In October of 1968, Vivian Perlis, a harpist and part-time librarian, was sent to the office of Julian Myrick, the business partner of the late Charles Ives, to pick up some materials. Perlis knew she would be speaking with someone close to the enigmatic composer and thought to bring a tape recorder to preserve their conversation. She later quipped, "I did not know that the act I was about to commit was called 'oral history' or how it was spelled!" Nevertheless, this first encounter proved fateful. Perlis soon became convinced of the value of oral history in documenting the lives of musical figures. It was not long thereafter that this intrepid chronicler founded Oral History of American Music (OHAM) at Yale University.

"Perlis, Van Cleve, Copland"

Vivian Perlis, Libby Van Cleve, and Aaron Copland

Before OHAM became an official component within Yale's Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, the office was located in the basement of Stoeckel Hall, then used by the Yale School of Music. Perlis, Van Cleve, and an image of Copland were photographed by Peter Hvizdak in their overstuffed office, with shelf-loads of tapes and transcripts in acid free boxes.

"I did not know that the act I was about to commit was called 'oral history' or how it was spelled!"

–Vivian Perlis

Charles Ives: The 100th Anniversary. Columbia, 1974, 5 record set

Columbia Records released a lavish five-record boxed set in celebration of Charles Ives's centennial in 1974. In addition to large-size, splendidly illustrated liner notes, the set included a bonus record with excerpts from Vivian Perlis's interviews with family, friends, and colleagues of the composer.

Perlis first interviewed a variety of people who had known and worked with Ives, and her work resulted in the prize-winning book, Charles Ives Remembered, a film documentary, and the dissemination of some of the most memorable interview excerpts on the commemorative record set issued for Ives's centennial.

Aaron Copland. Letter to Vivian Perlis, May 28, 1975

While conducting her Ives interviews, Perlis became convinced of the value of oral history in documenting the lives of major musical figures. She established OHAM and began interviewing celebrated composers. Shown here is Aaron Copland's friendly response to Vivian Perlis's request for an interview.

Perlis's work soon expanded to include inteviews with major contemporary music figures, among them, Aaron Copland. Their many interviews became the basis for Copland's autobiography. In OHAM's early decades, its work included documentation of the life and work of Paul Hindemith and Duke Ellington through interviews with colleagues, band members, friends, and family.

Today, OHAM has become a special collection within Yale's Irving S. Gilmore Music Library with about 3,000 recordings with major figures in American music. In its early days, OHAM's efforts were largely focused upon the musicians of interest to scholars and funding organizations: classical composers who were predominantly white and male. Times have changed. OHAM now includes a wide range of musical figures: jazz, gospel, and classical composers and musicians, and peoples of all colors and genders. In OHAM's first decades, researchers had to come to Yale to hear interviews or read transcripts. Now almost all of OHAM's materials have been digitized, and streaming access is available for free to all, regardless of whether or not they're affiliated with Yale.

"Copland transcript"

Carbon copy of transcript page with Aaron Copland's corrections, c. 1978

In its first decades, OHAM staff followed the labor-intensive practice of typing all transcripts and making carbon copies which were mailed to interviewees for corrections. Often transcripts were retyped when the replies were received. Here is a transcript page with corrections in Aaron Copland's hand.

In honor of OHAM's 50th anniversary, the Music Library commissioned a composition from Tanner Porter, a recent Yale alumna. Porter, also a gifted poet and vocalist, wrote, "The Making of a Memory," a musical setting of her original poem with the same title. A recording of the piece and an artist's rendering of the poem are included in this exhibit. reVox, another celebration of OHAM's anniversary, was co-curated by Jack Vees (Director of Yale's Center for Studies in Music Technology) and Alexis Lamb ('20 M.M.) in affiliation with Yale's Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. Composers used OHAM interviews as source materials for compositions, and visual artists then created videos for the music. Several excerpts of reVox videos are included in this exhibit. They can be seen in their entirety on OHAM's YouTube channel.

"Poem, The Making of a Memory"

"The Making of a Memory" by Tanner Porter

"The Making of a Memory" was based on a poem written by Porter and rendered here by designer Sidney Hirschman. Porter, who worked at OHAM as a student, captures the essence of oral history with these heartfelt and touching words and music. Accompanying the voice are three instruments, harp, oboe, and electric bass, all of significance to OHAM. Perlis was an accomplished harpist; Van Cleve is an active professional obosit; and the electric bass part was written for and performed by Jack Vees, OHAM interviewee, interviewer, and Van Cleve's spouse. 

In the early years, Perlis personally conducted most OHAM interviews. Today, the current director, Libby Van Cleve, is sometimes joined by other accomplished interlocutors, such as the celebrated jazz musician Gregg Bendian. This year, OHAM graduate fellow Ambre Dromgoole has been involved with the organization's efforts in the gospel music field. Her Ph.D. dissertation studies early female gospel musicians, particularly Roxie Ann Moore, a little known gospel music composer who wrote songs for groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds and was best friends with the legendary progenitor of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Our exhibit features objects representing OHAM's early years such as recording media over time, carbon copies of typed transcripts with corrections in Aaron Copland's hand, and the Ives LP boxed set. Photos show Perlis's early interview with Copland and Leonard Bernstein complemented by an image of Van Cleve's recent interview with Christopher Theofanidis. Photos, sheet music, 45 RPM records, and videos of Roxie Moore represent OHAM's recent expansion into the field of gospel music. In addition to the reVox videos and Porter recording, we share an introductory video with footage from some of OHAM's most significant historical inteviews.
Ambre Dromgoole and Libby Van Cleve, curators
Richard Boursy, organizing curator
Presented in OMEKA by Stephanie Ferguson, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library