Remixing Grandma's Voice

How to preserve her stories in the age of the iPod.

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grandmother

Every time a format changes - from tape to CDs to MP3s - some crucial information risks obsolescence and loss. That's why my Mother's Day present to my family wasn't a card or a call. It was a digital version of an interview I taped with my grandmother, Elizabeth Evans, back in 1990.

Eighteen years is the same as a millennium when it comes to digital data. I captured the conversation on a cassette tape. It was easy and quick then. Now, that tape is a relic, like an eight-track. When my tape player dies, my grandmother's words will be as good as gone.

Her years are numbered; she's now in her 90s. She and her sisters, who are in their 80s, are the only survivors from a family of eight siblings. When I listen to my grandmother's tape, I think of the stories we missed from her brothers. If I were talking data, I'd bemoan the information I didn't capture.

So I'm thinking transference and preservation. I'm thinking about telling and sharing.

During our interview 18 years ago, I'd asked about long-meter singing, the songs we'd called "Dr. Watt's hymns." A leader would call – or line – the verse. And the congregation would answer by repeating it in long, meandering phrases.

I'd always loved the way the voices expanded into the sanctuary, flowing over the pews and into the corners of the room. Each wave of sound echoed and grew, until the song and the singers were one.

When I became an adult, I learned some churches used the hymns to teach scripture to members who couldn't read. In their own way, the songs were a way to store and share information, just like my cassette tapes. Like my cassettes, the hymns have become obsolete.

I'd grown up hearing the songs, but I'd never learned to sing them; that crucial information had been lost. I've been a gospel musician for more than 30 years, yet I can count the times I've heard the hymns on one hand.

When I sat down with my grandmother on July 4, 1990, I was archiving data, as surely as I would be almost two decades later when I backed up crucial files from my hard drive.

She is doing the talking, but her daughter – my mother – is in the room. So are her youngest sister and her older brother. For some reason, we'd all come to celebrate Independence Day that year. All in all, three generations sat at the kitchen table, huddled around the recorder.