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Interviewing the Man on the Street: 1941 and 2001

1941: Fletcher Collins

Musicologist Fletcher Collins, now 95 years old, was one of approximately ten men who recorded the interviews collected by the Library of Congress in the days and weeks following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Collins now lives in Staunton, Virginia. The following are excerpts from his interview with producers Elana Hadler Perl and John Biewen.

I was in our dining room where we had a floor model Philco radio, and I was listening to the symphony concert in the afternoon, and it suddenly cut off and a voice came on announcing the Pearl Harbor bombing. It was early afternoon in North Carolina. I lived out in the country from Elon College, which was the name of the town in which the college was. It's near Chapel Hill and Greensboro and Durham. I was teaching at Elon.

I'd been collecting folk songs; I'm an old folk song collector, traditional British-American songs. I have 250 or so in the [American] Folklife Center in D.C. And a lot of them, when I could, I got with a borrowed Presto recorder from the Library of Congress. Before that I'd always had to write down the melodies by hand, which was tedious. The instrument itself was twenty-five pounds. The batteries were another fifty, I guess, an A battery and a B battery, and most of the places I went didn't have electricity so you had to lug all this stuff. It was an aluminum disc, it played at 78 [rpm], I guess. It played with a needle, like the old-time phonographs. And you could make your own needle with a good-quality thorn.

I don't think anybody, except some of the most anti-war peaceniks, were in favor of staying out of the war [at] that point. Up until then, [some people said], "Well, don't hurry about getting in, let's hope we don't have to. War's hell and what's the use in getting into it, it's a way off distance." We'd been in World War I and didn't get much out of it except the Europeans telling us we didn't get in soon enough and so forth.

So [after Pearl Harbor], it [favoring entry into the war] was kind of acceptable, you might say. And I found that was true of my friends and neighbors who I recorded. A batch of them around my kitchen table with a wonderful bottle of well-aged corn liquor in the middle of the table. The discussion got better and better as we went along. But it was all very good. Essentially they said, "All right, they asked for it, let's go get 'em. Yep. Don't fool around." And it was realistic; it was what you do when you're attacked. You don't run away and talk about peace.

I don't think I was thinking of my place in history. I was thinking of it as wanting to have somebody hear what the real people were talking about. And you weren't hearing them on the air. I didn't have to prompt them. I didn't have to say, "Tell me how much you like the war," and all that. Absolutely no push at all. And there was some variety. Some said, 'Well, it's a terrible thing, I wish we didn't have to do it," and all that. Others were just —pumm!— "Just got to do it and that's it." They thought it was a nasty sneak attack and it was a challenge and we had to answer the challenge. Go and get em. Just the way you would a skunk or a wolf or something. Most of them were close enough to the land that they saw it in terms of survival. Animal violence.

            Photo: Cedric N. Chatterley 2001: Barbara Lau

Folklorist Barbara Lau is Director of Community Documentary Programs at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. She was among dozens of folklore collectors who conducted interviews for the Library of Congress after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

At first I thought it was a joke, some crazy British humor from the BBC World News, but a television hastily hooked up at my office verified the September 11 tragedy. A group of us sat glued to the screen as the images of the planes slicing open the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were shown over and over, the announcers unable to control the shock and panic in their voices. Sitting in my own office later in the day, I felt helpless and distant. The work I planned to do that day somehow felt a lot less important. It was hard to concentrate and even harder to work for long stretches as NPR descriptions filled the background. I kept returning to the television for updates.

The next day the call came from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to collect and document reactions to the disaster. In the spirit of Alan Lomax and others who hit the streets after the Pearl Harbor attacks, we were called up to join a small army of documentarians dispatched in cities and towns across the country to take the pulse of America. Finally, I thought, some way to actually be useful and possibly make a contribution. It was a welcome opportunity.

My training as a folklorist has prepared me to talk to strangers, but I was uncomfortable with that thought. The attacks felt so intimate and personal to me. I wanted to participate but it took me a few days to figure out how I might actually be able to make a contribution. I decided that I wanted to talk to people I knew, but people who might have experienced the assault in a different way. I turned to a Cambodian refugee community in Greensboro, North Carolina whose traditions I have been documenting for more than ten years. One Sunday at the Greensboro Buddhist Center a few weeks after 9/11, I sat down with two young women, Ran Kong and Vandy Chhum, whom I had known since they were children. Both are now in their early 20s. I asked them how their families and other local Cambodians had responded to the news of the tragedy. They described the immediate and decisive actions of their parents—withdrawing cash from their bank accounts; methodically stockpiling rice, drinking water, and food; and filling the family cars with gas, just in case.

I was struck by the stark differences between my first reactions and theirs. Why had I not remembered about the past experiences of their parents with the disruptions caused by war? It was a central theme of my master's thesis. I had learned and written about how their country's capitol, Phnom Pehn, had been taken over a generation ago, in 1975, by the terrorist Khmer Rouge. And I had listened to many stories about how they, as rural villagers, were caught unprepared. But not this time. "You know like the Cambodian store—the only Cambodian store in Greensboro—Tuesday, you know by Tuesday night, no more bags of rice," Ran reported. These folks would be ready this time, just in case. Ran's family was very concerned about her living at college 30 miles from home. "And she [Ran's grandmother] said, 'Don't walk around after dark, by yourself. Don't even walk with two people. Have at least three people with you. You know once it gets dark, you should be in your dorm room.'"

I had not done anything to prepare for the possibility that the attacks would make their way to North Carolina. The gravity of the situation began to sink in. It was a real revelation to hear their stories. I was struck by how privileged my life has been because I have never really experienced war and its devastating effects. Talking with Ran and Vandy really opened my mind to the experience of people in my parents' generation who lived through WWII and the experience of others who have lived through war in their homeland.

Barbara Lau
August 12, 2002

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