- Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth through Her Songs and Stories
Bessie Eldreth was born in 1913 in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Carolina and raised ten children. Although she enjoyed singing around the house and in church, it was not until the 1970s that she began to sing publicly with her daughter, Jean Reid. Eldreth's singing career lasted twenty-five years, and she performed at a variety of local and national festivals, including the 1987 Festival of American Folklife in Washington DC. It was at this festival that Patricia Sawin [End Page 353] met Bessie Eldreth, began recording her full repertoire of nearly two hundred songs, and became interested in her stories about her life.
Listening for a Life is what Sawin describes as a "dialogic ethnography" based on her conversations with Eldreth, on and off for fifteen years. This is not only the story of a life, but also a story about stories and how they are used to construct an identity and a life. This research occurred during a time of significantly shifting paradigms in the fields of folklore, culture, and research, and it grapples with these emergent ideas. These include a focus on the relationship between the researcher and her subject. Sawin problematizes the capacity of the researcher to represent her subject. She addresses this through dialogic ethnography, which seeks to acknowledge the research subject's own purposefulness and agency, while at the same time it "allows the ethnographer to not feel guilty for assuming an interpretive responsibility from which, [she] would argue, we cannot escape" (p. 19). Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams, Sawin examines the role of power relations in shaping people's identities, knowledge, and language. At the same time, drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, she examines the capacity of people, through language and expressive traditions, to creatively participate in the heteroglossia and intertextuality of social discourse, to contest power relations, and to assert their knowledge and identities.
In addition to a theoretical introduction, chapters focus on aspects of Eldreth's stories about her life and her art. In chapter 2 ("That Was Before I Ever Left Home"), Sawin examines Eldreth's stories about her childhood and compellingly points out how these stories articulate a set of values that serve to resist stereotypes and definitions of "Appalachia" by outsiders. In chapter 3 ("If You Had to Work As Hard As I Did, It Would Kill You"), Eldreth's stories about what she did to raise ten children in the face of grueling poverty are described by Sawin as a kind of self-defense that is an implicit critique of economic and gender exploitation. Fascinatingly, in chapter 4 ("I Said, 'Don't You Do It'"), Sawin traces Eldreth's development as an empowered speaker and examines Eldreth's own stories about talk, in what becomes a meta-meta-analysis of speech and power. In chapter 5, Sawin examines gendered meanings in Eldreth's ghost stories. Eldreth sees herself as a playful prankster, and, in chapter 6, Sawin shares her discomfort with Eldreth's practical jokes. The longest and perhaps richest chapter is the final one, "My Singing Is My Life," which focuses on Eldreth's repertoire and performance.
The study's dialogic approach brings forth the expressed thoughts of Eldreth as well as Sawin's own interpretations of these. While seemingly complex, this is not so different from how we normally talk about people and events in our lives: we talk about what happens and what people have said, and then share our own commentary on that. For this reason, for me, this book has a straightforward reflexivity that made it a pleasure to read—like listening to an old friend over a cup of coffee in a linoleum-floored kitchen while meat loaf is roasting in the oven. Meanwhile, Sawin sheds light on some of...