hist-brewing: oral tradition

Jack C. Thompson tcl at teleport.com
Wed Dec 30 05:01:34 PST 1998

>In a message dated 12/29/98 4:16:44 PM EST, renfrow at skylands.net writes:
><< Hello! I guess I've played the game "telephone" far too often to believe
> such a long story can be passed down unaltered for centuries.  >>

>That's because you (and I) don't come from a culture with a bardic tradition.


Oral (aural) ability is a fairly simple mind trick. I grew up well versed
in an oral/aural tradition and became an adept in a literate tradition.

As a boy, I could repeat long conversations verbatim, complete with accents
and intonation; by the time I was a graduate student at the Folklore
Institute of Indiana University my mental focus had changed from ears to

During the first couple of weeks at IU I went through every single volume
of the folklore collection in the library, looking at the cover, title
page, table of contents, and index.  Thereafter it was not necessary to use
the card catalog; by the end of the semester I had done the same thing for
the areas of my interest on three separate floors of the main library.

There was some difficulty after the librarians decided (during Christmas
break) to reorganize the shelves. But, my memory of the books (size of
book, color of cloth, etc.) allowed me to re-learn the location of the
books fairly rapidly.

So, as a result of personal experience, I am not surprised that people can
accurately remember things.  It is only a question of which things are
important to any particular person.

Telephone trees are not an adequate test of oral tradition.


Jack C. Thompson
Thompson Conservation Lab.
7549 N. Fenwick
Portland, OR  97217

503/735-3942  (voice/fax)


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