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.
"If I'm not mistaken, this is how the Primitive Baptist sang the hymns," she began. "They used a longer…timing than the Missionary Baptists."
She launched into a verse: "Jesus my king, I long to find; Pray tell me where he dwells…"
Her voice wandered through melodic peaks and valleys of the songs she'd heard as a child from the Primitive Baptist church behind her home. They were the folks we called "footwashing Baptists," because they re-enacted that ritual from the New Testament.
But our family is full of Missionary Baptists, who stress carrying God's word to the world. She sang the hymn in that denomination's style, explaining the intricacies and differences as she went.
The songs became the bridge to another story. She began to talk of her beloved Papa, who helped teach her to sing.
"My daddy even had me leading some of the hymns off, and he would what you call 'raise' them.. Papa would raise them to the tune, whatever tune they were supposed to be in," she said.
And then she sang some more, lifting the initial melody to its correct height, then dropping it when it seemed she'd almost run out of breath.
Her memories have opened the door to another generation. I was enthralled then and now. But now, I compare the voices from the past with those of the present. My grandmother's voice was still strong and sure, but I can detect the beginning of a quaver that is audible when she talks. The sound of her brother's voice is precious – he died in 1995.
The tape is digitized in minutes. And it only takes minutes to register for the program that will allow an entire family to access this conversation.
But before I click the mouse, I whisper my hope in a prayer. May this transfer be successful. May this story be saved and given to another generation.
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is an Ohio-based journalist.