Deciphering Culture


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The narrative thread that holds together my various pursuits as a scholar, journalist and consultant is a fascination with the power and meaning of stories. Storytelling — the oldest form of history, religion and entertainment — is valuable for its ability to instill meaning into a narrative (which may have begun as a jumble of events), to create connections with other times and places, and to take us away, if only for a brief time, from the pressures and mundanity of everyday life. The first inkling that what I was doing was storytelling was when I was collecting oral histories in North Richmond, California to document the life cycle of a nightclub district and what its presence and eventual loss had meant for the community. It was my first serious research project and I was approaching it with all the gravitas of the typical graduate student. Fortunately, my wife was enthusiastic about the project, particularly the power of telling stories to document history and not lose a human face, and awakened me to the fact that what I was actually doing was collecting stories and weaving them together to tell the story of an important period in the life of their community. It was a defining moment that changed how I approached my work — although it took a number of years until I was fully aware that what I was doing as an ethnomusicologist was storytelling. Recently, I have been struck by how often I stumble across the adoption of storytelling as an label for what people do in a wide variety of pursuits — healing, journalism, spiritual practices, design, public relations to name a few — and sometimes the cynic in me raises its snarky head but, more and more, I see it as possibly being a marker of a paradigm shift, returning the human face to a wide variety of pursuits.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Storytelling

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  1. […] Storytelling ( […]

    • I was listening to my wife perform recently, and realized that one thing that really sets a really good singer apart from the rest is the ability to make the song tell a story. I’m thinking of people like Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. The emotional cues in their voice make the words tell their story. I think that’s what it means to make it their own.


      June 7, 2012 at 5:06 am

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