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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
From Murphy Hall
The Next Wave
How “Human” Are We?
Fear Factor
From Distant Days
In Their Own Words
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Fall 2004
In Their Own Words
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The program’s selection policy leads to some logical but surprising omissions. It does not collect oral histories from people who have written an autobiography, on the assumption that they will tend to repeat themselves. That construct has, for example, eliminated legendary Bruin basketball coach John Wooden from consideration.

Alex Cline has been collecting histories for the program for 16 years. Currently he is interviewing behind-the-scenes characters from Los Angeles’ vibrant music scene of the late ’60s to the early ’70s. The idea, says Cline, who is himself an acclaimed jazz percussionist, came to him during an interview with Todd Schiffman, who was the booking agent for The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and other famous acts, and whose business partner in those days was the young David Geffen.

It is a project that defines perfectly UCLA’s niche. There is no shortage of books about Jim, Janis and Jimi. But if not for the oral-history program, who would take the time to show what was really going on in the L.A. music scene? Cline is aware of oral history’s struggle to be taken seriously, but his own experience in the field leaves no room for scholarly quibbles.

“It’s important because, aside from filling a lot of the gaps in terms of what might be available in the historical record … it’s about us. It’s about people. It personalizes, humanizes and in that sense vitalizes history,” he says.

Cline also believes oral history has an edge in spontaneity that is lacking in memoirs and diaries. A person’s comments may be more valuable, Cline says, if they have less time to think about how to present themselves. Memoirs, especially those of the political variety, are famously plagued with self-justification and image-crafting.

The search for a spontaneous exchange accounts in part for the program’s reluctance to film its subjects during interviews. Though she has not ruled out using video in the future, Teresa Barnett M.A. ’00, the current director of UCLA’s Oral History Program, feels subjects tend to be less guarded off-camera.

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