[Photos & Recap] Folk Music as Oral History: A Performance by The 198 String Band

On Thursday, October 4, 2012, the Columbia Center for Oral History and the Columbia University Oral History Master of Arts program hosted the event, “‘We’d Rather Not Be on the Rolls of Relief’: Folk Music as/and Oral History: Civic Engagement Through Songs, Documentary Photographs and Voices from the Depression and the New Deal.”

The workshop included a presentation by Michael Frisch and a performance by the 198 String Band. Frisch, a renowned historian and scholar, joins Peggy Milliron and Tom Naples to form this unique musical experience of Great Depression Era photography and folk music.


Milliron sifted through thousands of time period photographs from Library of Congress holdings and chose those that complement, as opposed to illustrate, the songs. She described the importance of using images that spoke to her understandings of the music rather than the most iconic photographs from the era.

Similarly, the songs, frequently chosen by Naples, were most often not popular pieces still in circulation today. Instead, they were largely archived recordings by the Farm Security Administration in migrant camps and struggling homesteads.

The result of these combined efforts is a multimedia representation that incorporates music through the lens of history. The presentation was further enhanced by the addition of oral history recordings that spoke to similar subjects as the songs themselves.

The event, which was open to the public, allowed for a forum to discuss the music and discover the personal and collective stories behind the songs and photographs. The dialogue focused on the themes that continue to resonate with modern America, spanning financial hardship, economic disparity, and human resilience.

Most notably, the musicians described their presentation as a work in progress, as they continue to absorb feedback from their workshops and expand their research interests.

This post was written by OHMA students Erica Fugger and Miriam Laytner:

Erica is recent graduate of Union College in Schenectady, New York, where she obtained an interdepartmental degree in History and German Studies. Her current research involves interviews with former workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and peace activism during the Vietnam War.

Miriam is a graduate student in the Oral History Master of the Arts program at Columbia University. As a senior at Barnard College, she wrote her thesis on the use of West African oral traditions as a tool of resistance in pre-emancipation Caribbean countries. Miriam is presently interviewing Caribbean Americans to gain insight into their experiences of religion.