Here’s the rub; ideally, the historian who wants to provide the most accurate picture possible should analyze each source individually, going through the checklist (agenda, public vs. private, contemporaneous vs. retrospective, strong emotion, etc.) and evaluate a person’s statements via that method. It’s methodologically more sound to evaluate every source (and, in this case, when I say “source” I usually mean “interview”) separately, rather than to make all-encompassing generalizations (“Source A said this, which means it must be true, because Source A has an honest reputation.”) As Bloch said, (I’m paraphrasing here) there’s no individual who is 100% accurate 100% of the time. Also, agendas vary and memories alter over time.
So evaluating source by source, or interview by interview, is the preferred method. But historians can also, when analyzing the written or spoken testimony of individuals, use historical methods to determine whether an individual’s statements are, overall, credible and accurate — or, rather, less than credible or inaccurate. Much of this involves discerning patterns: Does the individual have a well-established, pervasive habit of exaggeration? Do they demonstrate repeated inaccuracies on one particular subject, even if their statements pertaining to other subjects are primarily accurate? Do they benefit by lying? Have a larger number of independent, equally credible sources, and/or facts/documentation repeatedly disputed their version of events? Are their versions consistent, not only with known evidence, but with their own earlier statements? Were they, by training or similarity, capable of understanding the situation?
In The Beatles and the Historians, the only individual I applied this overall source analysis to was George Martin. My primary reason for this was two-fold: First, I wanted to provide an in-text example of that sort of evaluation, as applied to a primary-source, for the book’s readers. (Remember, my intended audience was a classroom full of college history students). Second, given that I used Martin extensively throughout my book, and presented his contemporaneous and retrospective accounts as highly credible, I believed it only fair to explain, in the book, why I regarded Martin’s testimony as so valuable. In my outline and notes, however, I had basic notes on other key sources in Beatles historiography, evaluating their credibility in similar fashion. In my discussion with Linda-A, she asked about these notes, and I confessed they were brief and not well-thought out, but thought they could make a post. (And I still don’t have the video of my presentation back from Advancement). So here we are:
I want to stress that these evaluations are more casual than those which I would have provided in the book, just as the overall tone of this blog is more casual. Also, in regards to specific figures, analyzing the issues that determine an individual’s overall credibility are not meant as criticisms, but observations. Every individual in Beatles historiography has a preferred version of the band’s story which they seek to promote. The versions of some individuals just fit better than others do with what the most credible evidence tells us.
So, without further ado, lets start by analyzing the source credibility of the most polarizing figure in all Beatles historiography: Yoko Ono.
A note: Just because I include an observation regarding Yoko’s overall credibility does not mean that it is an issue singular to her: numerous credibility issues apply, either equally or to varying extents, to various Beatles and Beatles insiders. Also, these observations apply to Yoko’s statements, primarily interviews, rather than her depiction by journalists or biographers. For this reason certain issues, such as her gender and race, which have influenced her overall depiction are not included.
- Hearsay. Yoko was on the periphery of the Beatles circle from 1966 (or, perhaps, earlier, depending on whether you believe Paul’s claim that she approached him before she met John) to Summer 1968. That means that Yoko missed the majority of the band’s functioning years, and didn’t enter the studio until 1968. If you date the Beatles’ existence to the origin of July 1957 — the date John met Paul — that means that, for the first eleven years, Yoko was absent or only, for a period of two years, peripherally involved. That, in turn, means that when she retrospectively offers John’s statements and recollections on events that she was not present for (say, Hamburg, or the “Rubber Soul” sessions) and *that we have no other independent (as in, not Eliot Mintz) corroborating sources reinforcing that John said such statements* — Yoko’s recollection of John’s comments are hearsay. They are, by definition, a “second-hand statement that can’t be proven.” It does not mean that he didn’t say them, but they aren’t fact, and they also don’t qualify as unverified eyewitness testimony. Those statements she makes regarding events she was present for, and which we have no corroborating evidence for, qualify as unverified eyewitness testimony.
- Drugs. This is one of those afore-mentioned issues that applies to the general credibility of all four Beatles and, with the exception of George Martin, virtually all Beatles insiders as well. However, this issue is particularly relevant regarding John and Yoko, because of the type of drugs they used, primarily heroin, and the extent to which they used them. The drug issue is two-fold: first, it impacts both their overall credibility as sources during the breakup-period because of heroin’s impact on their observational skills and emotions, and, second, impacts all interviews given under the influence of any heavy drug. Given that Yoko has since admitted to using heroin in 1980, this impacts her interviews from that time period as well.
- A pattern of self-promotion *which knowingly promotes an inaccurate version of events*. There are numerous examples of this — and, again, I want to stress that I am not singling Yoko out regarding this observation; she is simply the first to be evaluated, but far from the only one this particular issue is attached to — as evidenced throughout the decades.
- A consistent self-identification of victimization. By this point, most Beatles writers would regard it as irresponsible to evaluate John’s statements, particularly from the breakup era, without accounting for his well-known tendencies of jealousy and insecurity. *In my reading* (and there are many of you who may disagree) I would argue that many of Yoko’s statements, *particularly from those time periods in which she was using heroin, with all its attendant psychological issues* project a consistent pattern in which Yoko pervasively views herself, and often John, as the victim(s) in virtually every situation. That is not to say that Yoko did not receive reprehensible treatment by the press and some fans, or that she was not, to a certain extent, victimized. But, in my analysis of her overall source credibility, this identification of herself as a victim has to be accounted for when analyzing Yoko’s public and private statements.
- Inconsistency among statements/accounts of events: Another issue that applies, to a varying extent, to almost all Beatles sources.
Those are the general issues taken into account when evaluating Yoko’s overall credibility, before examining her interviews and statements as individual sources, running through further checklists. Given Yoko’s stature as a lightning rod, what do you make of these evaluations? Are there any you would care to add, or disagree with? (And now, time to grade research papers).
8 thoughts on “Analyzing Individual Source Credibility: Example One: Yoko Ono”
Very interesting summary, Erin, You nicely captured the problems with Yoko’s credibility as a reliable source with a great deal of objectivity.
I have a question for you. How is source reliability affected by a person’s character? In other words, if a source is determined to have credibility issues in general (that is, lies a lot), is this credibility concern transferable to the examination of their source reliability in other matters?
Not quite sure I understand the question, Karen: do you mean, if source A had demonstrated consistent credibility and accuracy issues on their time with the Beatles, that you can extend Source A’s lack of credibility/inaccuracy to other subjects in their life, like their careers/family etc.?
Kind of the opposite: if source A didn’t demonstrate consistent credibility on tangentially-related or non-Beatle matters, would their credibility be questioned on matters directly Beatle-related.
I’m thinking here of Yoko’s misrepresentation of events, like: her proclaimed lack of knowledge about the band (“the moptops or something”) when clearly she not only knew of them, but considered them a stepping stone to further her art career; her denials regarding her pursuit of John Lennon (hanging outside the house day and night, jumping in the car, with with John and Cynthia) which have been refuted by multiple sources, and so on.
In other words, if someone is found to consistently misrepresent the facts, does it affect their first person account of a particular event when there is no other corroborating evidence?
So, WordPress just ate my reply. Again. I’ll try and see what I can remember:
I think we actually are saying the same thing, we’re just wording it differently.
I want to stress that ideally, the interview by interview and then topic by topic evaluation is the best methodological approach. I can’t recall an historian offering a blanket dismissal of a primary source, no matter how inaccurate the evidence indicates their version is, primarily because you cannot dismiss a primary source. This is a particularly difficult question to answer, because it tracks back to the issue of agenda, and agenda is where the historians start theorizing on the motivations of the historical figures. It also deals with issues of psychology, exaggeration, etc.
In the simplest form, and at its most micro level, the answer is no. According to Garraghan, unreliability on a particular subject or unrelated subjects does not transfer to/taint the rest of the source. For example, I mentioned in the book that Paul out and out lies numerous times in his 1986 Playboy interview, regarding his and John and Yoko’s drug use. A discerning reader would be able to see that, particularly as Paul gives his motivation in the interview itself: “I’ve got kids.” But that lying about drug use doesn’t lessen the credibility of other subjects he discusses in that interview, such as his and John’s songwriting, or his own marriage to Linda. It’s more of a “subject” issue, than a source by source issue, if that makes sense.
Overall, (And with the glaring exception of his and Yoko’s heroin use) I would regard John as a more credible source regarding Beatles drug use, than I would Paul). Ideally, the source analysis/analyzing an individual’s overall credibility would be Step One: Analyze this interview (go through the checklist). Step Two: Analyze this particular individual’s credibility regarding this particular subject: do they have a proven history of lying/omitting evidence on this topic?
Now, if you complete the first two steps and conclude that your individual source has demonstrated a lack of credibility/inaccuracy on a multitude of topics/subjects, across a wide spectrum of time, then you have to analyze the issue of agenda. So many Beatles fans and authors use misremembered history from any one figure as a stick to beat a particular source with, and discredit that source’s complete credibility, but that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Memory is malleable, and disagreements will crop up even between sources who largely share similar memories/narratives — for example, Paul and George Martin. So the analysis widens in concentric circles; Individual Source credibility, Topic credibility, Agenda.
If an individual has a clear motivation/benefit from lying, and your source has, up to this point, demonstrated numerous inaccuracies and been proven wrong on multiple subjects, then you ask yourself the questions regarding agenda. The first question is “Why was this source created, and, two, what do we know of this person’s motivations during this time that the source was created?” If analyzing for agenda — and here is where you get a larger degree of speculation from authors and historians than you do in the other two steps — determines that a source clearly benefits from lying and misremembering history, at that point, if the source has hit all of the markers: unreliable as a singular source, unreliable as a topic source, unreliable on multiple subjects, demonstrating a clear agenda — You can conclude that source is less than credible, and you as an historian need to scour that source’s comments/statements on all subjects with a greater amount of source analysis. It doesn’t discount everything they say on every subject — again, unreliability on some, or even most subjects doesn’t automatically transfer over to all subjects — but at that point, you might put in your notes that you find that source’s overall credibility wanting. And that’s my very long winded answer.
“[If] a source clearly benefits from lying and misremembering history, at that point, if the source has hit all of the markers: unreliable as a singular source, unreliable as a topic source, unreliable on multiple subjects, demonstrating a clear agenda — You can conclude that source is less than credible, and you as an historian need to scour that source’s comments/statements on all subjects with a greater amount of source analysis.”
That’s kind of what I was getting at but didn’t express as clearly, thanks. I think the JohnandYoko narrative might be a good example of why a primary source needs extra scrutiny.
A little of the original topic, Karen, but it goes back to that discussion we were having regarding the tendency of male fans to self-identify with the Beatles, as opposed to the female fan response of adulation. I’ve been watching a series of DVD’s “Composing The Beatles Songbook,” which consists of four DVD’s (if you include the solo years) and is a documentary with various talking heads discussing John and Paul’s collaborative and singular songwriting. It’s got some good ones on there: Doggett, Cleave (the only female in the DVD’s) Steve Turner, etc. It’s also got Christgau, and given our discussion on male self-projection on to the band’s members, I thought you’d find this interesting:
Christgau, in the first DVD, on John, when he discusses discovering that John had been to art school: “This is my kinda guy. This guy’s like me; he’s been to art school.”
Overall, Composing the Beatles songbook DVD’s are pretty good — I’m watching them out of order, since I’m getting them via I.L.L. although they strain too much to divide the Beatles into John dominated eras — everything up till 1966 and Paul dominated eras — everything after, and do the same with the solo stuff. They also present works that were actually the work of both men as either John’s or Paul’s songs. Perhaps they figure that only well-versed fans would watch the documentaries anyway, but I find it misleading to identify a song that we know was a collaboration as solely a John or a Paul song simply because it better fits in with the theme they want to present. The commentators are balanced, though. It’s a good series to watch if you’re suffering from a bad head cold — which I am.
Interesting topic, Erin; the other day I read an excerpt from Emerick – I can’t remember now what it was exactly, but something regarding John’s behaviour in the studio during the recording of a particular song, and Lewisohn’s account on that same recording session was very different, basically defying Emerick. I was thinking, which one should I take at face value: the one of someone who was there, but had (a tad little) biased view of John, or someone who wasn’t there, but is known to be ‘objective’? I mean, Lewisohn takes as many sources as possible into account, but sometimes when many of these sources are intrinsically subjective or disputable, it’s hard to tell where is the truth – after all, that must be the main challenge for a historian 🙂
Nice to hear from you again, Thea.
In the simplest answer, it depends on whether or not Lewisohn’s contradictory version came from the Abbey Road tapes, or other eyewitness accounts. If Lewisohn’s version is drawn from the tapes, than Lewisohn’s version is almost certainly the more credible one, because those tapes hit every major qualification of an extremely credible primary source: 1. They weren’t intended for public consumption 2. They are contemporaneous, not retrospective 3. They were not created with an overt agenda, but rather to record events as they happened. Given a choice between a contemporaneous eyewitness account from an extremely credible individual, a retrospective eyewitness account from an extremely credible individual, and authenticated recordings of an event, I’d take the recordings as the most credible version every time.
I’m afraid that, if Lewisohn’s version is based off the testimony of other sources who, like Emerick, were present at the session, than you decide which one you find more plausible. I wouldn’t take Emerick’s accounts at face value — but then, I wouldn’t take anyone’s accounts at face value. In this particular case, I’d want to know what Lewisohn’s base sources are before deciding whether they are more/less credible than Emerick. And, while on the whole if, given a choice between Lewisohn and another secondary author’s version of events, I’d choose Lewisohn, that’s not to say that we should swallow everything Lewisohn offers, either. While I wholly respect Lewisohn’s methodology, I do recall being severely disappointed when reading “Tune In” that Lewisohn used “Lennon Remembers” as a source but never acknowledged that it displays serious credibility and accuracy issues. I wouldn’t have been so troubled by it, except that Lewisohn does demonstrate source analysis, discussing the credibility of other interviews/sources in other parts of his bibliography.
I just re-read that and realized that was my “simple” answer!