Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley hopes to strengthen community through the power of listening

Eileen McAdam recording research biologist Dan Miller on the Hudson. (Photo by Jim Metzner)

“When we think of oral histories, we often think of older people, because we’re aware that we don’t want to lose their stories,” says Eileen McAdam, who, for 12 years now, with her Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley, has been preserving the everyday stories of people in our region and the sounds that define the area. Many of the stories in the archive do come from our elders, with some culled from those departed, recorded from old tapes preserved in the collections of museums and historical societies. But McAdam has her eye on the future as well, and is acutely aware that history is also what we’re making today.

“I think we’re in a particular moment right now, with all of the young entrepreneurs coming to live here and revitalizing a lot of the Hudson Valley. They’re doing so many interesting things, all connecting to our past, in a way: They’re bringing back chicken farms, working with bees and there’s even somebody in Accord beginning to make barrels again – a trade that went on there for years. There is so much happening here now, and it’s these young people who are coming in and doing that. I would love to record some of their stories, and capture this moment in history as it’s happening.”

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The stories are created from 45-minute-or-so interviews that McAdam records and then produces and edits into compelling narratives less than five minutes in length. All of the work through the project is audio-based. Transcripts of the stories are not posted online with the recordings because “there is something about hearing the voice – how we pick up on subtleties of meaning,” she says. “So much comes out through the voice; when we did a project digitizing old cassette recordings made decades ago, you can actually hear through the person’s voice that it was from a different era. It’s mysterious why that is, but you can pinpoint it right away.”

The “sounds” part of the project involves numerous recorded audio clips of the sounds that define the Hudson Valley, from the whistle of the trains running along the Hudson River to the voice of a carnival barker at the Ulster County Fair. There are clips of the sounds of thunderstorms, and bats in local caves, and audio of the historic trolley that once went from the Rondout to Kingston Point Park. “And I think I recorded every bell in the collection at the Hudson River Maritime Museum,” McAdam says.

There’s a sheer enjoyment in just hearing the audio clips of sounds and listening to the short stories about a myriad of Hudson Valley experiences, but the recorded material has a larger context. In hearing the stories of other ordinary people, we become more connected to each other, says McAdam, and the stories and sounds “anchor us to where we live, inspiring us to become better stewards of our region. When we feel that connection to place, we want to protect it; we want to really take care of it.”

Learning the real story behind something makes you more compassionate, too. “If you learn more about the one-room schoolhouse that used to be down the block from you, and you understand that everyone in the hamlet you live in used to go to one-room schoolhouses, that gives you a better sense of what life was like for people then. And if you’re riding down Main Street and hear the church bell, you’re thinking about what that sound really means if you know how the church bell used to actually call you to church; or, if it was rung at a time other than Sunday morning, it meant something was up. Or you learned from someone’s story that when World War II ended, that church bell rang. Now there’s a connection to that sound.”

The Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley began serendipitously, when McAdam accompanied her friend, now husband Jim Metzner on an audio field trip. Metzner, an award-winning radio producer who was teaching at Vassar at the time, “literally put the headset on me and gave me his old cassette recorder and said, ‘Push the red button.’ We were recording out in the field, a dawn chorus; and if you’ve ever recorded with a microphone and headset on, you know it’s a totally different experience than what we hear using just our own ears. And I fell in love with it… I was taken away by the experience. It was like looking under a microscope for the first time.”

McAdam began recording her neighbors, learning to edit audio in the process and turning the recordings into short stories that she’d put on CDs and give to her interviewees. “I loved doing it so much I said, ‘I have to figure out a way to do this,’ and Jim said, ‘Let’s start a nonprofit.’”

The couple founded the World Sound Foundation in 2006, a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) with a stated mission to strengthen community through the power of listening. Its first venture was the Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley. Over the years, they’ve worked with individuals and a number of educational and cultural organizations to record the sounds and stories of the region and archive them for public access.

The Foundation also produces podcasts, radio programs, web presentations and audio tours, such as the one that McAdam is currently working on for the Hudson River Valley Greenway Heritage Conservancy: creating an audio tour for passengers on Amtrak’s Hudson River Line that will be available through a mobile app. Travelers will learn more about what they’re seeing from the windows of the train and what lies beyond, “hopefully inspiring them to get off the train at these places in the future and see more,” McAdam says.

Another current project is in the works for the Erie Canal Heritage Fund: recording the voices of former shipyard workers at the Matton Shipyard in Cohoes, which closed decades ago. The site is slated to be turned into a historical site for visitors, so the recorded stories will serve as reference material to inform what type of displays and exhibits will be used.

McAdam and Metzner also train professionals and amateurs alike how to conduct interviews and use audio-editing software, and they work with people who are creating their own story archives. “There’s a fun project we did with a student, Tashae Smith, from Manhattanville College. She wanted to tell the forgotten history of African-Americans in Newburgh, so she went back and researched old newspapers and historical documents, and put together an oral-history tour of the places in Newburgh where African-Americans lived, worked and went to school and church. The project is called ‘In Washington’s Shadow,’ after the Washington’s Headquarters site in Newburgh. We helped with the audio aspects of it, and worked with her to produce it; but it was her project, and particularly rewarding to see her love of her local place come through.”

McAdam’s love of her own local place played a large part in the development of the Sound & Story Project. She grew up on Long Island, but spent a lot of time as a kid vacationing in the Hudson Valley. As an adult, she lived in Northern California for two decades, but she longed to return to the Hudson Valley. “The day I came back, I was just so happy to be here. It made me want to preserve what we have.”

The collection of audio recordings in the Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley is available to the public at www.soundandstory.org and on SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/sound-and-story-project.

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