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Q&A: Head of Folklore Society is a champion of oral histories

Sunday, February 10, 2008
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According to Ellen McHale, the written word is not always the final word.

In fact, as executive director of the New York State Folklore Society, McHale says that oral history can be every bit as entertaining and accurate as a history book, if not more.

An Elmira native who grew up in Whitehall and graduated from high school there as class valedictorian in 1977, McHale headed off to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study music. While she still enjoys playing the piano and the saxophone, her interests shifted toward social and cultural history, and she ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, where she got her master’s degree and doctorate in folklore.

In her current post at the Folklore Society since 1999, McHale has become a big proponent of oral histories, and at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at the Schenectady County Historical Society, she will offer a free presentation on how to conduct those kind of interviews.

If she’s not at the Folklore Society office/gallery on Jay Street in Schenectady, you can find her at her home in Esperance, where she lives with her husband, John, and their three children.

Q: What is the mission of the New York State Folklore Society?

A: It was formed as an offshoot of the New York State Historical Society in 1944, and the mission is to support and promote traditional arts and culture in New York State. The mission of our gallery on Jay Street is to provide a consignment outlet for artists actively working in New York State. They may be from anywhere in the world, but they have to be living in New York and making hand-made items. Along with the crafts that we have, we do sell books and musical CDs. We don’t try to compete with the major bookstores, but we do sell books, usually self-published, and CDs that are relevant to New York and that you might not be able to find at a major media store.

Q: What is folklore?

A: That’s a good question, because we were actually thinking of changing our name for a while because people have so many ideas about what folklore is. What I and most folklorists like to say is that it’s the arts of everyday life. It’s any kind of activity or art you learn within a community or home setting because of a close personal interaction with another person. It has to be something that is passed on from one person to the next. It doesn’t have to be old-fashioned.

We did a program on hip-hop because we were looking at verbal arts that were being passed on in the community. It’s something that typically might not be taught in a formal academic setting.

Q: What is the value of oral histories?

A: Sometimes, an oral history is looked down upon as inaccurate, because it’s based on a person’s memory. But with me, history is how you spin it. History can change depending upon who wants to make a case for what, and an oral history can do the same thing, depending upon the view of the speaker.

Anyone can do an oral history by documenting someone’s experience and capturing it on tape, and that can become a very useful tool for history.

Q: What does someone with a master’s and doctorate in folklore do for a living?

A: What a lot of them do is teach. Some go into an English department or into anthropology. But if you don’t go into teaching, you can work in the public sector at museums or art agencies. I started folk art programs at the Rensselaer County Council for the Arts and the Dutchess County Arts Council, and I worked as a museum director at the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie County.

The Folklore Society was an all-volunteer organization until 1990 when they hired their first executive director, and that became a full-time, paid position.

Q: What area of history interests you the most?

A: I’m very interested in labor history and anything related to the social life of small communities. I’m also involved with a Library of Congress project collecting oral histories from veterans. Documenting veterans’ war experiences is something I’ve done for a while now, and that got me involved with the PBS series on the war that Ken Burns did. I enjoyed that, and they would send me out to train people on how to do the oral interview.

I’ve run workshops at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, and I’m going to be doing one in Philadelphia soon.

I love helping people collecting material within their own communities.

 
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