Family Folklore: Interviewing Guide and Questionnaire

Compiled by Holly-Cutting Baker, Amy Kotkin, and Margaret Yocom, Washington D.C., Folklife Program, Office of American and Folklife Studies, Smithsonian Institution, 1978, 6 pages, Government Document SI 1.20:F21.

During the past three years the staff members of the Smithsonian Institution's Family Folklore Project have interviewed hundreds of persons about their family folklore. To prepare for these interviews we drew upon our academic backgrounds in folklore and American studies and upon our personal backgrounds as members of families. In addition, we reviewed the major instruction guides in genealogy, oral history, family history, and folklore fieldwork. Although these publications were all helpful in someway, no single book was completely adequate since family folklore combines aspects of all the above disciplines. Over time we have developed guidelines and questions that have proved successful for us; we hope that the following suggestions will be helpful to anyone who wishes to collect the folklore of his or her own family.

Before you begin:

Family folklore is not static. It exists only as part of the day to day living of a family. To separate it from this natural context would be to rob it of its vitality and its existence as folklore; the material thus gathered would become simply a report about family folklore and not a collection of family folklore. It is essential to remember that the story itself is as important as the information it conveys. This is the essential distinction between family folklore and the closely related disciplines of genealogy and family history. The following suggestions are designed to help you focus on these folkloric aspects of your family's past.

A word of warning. Because family folklore exists only within the context of a living family, it is constantly evolving. Each generation will forget or alter the lore that it has received; on the other hand, that same generation will add new verbal lore and new traditions. This creative aspect of family folklore affects the researcher in two ways. First, no matter how hard you try, you will never record the entire body of your family's folklore since there will never be a moment in which it will be totally static. Don't despair. Record what you can and encourage other family members to do the same. Just think of collecting family folklore as a pastime for which you he an infinite supply of raw material close at hand. The second way in which the creative aspect of family folklore affects the researcher is in his time orientation. The family folklorist cannot be so absorbed with preserving the past that he neglects to record the present. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. A tradition does not have to be old to be worth recording. In fact, a good part of any family's tradition is ephemeral and may not last long enough to pass from one generation to another. Collecting family folklore is one case in which too much is better than too little. Tapes can be edited and transcripts can be discarded, but the tradition, story or expression that you neglect to record today may exist only in memory next week.

As self-appointed family folklorist you now have two tasks ahead of you; to learn your family's folklore and to record it for others to enjoy.

The equipment:

Note-taking and tape recording are the usual means of recording family folklore. The tape recorder is the means of choice. Writing during an interview or family event has a number of disadvantages. Most people find note-taking to be both tedious and difficult. It is hard to maintain a conversation or participate actively in the ongoing activities. Visual contact is lost. A complete, accurate account of the story--especially if it is long and detailed--is difficult to obtain. Although the words may be written down, the subtleties of the performance are inevitably lost.

Although both you and your informant might be uneasy and uncomfortable with the tape recorder, you will soon become accustomed to its presence. A small casette machine with a built-in omni-directional microphone will give the best results. It is easy to use and so inconspicuous that its presence will soon be forgotten. A ninety minute cassette (forty-five minutes per side) is a good choice since it is economical, unlikely to tangle, and long enough to record substantial segments of an interview without interruption.

The microphone should be played so that all voices, including yours, can be picked up. Run a test before you begin the actual interview and adjust the machine accordingly. The end of a two-hour interview is no time to discover that you've forgotten to push the record button or that the volume control was incorrectly adjusted! Read carefully any instructions that come with the particular tape recorder that you are using.

As far as possible all extraneous noise should be eliminated. Turn off the radio, close the window, move away from the window fan. A few minutes spent finding the proper spot for the tape recorder can save you many hours when it comes time to transcribe the interview and you struggle to distinguish grandma's voice from the roar of a passing airplane. The recorder should also be placed where it will not be disturbed during the interview and where you will have easy access to it when it becomes necessary to change tapes.

Although not as essential as a tape recorder, a camera is a useful piece of equipment. It provides a visual record of the interview and the informant. It can also be used to copy any documentary records that the informant might offer, such as photographs or scrapbooks.

The people:

Who should you start with? Your oldest relative? The one you feel most at ease with? No. The place to begin is with yourself. You are just as much a bearer of your family's traditions as any member of your family. Use yourself as an informant and ask yourself the questions that follow on pages 6-8. You may be surprised at how much you know about some areas and how little about others. It is very likely that you will know more about one side of the family than another, for instance. Use your answers as a starting point for questioning other family members. The best questions come from a well-informed person. Once you have collected family folklore from yourself, try to remember family structure. Who are your relatives? Which ones are most likely to have information and be willing to share it? Who gets along with whom? What topics are likely to be sensitive? These are all essential questions that you can begin to answer yourself.

The first outside person that you interview should be someone with whom you feel very comfortable. Interviewing is not easy and you would do well to get your introduction to it in the presence of a friendly face. A parent or sibling might be a good choice. Young children often have great success with grandparents.

As you continue your interviewing you will pick up clues that will help you find potential narrators: "You should talk to Uncle Joe about that," or "Aunt Jane is a much better storyteller than I am." Whenever possible ask directly for sources: "Can you tell me who might know more about that?" As you become more and more involved with the search you will meet relatives that you never even knew you had! Don't neglect non-relatives, either. Your grandfather's best friend may be able to tell you things about him that no family member would know. Don't overlook other members of the household who were not relatives, such as nursemaids or long-term boarders. Try not to be misled by terms of address. Aunt, uncle, sister, brother and cousin are especially troublesome words since they can indicate respect, affection and brotherhood as easily as blood or marriage relationships. And although they won't be much help as sources of information on family folklore, don't forget family pets since they can frequently be found as characters in family stories.

The interview:

The most productive family folklore interviews are those that take place in a natural context for the reasons explained at the beginning of this guide: family folklore is a living part of a family and cannot be successfully separated from the everyday activities of that family. This can present problems since it will be impossible for you to be present during every naturally occurring folklore event. You should make use of such opportunities whenever possible, however. Some common natural contexts are family dinners, picnics, reunions and holidays. These are the times at which families would tell stories whether or not you are there with your tape recorder. Under these circumstances you will probably not even have to conduct an interview--just adjust the recorder, relax, and participate as you ordinarily would.

If no spontaneous natural context seems to be available you will have to rely on what is called an induced natural context. The distinction is straightforward. Instead of waiting for a family dinner to occur in the normal course of events, you initiate one. This approach has the added advantage of giving you a degree of control over the situation. For example, you can invite specific relatives who interact well with each other. Try serving foods that you know will bring back memories from the past.

The group interview context, whether natural or induced, has one major characteristic that makes it extremely fruitful. The interaction that occurs as a matter of course serves to spark the memories of the participants. One story leads into another, one interpretation elicits cries of "but that's not really the way it happened at all!" The end result of such an interview will differ greatly from private interviews with the same relatives.

Private interview can also be either natural or induced. If grandma begins to talk to you about her journey to this country while you are washing the supper dishes, fine--unfortunately, you probably won't be prepared with a tape recorder. If you wish to privately interview a relative, try not to do so under formal circumstances. Suggest some activity that will allow you to maintain a conversation easily but will help keep the session natural and low key--going for a walk, sewing, baking. If you know beforehand that a particular activity is usually a time for storytelling, schedule your interview to coincide with that event. Familiar surroundings and routine activities will also help to distract the informant from the fact that he or she is being interviewed and will lessen the unsettling impact of the tape recorder.

Every interview that you do will be unique. The questions on pages 6-8 will supply some uniformity, although you will probably be selective in using them. The following brief suggestions should be helpful in most circumstances.

1. Ask evocative questions. Nothing can kill an interview faster than a long series of questions that require only yes or no as answers.

2. Face up to the fact that there will be some information that you will not get. You may be the wrong sex or age. A relative may simply not trust you with sensitive data. If you feel you must have the missing material you may be able to solicit the help of another relative or friend as an interviewer.

3. Be aware that role switching will occur. Rather than being just a son or daughter you are becoming an interrogator. Both you and your informant may feel uneasy in these new roles. A low key approach in a natural setting should help relieve some of the discomfort.

4. Show interest. Encourage your informants as much as possible. Interject remarks whenever appropriate. Take an active part in the conversation without dominating it. Learn to be a good listener as well as a good questioner.

5. Know what questions you want to ask, but don't be afraid to let your informant go off on a tangent. He or she might just touch on subjects of interest that you never thought to ask about.

6. Never turn off the tape recorder unless asked to. Not only does it break the conversation, such action suggests that you think some of your informant's material is not worth recording.

7. Use props whenever possible. Documents, letters, photo albums, scrapbooks, home movies and other family heirlooms can all be profitably used to stimulate memories.

8. Be sensitive to the needs of family members. Schedule your sessions at a convenient time. Older people tire easily; cut the interview off at the first sign of fatigue. Don't slight family members who show interest in your project. Interview them, even if you have reason to believe their material will be of minimal value. Each interview should be a pleasant and rewarding experience for all parties involved.

9. If possible, prepare some sort of written report for the family as a tangible result of their participation. Remember to save all of your tapes, notes and any other documentation that you have accumulated (and you will!). Label everything with names, dates and places. Ideally, all tapes should be indexed and transcribed. You will be more conscientious about documentation if you place yourself in the position of your great-grandchild who, many decades in the future, will be using your project as a source for his reconstruction.

A question of ethics:

Most of your relatives will be delighted by your new found interest in collecting family folklore. Some will undoubtably wonder if you've gone slightly mad. Unfortunately, a few may be uncooperative and even hostile. Because of the personal nature of the folklore that you will be collecting, you should be very careful to protect the privacy and rights of all family members. Be honest about your intent from the very beginning. Explain your reasons for doing the research. Is it a school assignment? Do you simply want to learn more about your family? Do you plan to publish your findings? The ultimate disposition of the collection may affect their willingness to talk about certain subjects.

You may find it difficult to explain what family folklore is and why you want to record it. Your relatives will most likely equate your research with genealogy and family history. No harm will be done if you explain your research in those terms since the areas are so interrelated.

Don't make promises you can't or don't intend to keep. If you say that you will erase part of a tape, do so, even if it means losing some important information. Respect confidences and privacy. Let your informants see anything that will be published before it is too late to alter the manuscript. The intimate nature of family folklore places burdens on the researcher that are restrictive and sometimes frustrating. Fortunately, the bulk of your collection will be non-controversial. One last ground rule: Never, under any circumstance, record secretly. There is never any justification for such dishonesty. Such behavior can only result in bad feelings within the family.

In conclusion:

Please do not be discouraged by all the do's and don't's that we have outlined in these pages. Once you have begun collecting your own family's folklore you will realize that the guidelines are based on common sense and lots of practice. Vary them to suit your own family circumstances. Improve them with our blessing and encouragement. And above all, enjoy yourself, your family and your folklore.

A Possible Questionnaire:

Every family is unique. Every folklore fieldworker has his or her own special interest and style of interviewing. Because of this diversity, we feel strongly that no single set of questions will successfully elicit family folklore from all families. The most useful questions will be those that you develop through your knowledge of yourself and your family. For your initial efforts you may find the following list of questions helpful. Just remember that they are meant to be suggestive, not absolute. Pick and choose among them as you see fit. By all means change the wording to suit your own situation and personality.

1. What do you know about your family surname? Its origin? Its meaning? Did it undergo change coming from the Old Country to the United States? Are there stories about the change?

2. Are there any traditional first names, middle names or nicknames in your family? Is there a naming tradition, such as always giving the firstborn son the name of his paternal grandfather?

3. Can you sort out the traditions in your current family according to the branches of the larger family from which they have come? Does the overall tradition of a specific grandparent seem to be dominant?

4. What stories have come down to you about your parents? Grandparents? More distant ancestors? How have these relatives described their lives to you? What have you learned from them about their childhood, adolescence, schooling, marriage, work, religion, political activity, recreation? Are they anxious or reluctant to discuss the past? Do their memories tend to cluster about certain topics or time periods and avoid others? Are there certain things in your family history that you would like to know, but no one will tell you? Do various relatives tell the same stories in different ways? How do these versions differ?

5. Do you have a notorious or infamous character in your family's past? Do you relish stories about him/her? Do you feel that the infamy of the ancestor may have grown as stories passed down about him/her have been elaborated? Would you like to think your ancestors were pirates even though down deep you know that they were honest, hard-working people?

6. How did your parents, grandparents, and other relatives, come to meet and marry? Are there family stories of lost love, jilted brides, unusual courtships, arranged marriages, elopements, runaway lovers?

7. Have any historical events affected your family? For example, how did your family survive the Depression? Did conflict over some national event such as the Civil War or Vietnam cause a serious break in family relationships?

8. Are there any stories in your family about how a great fortune was lost or almost (but not quite) made? Do you believe them? Are these incidents laughed about or deeply regretted? If a fortune was made, who was responsible and how was it achieved?

9. What expressions are used in your family? Did they come from specific incidents? Are there stories which explain their origin? Is a particular member of the family especially adept at creating expressions?

10. How are holidays celebrated in your family? What holidays are most important--national, religious or family? What innovations has your family made in holiday celebrations? Has your family created entirely new holidays?

11. Does your family hold reunions? How often? When? Where? Who is invited? Who comes? Who are the organizers and hosts? What occurs during the reunion? Are there traditional foods, customs, activities? Are stories and photographs exchanged? Are records (oral, written, visual) kept? By whom?

12. Have any recipes been preserved in your family from past generations? What was their origin? How were they passed down--by word of mouth, by observation, by written recipes? Are they still in use today? When? By whom? Does grandmother's apple pie taste as good now that it's made by her granddaughter?

13. What other people (friends, household help, etc.) have been incorporated into your family? When? Why? Were these people given family title such as aunt or cousin? Did they participate fully in family activities?

14. Is there a family cemetery or burial plot? Who is buried with whom? Why? Who makes burial place decisions? If there are grave markers, what type of information is recorded on them?

15. Does your family have any heirlooms, objects of sentimental or monetary value that have been handed down? What are they? Are there stories connected with them? Do you know their origin and line of passage through the generations? If they pass to you, will you continue the tradition, sell the objects, or give them to museums?

16. Does your family have photo albums, scrapbooks, slides, home movies? Who created them? Whose pictures are contained in them? Whose responsibility is their upkeep? When are they displayed? To whom? Are they specially arranged and edited? Does their appearance elicit commentary? What kind? By whom? Is the showing of these images a happy occasion?

Reprinted with permission of the Office of American and Folklife Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller