Among the most famous and extensive American history projects of the first half of the 20th century are the interviews of formerly enslaved African-Americans; these interviews are more commonly known as the WPA slave narratives. Collected by writers and historians employed by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration in the midst of the Great Depression, these retrospective recollections by ex-slaves offer, depending on who you ask, some of the subject’s most invaluable or controversial primary sources.
For reference, I’ve linked to an excellent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the project, provided by the Library of Congress, which houses the narrative collection: (I can’t overstate how excellent this analysis is: for those of us who get ridiculously excited by application of historical methods to primary sources, this is gold):
As noted in the linked article, this collection inspires considerable debate among historians. Some applaud the narrative’s unique existence: no other former slave-holding nation attempted such a wide-ranging collection of retrospective testimony from its formerly enslaved population, and the recollections are, by definition, primary sources. In addition, the early academic historiography (1930s – 1960s) concerning African-American slavery tended to ignore, almost entirely, the perspective of the enslaved, which contributed to what is now regarded as a highly flawed paternalistic interpretation of the peculiar institution.
Other historians refuse entirely to use the narratives; arguing that they suffer from too many historical methods issues to provide an accurate or credible account of African-American life under slavery. The advanced age of the interviewees, the racial disparity between the interviewer and interviewee, the limited geographic area from which recollections were collected, are all cited, along with other reasons, as undermining the narratives’ credibility and, therefore, its usefulness.
What on earth, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with the Beatles, and Beatles historiography?
The long answer (because there is no short answer) is that historical methods and source analysis can and are applied to highly varying subjects, from the WPA slave narratives to the Beatles, and beyond. In the Senior Seminar class I teach, my students write extensive research papers; I’ve read papers on everything from the Shinzingumi, aka the last samurai, of Japan to Soviet utilization of propaganda during the Space Race, to whether King John of England has been unfairly maligned by history. The marvelous aspect of historical methods is that you can apply them to such widely ranging topics; across cultures, eras, individuals, etc. At the beginning of the class, I provide my students with a basic historical methods checklist to refer to when analyzing their primary and secondary sources:
Historical Methods Standards Basic Checklist:
Is the source primary or secondary?
Is the source retrospective, or contemporaneous? If it’s retrospective, how much time has elapsed between the event and the recounting?
How old is the source? If it is a secondary source, was it written too close in time to the event to achieve a necessary level of historical distance?
Is there a gender and/or racial difference between the subject and the interviewer and/or author? If so, does this difference notably impact the interviewer and/or author’s interpretations or judgments? In the case of a female subject, has her historiography been shaped predominantly by males? In the case of a minority subject, has their historiography predominantly been told by non-minorities?
Is there a racial/ethnic element to either the primary sources, or the secondary ones?
Does the source come from an organization with an agenda to promote, or a particular reputation?
Does the secondary source provide documentation and/or a bibliography? Do they provide a method for the reader to identify a source’s origin and credibility?
Does the source acknowledge opposing points of view?
Are moral judgments applied? If so, are they applied reasonably and in a balanced way to all figures, or are there double standards?
How available were archives and/or essential primary sources to the secondary author? Were documents that are now regarded as crucial inaccessible at the time of publication?
Is known evidence omitted in order to present a preferred interpretation?
Does the secondary source support a discredited narrative?
Is credible evidence that is contradictory to the author’s conclusions acknowledged or ignored?
Are the different types of evidence designated? Is hearsay depicted as fact?
Are issues of authorial agenda addressed, or acknowledged?
Is retrospective information, unavailable to the historical figures at the time, used to judge their actions?
What is the agenda behind the source’s creation?
What was the political climate surrounding the historical event/person? What was the political climate surrounding the time period of the primary/secondary source depiction the historical event/person?
What is the significance of this source to your subject’s overall historiography? Is it one of the best known and influential works on the subject, or not? Is its reputation poor or credible?
Is the author biased? Bias can stem from reasons of ideology, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, or simply personal preference.
These questions only scrape the surface, but provide a good starting point for source analysis. While I’ve commented on this before, and am in danger of repeating myself, the utter failure by so many, for so long, in Beatles historiography to apply even basic source analysis to both primary and secondary sources truly astonished me once I delved into their scholarship.
All of which leads me to a question for the blog’s readers: What primary or secondary sources can you think of in Beatles historiography that still need such analysis? There are various interviews – Paul’s with Chris Salewicz, John’s 1980 Playboy interview with David Sheff – that could certainly use more extensive analysis than they’ve been given.
Of course, there are also secondary sources by the hundreds. What group or individual biographies, or other books, would you like to see analyzed according to the checklist? Was there a source I discussed in The Beatles and the Historians that you would like to see further analysis on? (Bear in mind that I can’t step on my own copyrighted material; meaning, I can offer new analysis, but not extensively quote my own stuff. That belongs to my publisher, not to me). Any new books that you believe need attention, either because of their quality, or before they perpetuate tired stereotypes and outdated narratives?
I’m throwing the door open to discussion, ideas, and suggestions on which sources need this analysis. Or, if you have questions or comments regarding the Library of Congress article the WPA narratives, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment and leave your thoughts.