Los Angeles, California
Skills No Longer Needed in Contemporary Life
By Mary Burge
My father was the unofficial historian of the extended Burge clan, which has inhabited southern Mississippi for over 200 years. He held this title perhaps because he was a congenially accepted know-it-all. In 1958, at the age of 14, he won the state high school Latin competition. He attended Ole Miss for one year on a Latin scholarship before transferring to Mississippi State to study engineering. He had nearly perfect standardized test scores.
I became an artist.
In 1973, he took it upon himself to utilize a relatively new technology called compact tape cassettes to record my grandfather and great-aunts and great-uncles telling stories about their lives in the small hamlet of Henleyfield, Mississippi, a place where the roads were finally named in the 1990s after the oldest living resident on the street. My father stored the tapes in a metal saltine can in the back of his office closet for over 30 years before I dug them out and digitized them. I sampled one of the recordings of Great-Uncle Luther for an installation I did in graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design. The only people who could understand what he was saying were from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Austin, Texas, respectively. The mother of the girl from Austin was from my hometown in Mississippi.
When I first heard the recordings from the 1970’s I was startled by how beautiful, and foreign, the accents were to me. I heard the Faulknerian lexicon — “hit” and “warn’t”— come alive. When I mentioned this to my father, he lamented it was television that caused people to “talk like the man on the 5 o’clock news.” At the time my father made his tape recordings, they had experienced television for about a decade, and there was only one channel, WDSU, out of New Orleans. My father, unlike his agrarian parents, went to college and has a mellowed Classical Southern drawl. My diction, although steadfastly peppered with eccentric idioms, is delivered more or less in the bastardized tones of Standard American. I feel like I am the last in a long line of Southern accents. I have lived in Yankeeland for almost half my life now, from New York City to New England to my current home in Los Angeles, California. If I get tired or drink bourbon, I am told my accent comes back slightly. I feel like losing my accent is akin to hearing damage; there are specific tonal ranges that once lost are lost forever. Now when people ask me to speak like I am from Mississippi, I fear I sound like a bad Hollywood actor, or worse, like one of those people who compliment me on not having a Southern accent. I have sadly concluded that it is better to speak like a fake Yankee than a fake Southerner.
The best kinds of Southern accents infer in their very construction that whimsy, beauty and grace are possible in an otherwise tragically dull world. Although I view losing my accent as a form of adaptation, it also feels like I am letting go of a distinct reserve of creativity. The beautiful turns of phrase I grew up with — “that boy is as dumb as a bag of hammers,” “the devil is beating his wife” — are inappropriate in the literal world of the non-South. Frankly, they just are not practical. They are slower (less efficient), too idiosyncratic, and perceived to bear the mark of ignorance. My current accent tells no story because it is not meant to tell one; I am supposed to disappear behind the word American. I wonder, though, if you cannot appreciate the accent, how can you appreciate the story?
I have often asked myself, why did an engineer decide to record stories about faith healing, fiddle playing, and slaughtering hogs?
I think that despite my father’s logical, analytical mind, he is a Southerner, and Southerners love storytellers. The South was built on sordid histories and their anecdotal reinterpretations. When I was 4 years old I remember my father telling me bedtime stories. They were not your typical fairy tales, but rather recollections from his own childhood presented as a macabre mixture of fact and fiction. His neighbor, who purposefully hoed all the grass out of her yard and boiled her laundry in a big black cauldron, became a voodoo practitioner. Another neighbor set the woods on fire one cold winter night because he hid his good whiskey — the bonded bottles smuggled from Louisiana in tree stumps — at the back of his property. He didn’t trust his wife’s friends not to steal it when they came over for a prayer meeting of their holy roller group called the Sanctified Saints. When the controlled burn happened that year, the flames got too close to his secret stash.
My favorite stories were the out-and-out scary ones. A man, passing through the county to visit a distant relative, got permission from a yeoman to sleep in his old barn. He was awoken in the night by the unnerving sound of his horse screaming. As he rushed out to investigate, several pairs of glowing yellow eyes greeted him in the seamless, black night. [This is the point in the story when my father screeches like a pack of hungry coyotes, causing me to yelp and grab his arm.] In the morning all the farmer’s hound dogs can find is a lot of blood and the bridle of the horse, attached to sinew and bone. Whether it was healthy or not, 4-year-old old me loved these unique, frightful stories straight out of the backwoods of Mississippi. I came to believe over time that when you hear a disturbing, fantastic story from the South, there is a 50/50 chance of it being true.
For the past decade or so I have similarly made field recordings of my older relatives telling stories. I have also taken photographs and video. In effect I have a collection of three, possibly four, generations of regional accents. They differ noticeably.
I never intended to use “the South” in my art practice. I found out in graduate school how alien my formative experiences are to people within my own country. I started a video art series entitled “Skills No Longer Needed in Contemporary Life.” The first video was about how to fire a single-barrel shotgun, and the second video was about how to kill a chicken. While the videos seem like didactic father-daughter lessons, there is an implied commentary on media and culture loss. In the absence of necessity or culture, certain actions can be reduced to mere performances. I do not think you can really learn survival skills by proxy, nor can you interchangeably use the words knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge differs from wisdom because there is an implied cultural lesson involved. Stories differ from documentation because there is an understood importance given to the storyteller. To convert to a purely documented, or data-driven, view of history precludes the need for a storyteller.
Really, the skill no longer needed in contemporary life is that of the oral historian, or the storyteller. Objectively speaking, a machine can preserve the past in a more enduring way. But as data piles up, who makes the decision on what to keep and what to throw away? Is there a difference between quality and quantity? Is there a virtue in the human ability to forget? And does it matter whether or not the sound of the words gives you pleasure?
Mary Burge is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. In 2003 Burge received her B.A. in Studio Art from the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in photography and video. In 2010 she received an MFA from the Digital + Media program at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned the award for best thesis for “Two Lonely Hunters: Simulation of Presence in Mediated Storytelling and the Southern Oral Tradition.” Links to more of Mary’s oral-history recordings are at her website.