'If I Live to Be 100'
New Book Collects Stories Centenarians Told on Radio
Hear Bob Edwards' interview with Neenah Ellis.
See photos and hear interviews from contributors to the series One Hundred Years of Stories, which aired in 2000 on Morning Edition.
Meet Neenah Ellis.
Oct. 2, 2002 -- In 1999 and 2000, veteran radio producer Neenah Ellis spent a year traveling the country, recording interviews with centenarians. She listened to their stories about coming of age in the early 1900s, about the Great Depression, about the second World War -- and she listened, she says, "just to the sound of their voices." Her work became a yearlong Morning Edition series, One Hundred Years of Stories. And now the interviews in the series have been collected in a book, If I Live to Be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians.
Ellis says that translating the radio series into the book only reinforced her belief that there is "a universe in the sound of every voice." In an essay exclusively for npr.org, she shares some thoughts on radio and the printed page.
By Neenah Ellis
Every topic has its proper media form. Some subjects beg to be radio, some must be photographs, some cry out to be dance or fiber art or rubber stamps. Those of us who make radio are always looking for subjects that best reveal themselves aurally.
I love the young and clear human voice. I have been known to spontaneously break into tears at the sound of a children's choir singing Jingle Bells in a shopping mall. But the kaleidoscope of stories in a 100-year-old voice moves me in other ways.
In the late 1990s, I saw a short film on televison made by the wonderfully inventive director Ray Farkas of Washington, D.C. Called Long, Long Ago, the film was about the 100th anniverary of the motion picture, and all the interview subjects in the film were 100-year-old people. Farkas shot them in quirky, playful ways, as is his style; but I found excitement in their voices, not their faces. They had scratchy, strained vocal chords, and sometimes laughter flew out of them like startled birds. Their 100 years of living was revealed in their voices as surely as their impossibly wrinkled faces and ghosty hair.
As I watched, I knew I could make a radio series with people that old. In 1999 and 2000, I traveled around the United States on a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, recording interviews with centenarians. I listened to their stories about growing up in the early 1900s, about the Great Depression, about World War II -- and I listened to just the sound of their voices. A few were smooth and young-sounding, but most were not. Those vocal chords remembered the fears and dangers and illnesses of 100 years. They made quavery sounds, unpredictable noises. Sometimes they rose in tone when they were supposed to go down. And sometimes they disappeared, got swallowed, and needed to be coughed back up.
Those voices were heard in the Morning Edition series One Hundred Years of Stories in 2000: Anna Wilmot's warbly laugh as she told me about swimming in the buff; Harry Shapiro's quiet, buttery, baritone musings about the nature of the soul; Margaret Rawson's strained, coarse coughing; and Ruth Ellis's humming, which sounded like a rusty hinge.
Their voices made their stories credible. How else to learn about courting by sleigh in Vermont? Or jumping off a freight train in Indian Territory? Or seeing fire ravage San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake?
Their accents tickled me, too. Southerners Louisiana Hines and Ella Miller sprinkled a syncopated "mm-hmm" between thoughts. When I asked Sadie Hill, who grew up in Vermont, if she needed any help doing housework, her response was "Not so fah."
Describing those voices for the printed page caused me no end of frustration. It took me paragraphs to achieve the same complexity of information that the sound of a voice can convey in a few seconds. I am grateful for the chance to preserve these peoples' stories in a book, and to
have the time and space to stretch the stories out to new lengths -- and yet in doing so, I have grown to appreciate radio in ways that I never had before. There is a universe in the sound of every voice, and if you're a patient listener, you can often sense the heartbeat in the long silences between the words.
Read an excerpt from Neenah Ellis' book, at the publisher's Web site.
To see photos and stories from Ellis' book, visit the If I Live To Be 100 Web site.