Intro: Listen to the audio story below to hear how Times Square “shined like diamonds” to an immigrant seeing it for the first-time in the late 1940’s. OHMA student Christina Barba takes excerpts from oral histories to create an audio vignette about memory, culture and the joy of discovery in New York City.
During the workshop lead by Samuel J. Redman, he referred to oral historians as storytellers and encouraged us, as oral historians, to use oral history in a variety of mediums, like he has. Inspired by Professor Redman’s discussion, I pulled clips from interviews I have done of my mother and OHMA classmates, Rebecca McGilveray and Nairy AbdElShafy, in order to share some of their first experiences in the United States of America.
My mother and her parents immigrated from Iran to the United States at the end of World War II. Rebecca hails from Scotland and arrived in the United States in 2018. Nairy is from Egypt and first visited New York City in 2012. Separated by time and place, these three women share stories that convey the joy, bravery, wonder and happenstance that newcomers to America experience. The cultural differences and discoveries they describe are what make travel the soul-affirming, mind-opening experience it is.
I chose the last verse of Paul Simon’s 1972 ballad, “American Tune,” to close out the audio story. The tune of “American Tune” is based on a melody line from a chorale from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which was itself a reworking of an earlier secular song, "Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret" (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”) composed by Hans Leo Hassler. For this reason, I opened the audio story with the German musical ancestor, "Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret” of “American Tune.” I discovered the roots of Simon’s “American Tune” fortuitously during Palm Sunday mass this April. As I listened to the processional hymn — “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”— I nearly began singing the lyrics to “American Tune.” Knowing the song’s non-American origins, it struck me as ironic that Simon dubbed it the “American Tune,” but on second thought, it’s the perfect name for a song with European roots that became an iconic American Billboard hit.
Christina Barba is a part-time OHMA student at Columbia and an attorney. She spent the majority of her career as an Assistant District Attorney prosecuting public corruption at the Bronx DA’s Office and is currently a Hearing Officer for the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings where she adjudicates administrative law matters as an impartial judge and issues written decisions post-hearing.