“I think that your stories are the most important possession that you actually have.”
When Root & Seed launched, our dream was to talk to a historian. Scratch that. Our dream was to talk to Robert “Lucky” Budd. So this episode is a dream come true. We have so much respect for Lucky’s tenure in the historical documenting space and his ability to democratize the act of personal and family storytelling, leaving us with just the right amount of inspiration to start somewhere, somehow. This episode is chock filled with tips, stories of incredible Canadians, and how the magic of oral storytelling has potential to be accessible and rewarding for all. We are grateful to get a glimpse into Lucky’s personal perspective on a family ritual he holds near and dear, on his terms.
Robert "Lucky" Budd is an award winning and bestselling Canadian author, oral historian, and radio host. He is known for his books based upon the stories of British Columbia pioneers, as well as his book collaborations with artist Roy Henry Vickers and Olympic Champion Andre DeGrasse. He is also the Founder of Memories To Memoirs.
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Hey there, welcome to the Root & Seed Podcast, my name is Anika Chabra. Did you know that Root & Seed started as a company to help people document their rich cultural knowledge and traditions? We did tons of research and even prototyped a whole documentation tool - soup to nuts. It was through this process that we realized documenting can be TOUGH, mostly because people don’t have all the information on their family history, the meanings behind why traditions changed from one generation to another, or details behind their physical heirlooms. And because we are a community rich in cultural tapestry, gaps are even further pronounced after years of colonialism, loss, migration and assimilation. So we went back to the drawing board and we’re so glad we did. Root & Seed is about discovery and our platform and offerings will grow as our community proudly reclaims their stories as theirs.
Documentation can only happen when the story is ready to be told. That’s why we really wanted to speak with a historian. Individuals like Grace, whom we spoke to last, have gone to school to document, but most of us aren’t going to do that. Our guest today happened upon becoming a historian, and the things he’s learned along the way are lessons we all can benefit from as we start documenting our own stories. If you really reflect on it, “We all think in stories." So how do we bring storytelling back into the way we teach and show history?
Root & Seed is different because we focus on audio recordings, paying respect and homage to the oral histories that are passed on in many cultural groups. We can’t wait for you to hear Robert “Lucky” Budd, today’s guest because if you’ve ever wondered why oral storytelling has stood the test of time, you’ll never second guess it again. The power of the spoken word brings out our imagination, our empathy, and a connection that stays in our minds and in our hearts. Lucky is a 12-time best-selling author, a father, a music lover, and as he’s quick to tell us… a man who loves to record. As this is all about documenting, he starts with his professional intro.
I am a professional oral historian and my background, my story actually starts when I was about two or three years old. I was obsessed with recording everything. So for me, fun and a hobby literally as a two or three-year-old would be recording songs off the radio. And when I was in junior kindergarten or kindergarten, I wouldn't go to get on the school bus unless I brought different records every day. So recording has been my thing since the beginning. When I was about 13 years old, I got really into the Grateful Dead and one of the things that really attracted me to them was the whole taping culture.
You were encouraged not only to record their shows, but trade shows and cassettes with other people. And I got into this whole thing of putting together, recording with music. It just really appealed to me and when I was in university I was in a touring rock band. That's what I was doing for my undergraduate degree and I really got a reputation around here as the guy who records things. Jerry Garcia had died, I wasn't going on tour with the Grateful Dead anymore. I came out to Victoria from Toronto for university. I'm gonna start my own band, but I kept recording everything. Just when my bachelor's degree ended. I was given a call by the provincial archives of British Columbia and this was in the year 2000. In the year 2000, the CBC was given a budget to go and digitize all of their audio holdings that were at all the various provincial archives across Canada. So the Manitoba archive, the Ontario archive, the British Columbia archives... and the British Columbia archives had one of the largest, I think the largest CBC audio collection of all of them and they brought me in as the guy who records things on contracts to digitize their holdings and about eight months into working on this really interesting collection of some very cool recordings including old sound disks from the twenties and reel to reels, black cylinder recordings, all these great things that for someone who likes recording, I got to play with all these great toys.
The crown jewel of their collection was something called the Imbert Orchard Oral History Collection and I knew nothing about it. Pretty much, no one in the world did. This guy Orchard worked for the CBC from 1959 to 1966 and he went around British Columbia, working for the CBC. He got a budget for him to do so and interviewed 998 first-generation British Columbians or First Nations people. And the thing is, is that British Columbia in the 1850s had a Non-Native population of probably around 200 and from 1858 to the First World War, that population went from 200 to 400,000. So a lot of the things that happened in places like Ontario over the course of 200 years was really truncated into a 40-year period and Orchard went out and recorded the people who were either doing it or their children or First Nations, but pretty much first generation British Colombians. And this collection blew my mind. I mean, here I was entrusted with this oral history of this province that no one had ever heard before. About a week and a half or two weeks into the collection, I came across a tape that said, Patenaude, Horsefly. Horsefly is a tiny little town in the Cariboo region of British Columbia that no one's ever heard of and my best friend at the time who I'm still very close with was Pharis Patenaude. Pharis was fifth generation from Horsefly and here in my hands was a recording of her great, great grandfather and her great, great uncle speaking in a language that she could understand about a place where she grew up. And if I remember correctly, he set up one of the very first telegraph posts in the Cariboo and it hit me right away.
Holy smokes, I'm not just listening to these stories. These are people's ancestors and they could hear these tapes and it just hit me right away. Lucky, you're not supposed to digitize this collection and just create a finding aid. You need to do something like this. You need to do something with this, this material has been entrusted to you. It took me four years to listen to the entire collection. It was 2700 hours of material and every single time I put on my headphones, it was like I was put into a time machine. I was in the canoe with this woman in 1911, going up the Nass river to become the first teacher at this small Nisga'a community. I mean, I was in it with her and I could actually only work on any individual session for two or three hours at a time because it was just so intense for me. So I went to the University of Victoria and I said, Hey, I've had this experience of British Columbia history that no one will ever come to you again with this experience.
I mean, I've heard it from the people who were building the roads, men, women, they were Totem builders, they were helpers, they were doing everything and he covered the entire province. Now, for those of you who might be listening, who don't know British Columbia. British Columbia has within it approximately 27 or 28 regions that are all completely different than one another. You have everything that's in all of Canada, all in little pockets of British Columbia. You've got desert, you've got mountains, you've got coast, you've got tundra. You've got, I mean, everything, prairie, all of it. So the stories you get from one pocket to another are completely different from everybody else.
The story from the West Kootenays is totally different than somebody from the Atlin region or from the Okanagan Valley, like totally different. So all these stories were incredible. So I went to UVic and I said, I have this experience no one will ever come to you with, and with a bit of work and finagling, because I didn't actually do any history in my undergrad.
I eventually got my master's degree in history, specifically oral history. So I could learn how to write the books I needed to write to get this material out to the public, and that was my mission the whole time. So something that started with just really being interested in recording, turned into this education about the province where I live, but also on oral history and so many other things because I had a very clear vision to the work that I had.
So, there's your long-winded answer? So I have my hands on a lot of different pies, but that's where I began. And over time I started a business called Memories to Memoirs. There's a good story about that, where I now am the interviewer instead of listening to the interviews or the interviewees. And I've taken that same approach I learned from Orchard and I help people tell their stories and put them into digestible things like books or audio recordings or whatever needs to happen. So I fashion myself very much a producer, I fashion myself an interviewer, an oral historian. I have 15 books that have been published, 12 of which are national bestsellers. I have my finger in a lot of pies, but ultimately I just want to have fun and be interested in the subject matter that I work on. I'm just very lucky that I'm a full-time dad and I work from home and I get to be with my kids.
Imagine if those recordings fell into the hands of someone who just mechanically digitized them. Would their stories have been appreciated and brought back into our world without the care of someone like Lucky? Someone who knew to thread those stories of the past to the people whose legacies those are today? He really was destined to be a producer and collector of stories and even though he started with audio and the oral, we had to know why he felt it’s still so magical and powerful.
Well, It's an ancient art form, storytelling. I mean, it all comes down to storytelling. I am very proud, I've probably talked to over 15,000 students in the last 10 years across, especially British Columbia, but in Canada. And I'm very proud to tell them that I couldn't read until I was in grade four. I was very delayed for lots of reasons and here I am and I've had all these books published because to me, I always loved storytelling. My favourite part of school was when a teacher or a parent or a volunteer would read stories to us, even though I couldn't read, I've always loved storytelling and there's just something brilliant that happens in your mind when you close your eyes and you see all the pictures that come into your mind when someone's telling you a story. You don't get that same effect when you're watching somebody tell a story. I was really excited that this was an audio-only podcast because then you have the aural, a-u-r-a-l the aural quality of it, you're hearing my voice. And when you do that, your brain paints pictures of what you see. And when you look at somebody, let's say you're talking to a 75-year-old woman talking about something that happened 30 years ago. Your brain's always aware that you're connecting with that person who's 75 years old, but if you're not seeing them, through their voice you can really empathize with their experience to me on a much deeper level. And to me, that's what it's all about. As I said, I would listen to these old recordings. I would close my eyes and I would be there. And one of the reasons why I've always been so into music ever since I was two is because it's storytelling.
A good song takes you somewhere. And again, I mean, it goes back, just talking about the Grateful Dead again. Yes. It was really fun trading tapes, but I mean, I listened and studied those tapes. I would close my eyes and I would be somewhere, where I am not. And the whole idea that sound can take you. I always use the word time machine, but it really is. It can very much be a time machine. You can go to a different place in your imagination. To me, that's what oral history and good storytelling is all about. And I'm so lucky I get to work with storytellers. I mean, I work in the medium of storytelling. It's the best.
I love that. I also feel like oral history and oral storytelling is very accessible.
What it is is that embedded in the narrative of a really good story are lots of different facts. But if you can follow the story, I mean, one of the things that my collaborator and mentor and very good friend, Roy Henry Vickers always says is that your head forgets things, but your heart never forgets something.
So when you are hearing a really good story, you remember and you take to heart the lessons embedded in the story. So, one of the things that happens when I go to a school is I'll tell a story and one of the very first things that students often do is, they put up their hands and they're saying, "is that true? Did that happen?" And my favourite response is, "well, let's take a look at Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Who can tell me about Goldilocks and the Three Bears? What are the values embedded in the story of Goldilocks and Three Bears?" And all these hands go up and all these kids get super excited. And we talk about, you shouldn't take things that don't belong to you or you know, you should always knock before you go in someplace or you shouldn't trespass. Occasionally get really goofy things like, "Don't communicate with bears". But at the end of the day, no one ever says, "Did that happen?" What's important is the lessons communicated in these stories and good storytelling endures for decades, centuries, millennia. I mean we're still reading Homer from 800 BC that was written down and a good story, the Arthurian Legends that grew over the course of a thousand years. There's a reason why these stories endure and it's because of the values and what's communicated. And another thing that great storytelling does, is it paints a picture of what it was like, atmosphere. You're listening to a story of Lancelot going to rescue Guinevere and he's on his horse and it's misty and you can kind of feel the nighttime rain and it just helps you paint such a picture that at the end of the story, you're enveloped in the atmosphere and you really, as human beings, like we, we connect with that. We're empathetic creatures. It's an ancient form of passing down knowledge for a very good reason.
The idea that your brain paints a picture of what you are listening to orally to fill in and make sense of it and that the lessons embedded in stories, whether they be fiction or real, just proves the power of storytelling as a form of communication that withstands the test of time. We couldn’t agree more, but how does that relate to everyone on the familial or community level? Why does understanding and owning your stories of the past make you make sense of your present and future? Lucky dives into that next.
I think that your stories are the most important possession that you actually have. I mean, everyone's story is totally different, but the more we hear other people's stories, the more we relate to their experience, number one. The more we learn about our families, where they came from, what do we know about that person, how did that all happen? It helps you make sense of your place in the world and why and who you are, the way you are. In so many ways, one of the very first questions I tend to ask my interviewees that they're not even prepared for is how far back can you go? Do you know your grandparents' names? Do you know where they met? Do you know anything about their childhoods? And it's amazing how many people don't. Just going back even just a couple generations for various reasons or some who really do and it's very detailed, but I mean well why? Well, because my grandma never talked to me about that.
Well, why didn't they talk to you about that? So what is it that's missing here in your own story by not having that information? And the truth is, again, something that I've learned through my work with Roy, that he teaches me all the time and reminds me is that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We all are here where we are in this place because of all of the great or bad or whatever decisions or things that have happened that have led us here. And in order to know who you are, the whole philosophy of even history is you need to know where you've been. The road that brought you there and it's the more you learn, the more connections get made. One of my favourite things to do is to work with people when I start doing a memoir with them and we start far back and as we start moving into their present life and we start moving, all of these connections get made that they never thought about. Oh, the reason why I was able to do that thing is because my dad taught me about that 30 years before or this lesson that my dad told me when I was a kid.
When people start connecting with the narrative arc of their life, how this event that happened when I was 40, that relates to something that happened to me when I was six. A lesson that my grandfather passed down to my dad or my grandmother, to my dad or my mom and everyone's life does have a narrative arc that you don't think about, you just take it for granted. And when you start piecing those things together, when you talk to people. Oh, that makes sense or the little light goes on because we all live our lives and we're fairly day to day or anxious about the future, mindful of our past. But when you start looking at your life as a narrative arc, which you do when you do a life story, so many fun and interesting connections get made.
Making connections between experiences, and lessons to develop your life story as a narrative arc is the gift that one receives after putting in a bit of work to document. So many of our listeners are at the start of this journey, whether it's for themselves or their elders and since we had a professional to learn from, we needed to capture Lucky’s advice on how to get started.
I have a friend who recently wanted me to talk to her dad, but her dad didn't really want to. And so I said to her, you know what, do this. Take your phone, turn on the voice memo app, put it down on the counter and here are a few questions you can start asking. Just get some recordings done. I always go back to the recording. The recording's the most important thing, get the stories, create the document. You can go back and do something with it or not whenever you want, but when those people can't answer those questions anymore, that is a loss. So to me, do that, hit the voice memo button on your phone, put it down on the ground and just be like, mom! Where did grandma and grandpa come from? What were their names? How many children did they have? Do you know the name of the town? These are priceless things. To be able to just have that information, if you can think to do it. And typically that's how I start when I start working with people.
And by the time I start talking about them, they're so comfortable we've been talking for 45 minutes that you've built the rapport and it's just kind of flowing.
Sometimes it comes, you get really cool stories by coming at it from the other side. Like, oh well my grandparents, there's one photo that exists and on the back of that photo, you can see that it came from this place. I know that my grandparents didn't have very much money. So, when they got that photo taken, the fact that only one exists, and then it kind of goes on this thing, how did that, and it just paints a picture of what life was like, even though I don't know the specifics of this, I don't know the specifics of that. The fact that one, or there were no photos taken. Why? How did that work? There's always these little tidbits that lead to beautiful knowledge.
Given that so many of us have gaps in our knowledge and history we super appreciated hearing how one can piece things together with a little effort and curiosity. Lucky and I could have talked about this subject for hours but we wanted to ensure that we asked him a personal question as he was so generous with providing his knowledge with us. We asked him a few questions from our conversation tool but the one that he answered on “tell us about something special in your home” rose to the top.
We don't particularly practice, we realized when we got together and started having kids that we could make our own traditions. So what means something to us is connecting, as I said, with the people who came before us. So one of the prized possessions that my great grandparents brought over from the old country. One of the only things that survived was a set of candlesticks. I have those candlesticks. When Jessy's grandma died, she was given those candlesticks. So on Friday night, we light the candles, and we light the candles because it's something that's been happening in both of our families for generations and generations and our kids understand that. So we're not doing it in a praise God kind of way, but we're doing it in more of like a cultural let's be respectful kind of way.
This interview with Lucky is chock full of wisdom and beautiful articulation of thoughts and ideas that underscore the value of a story. At the risk of oversimplifying, his encouragement of simply getting the story before it’s too late is at once inviting and obvious and leaves us wondering why we don’t do this more often. He suggested probing about one’s grandparents first. You can use the Root & Seed conversation tool for ideas on what to ask along with dig deeper questions.
Now, what happens when you don’t have the full story or the ability to retrieve that? In many cases, we know it might feel like it’s too late once someone is sick or has passed to get their whole life story. Our next episode’s guest, Nancy Lam has written a fictional memoir to fill in the gaps in the narrative of her own mother’s story. We hear about the process of writing, the journey to get it published and how the decision to go fiction helped her resolve some of the stories that she did capture. We can’t wait to have you take a listen.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU