Voices from the past

What if you had an unexpected chance to hear your long-deceased grandmother’s voice again? That hypothetical question became very real for me in the last couple of weeks. I chose to do what I could to hear her voice, and the voices of several other deceased relatives and to do my best to share them with you.

My grandmother, Dorothy R. (McMurry) Black has been gone for over 23 years, and I haven’t heard her voice in that entire time. As far as I knew, there were no surviving home movies of her, and no surviving recorded interviews of her voice that I could watch or listen to. Her family films were silent vacation reels that appear to have focused on recording beautiful panoramas for the folks who weren’t there. The audio recordings were merely note-taking aids that were reused once they were transcribed. Or so I thought until this week.

In organizing our family history archives, I came upon five cassette tapes that had not yet been transcribed. I took a family-history-focused week-long trip to Olympia, Washington in late September and early October, 1990. Dorothy was 73 and her health was declining, so I wanted to make the most of my time with her. I was positively manic in my data gathering in that trip. I spent hours with her at the county recorder’s office, the state archives, listening to her cousin Art McMurry talk with her about our family history, making color photocopies of family photos, interviewing her about her childhood, and having her give me and my father guided tours of Olympia and surrounding areas. And then I’d stay up to the wee hours trying to enter all this information into my desktop Macintosh SE that I made ‘portable’ by carrying it around in its own suitcase. Most relevant to today’s post, I recorded as much of our conversations as I could on a cassette recorder that my father leant me.

I came back from that trip with piles of information just as my own life was taking a sharp turn away from having free time to spend on family history. For the next four years, I spent 4-5 months each year doing paleoanthropological fieldwork in Africa, Europe, and the Near East, after which I got accepted into a competitive Ph.D. program back east that ate up nearly a decade of my life. Throughout all of this, I changed addresses more than 10 times. The data I so diligently gathered ended up getting filed away in boxes that I carried with me from home to home, waiting for that idyllic time when I’d have time to go through everything. That still hasn’t happened.

While these distractions from family history delayed my being able to process all the information I gathered that week thirty years ago, they were also responsible for the preservation of the audio tapes. Had I transcribed them 30 years ago, they may have been overwritten or thrown away. Instead, they stayed tucked away safely until this week.

I’ve been taking a box-by-box approach to organizing the archives when I have time to tackle a box. A single box can easily take a couple of full days to fully process, digitize, and organize. More often, it will take me two or three times that long to digitize and safeguard the contents of one of my family history boxes. This one may set a record.

In the current box, I found six standard 90-minute cassette tapes (a couple even had labels), 18 unlabeled mini-cassettes (an unsuccessful format that lost out to the much more popular micro-cassettes), 1 unlabeled micro-cassette and a micro-cassette player, and 65 miscellaneous photos from the last 50 years. I can only guess at how these came to be boxed together.

I put a fresh battery in the micro-cassette player and listened to the lone micro-cassette. Whose long-lost voice would I hear? Mine, from 1998 or 1999 working through some hypothesis testing with my lab mate in graduate school. Yawn. Set that one aside for now.

I searched high and low for a cassette player and a mini-cassette player, only to find that I had quite reasonably gotten rid of those years ago. I went online and bought a cassette player that I could hook up to my current digital voice recorder and it arrived just a couple of days ago.

I listened to only the first few seconds of each cassette before recording it, as I didn’t want to unnecessarily wear out the old fragile recordings before I had a chance to digitize them. It was an emotional experience hearing the voices of my grandmother Dorothy, my father Keith, and my cousin Art, all now long since deceased.

The actual digitization of each tape was a silent, nerve-wracking affair. As I was digitizing them using the cassette player’s earphone jack, I couldn’t hear what was being recorded. Was the poorly-built cassette player damaging the tapes? Was I accidentally hitting the record button instead of the play button? After each side of each tape was digitized, I transferred the digital files to my computer and listened to them. The audio quality is fairly low and will need substantial digital clean up, but the contents of the tapes I’ve digitized so far are more than I had hoped for.

I’ll share the recordings and transcripts with you as I get them transcribed. I’ve never done a video podcast before, but that seems the best way to present the audio recordings, captioned transcriptions, and perhaps supplemental content such as photos, maps, and commentary. I currently have little knowledge of how to do that. But I’m learning Adobe Premier, and so far it looks possible, if rather tedious and time-consuming. If you have experience in making video podcasts and have some tips for making the embedding of captions less of a time sink, do let me know!

Anyhow, that’s where I’m at now. It’s taking me about 3 hours to transcribe only 20 minutes of recording (due to the noise and our apparent family habit of all talking over one another). I’m nearly six hours in to the first tape (Dorothy taking my dad and I on a guided tour of the City of Olympia of her youth), and once the transcription is done it’ll probably take me at least twice as long again to synch up those transcriptions with the audio and add photos and commentary. Hopefully within the next week or two I’ll have my first video podcast ready to go on the first 45 minutes of Dorothy Black’s guided tour.

Quick postscript—I just received a Dictaphone mini-cassette player and tried playing and recording the first of the mini-cassettes last night. It was far less straightforward than the full-size cassettes, as the headphone jack was dead, the drive belt would occasionally screech, and the playback speed varied so the timbre of the recorded voices also varied—from slightly unnaturally high-pitched to alarmingly unnaturally high-pitched. But despite these technical issues, I’m pleased to report that I heard my grandfather Bill Prettyman’s voice for the first time in over 22 years, plus the voice of my grandmother Harriet (Askew) Prettyman’s voice occasionally chiming in from the background with tangential and amusing stories. I’ll be sharing these with you as well, once I work through the technical hurdles of distorted mini-cassette recordings.

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