeful demeanor who is struggling to understand last week's atrocities as he speaks with others.

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