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Bulloch sharecropper tale goes national
StoryCorps publishes audio interview with Johnny, Kathy Bradley
Bradley Front Web
Kathy Bradley and her father, Johnny, wait to be called onstage Monday in the Atlanta History Center at the book launch party for "Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work," the fifth StoryCorps book by Dave Isay. The father and daughter's interview has been included in the book. - photo by Special

Local attorney and Statesboro Herald columnist Kathy Bradley is a twice-published author, but the most recent book with her name in it is not one she wrote herself – though it comes hard on the heels of her most recent release.

This time around, Bradley is appearing in a chapter of “Callings: The Purpose of Passion and Work,” the fifth compilation of interviews by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay – and in it, she interviews her father about growing up in the last generation of Southern sharecroppers.

Kathy Bradley and her father, Johnny Bradley, gave their story to StoryCorps about seven years ago. What they expected would be a one-time interview became a nationally broadcast radio piece and, now, a chapter in “Callings,” which relates stories of vocation and passion and how people find meaning in the work they do. The book contains 53 interviews, drawn from the 65,000+ files in the StoryCorps archive.

“It’s pretty special that Kathy and Johnny’s story is featured there,” said Colleen Ross, director of marketing and communications at StoryCorps.

 

The interview

StoryCorps, which began with a booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station in October 2003, gathers oral histories — that is, personal interviews — from everyday people across America. It then synthesizes those interviews into streamlined personal narratives, which it releases as audio recordings and short animated features.

The organization sets up booths, both permanent and mobile, in cities across the U.S. to organically gather the stories of anyone interested in contributing their narratives. If the participants are willing, the interviews are archived at the American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress, and select segments air nationally on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Bradley has been a fan of StoryCorps since its inception, and when she heard that its MobileBooth would be parked in Savannah to collect interviews, she pounced on the opportunity. She scheduled an appointment for a 40-minute session in the van’s sound booth, where she asked her father questions about his childhood, growing up during the Great Depression in a sharecropping family.

“I asked him why he decided to leave what had been a very secure coat-and-tie job at the age of 40 to return to the farm,” Bradley said. “I asked him about what it was like growing up in the country, the stories he most remembered about his family, that kind of thing.”

When they finished their recording session, neither Kathy nor Johnny expected anything more than the fun of the experience and the guarantee that there would be a record of Johnny Bradley’s story in the Library of Congress. They did not think the story would take off — but it did.

Roughly six weeks after their interview in Savannah, a StoryCorps representative called Bradley at her workplace to say that an excerpt of the Bradleys’ interview had been chosen to play on NPR’s national program, Morning Edition.

“I just started screaming, I was so excited,” Bradley said.

She wrote about the experience in an entry in her 2012 book, “Breathing and Walking Around: Reflections on a Life,” published by the Mercer University Press.

She heard nothing more about the interview until about eight months ago — just half a year before she would publish her second book — when StoryCorps called again to tell her that an edited, streamlined transcript of her interview with her father had been selected for publication in its fifth compilation, “Callings.” She and Johnny were invited to attend the book’s launch party in Atlanta with author Dave Isay himself, along with a few other speakers whose stories are also featured in the book.

“I was kind of amazed, to be honest,” Johnny Bradley said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

 

The book launch

Isay is a four-time Peabody Award winner and recipient of the 2015 TED Prize and the 2000 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, among many other accolades. At the book launch event April 25 in the Atlanta History Center, he opened the book tour program with an explanation of StoryCorps and an introduction to this particular book. Isay then welcomed to the stage Karen and Marc Lawson, who spoke about their father, Jerry Lawson, the inventor of the cartridge-based home video game console system; and Carl McNair, whose story about his brother, Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair, was accompanied by a short animation.

Kathy and Johnny Bradley took the stage last but not least, where they sat as an excerpt from their NPR broadcast played for the audience before Isay asked them a few questions. After a few more animations and a Q&A session with the audience, Isay and his guests moved into the lobby to sign books and talk to the audience. The Bradleys took their seats right next to Isay, where they greeted excited book-buyers eager to hear more about their story.

“(Signing books) is something I certainly did not expect,” Johnny Bradley said, “but I must have signed 80-100 books. And not one person who bought the book did not want to shake my hand and thank me for the story, and elaborate on how they were impressed by it.”

When selecting entries for StoryCorps’ books, Ross said, Isay and others look for narratives that “have kind of a universal quality, an evergreen quality, that can be sort of timeless,” and are “relatable and very personal at the same time.” Johnny, however, does not know why his story seems to fascinate the people who hear it, or why it was chosen for the book out of the thousands of interviews in the StoryCorps archives. 

“I just told the truth of what it was when I was a boy,” he said. “How my dad sharecropped, how we grew black seed cotton, and what it was to break land with a mule — just history, I guess you would say.”

 

StoryCorps selection

Kathy has no better idea of why the story stood out to the StoryCorps selection committee for “Callings.” For her, the whole StoryCorps experience was exciting not only because it allowed her to share and preserve her father’s story, but because it emphasized a recurring theme in her own writing: That everything — and everyone — is connected, and that narratives help reveal those connecting threads.

“We’re all part of one big story, and it’s important for us to share our part of that big story with each other, so that the big story will be complete,” Bradley said. “And that’s kind of what I felt like we were doing: We were knitting up some of the loose edges, to tie those stories together.”

Those interested in reading the Bradleys’ interview can purchase “Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work” on Amazon for $26. Kathy Bradley’s latest book, “Wondering Toward Center,” which was published in March, is also available for purchase on Amazon.

 

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