I’ve been using a tape recorder to document things in my environment for nearly thirty years now. In that time I’ve developed a personal adage: “The tape recorder never lies.” I found it funny as a child to hear someone deny having said something, only to disprove their denial by playing back the recording. I have funny things, mundane things, and ugly things on tape. I didn’t know it then, but an archive of recordings can contain a tremendous amount of power.
Twenty-eight years after the downfall of Peoples Temple, it remains one of the most potent images of destruction lodged in the American psyche. It also remains one of the most grossly misunderstood social movements, and continues to be largely shrouded in mystery. Yet, there are over 750 tape recordings that document the inner workings of Peoples Temple, including sermons by Jim Jones, meetings, Jones’ readings of the news in Jonestown, amateur radio transmissions, phone conversations, and television and radio broadcasts. This well of information is largely untapped, as very few people (if more than one) have immediate access to the entire collection, and only 200 of the tapes have been transcribed. Arguably, hundreds of them have never been heard since their initial FBI review.
Are these tapes valid primary sources of information? Some say they were merely tools of propaganda. Some say that the recordings were made selectively; certain events were recorded intentionally, while other events were intentionally not recorded. As many of the tapes have obvious tape recorder starts and stops, some would also conclude that fragments of events were selectively recorded by the person operating the tape recorder, often Jones himself. Some have even suggested that certain recordings are completely fake, fabricated under suspicious, conspiratorial circumstances.
My purpose in writing this article isn’t really to debate the validity of the historical significance of these tapes. Personally, I do accept many of the recordings at face value. I don’t believe that any tapes were fabricated or re-edited after the initial recordings. I would also argue that while it was possible to exclude selected parts of events by simply turning the recorder off, it would have been impossible to control exactly what was said once the tape recorder was running. (This applies to “large crowd” recordings such as sermons or Jonestown meetings, not, obviously, to the reading of canned statements such as the “revolutionary declarations” on tape Q714). It’s also worth noting that there is no apparent motive for such selectivity, as the tapes hardly provide a predominantly positive image of the Temple.
My purpose lies more in an “emotional” interpretation of the tapes, and therein lies a definite value. To stray from the role of historian and the world of academia, one finds the value on a primal level, from the perspective of a plain human being, with a knack for hunches and feelings. The recordings seem best processed not by the head, but by the heart.
These are a few of my favorite recordings.
Q635-Q639 – White Night, April 12, 1978 – “Under a Microscope”
A “White Night” meant a crisis situation in Jonestown. These happened more and more often as morale waned and conditions became more dire in Jonestown, and were often direct responses to a specific emergency, sometimes real and other times imagined by Jones. Almost always, a White Night was a kind of battle against oppressive, external forces, with the threat of failure ever-looming. The concept of “revolutionary suicide” was a favorite topic of Jones, and for many months before this night in April 1978, he had been promoting the idea that their collective family should lay down their lives, together, rather than be broken apart by the hostile capitalist forces they had fought so hard to escape. The idea seemed to be that if the crisis were unresolved, then collective suicide would become an option. Inevitably though, after a very long night, Jim Jones would “win the battle,” and the community would subsist for at least another few days.
I’m reluctant to embark on a blow-by-blow summary of this recording, as it is nearly five hours long, and I do think you should just listen to it. As one of a few very long recordings that span multiple tapes, it covers a variety of common White Night rhetoric. We are shown a wide range of both the positive and negative aspects of life in Jonestown: anger, humor, compassion, sorrow, hopefulness and hopelessness, concern, hypocrisy, and much emotion.
Amidst the chaos and unrelenting drama, there seems to be a common thread of solidarity. One gathers the impression that although there were many different opinions within the group, many flatly antagonistic to one another, there was often somewhat of an agreement to disagree. My favorite moment in this recording comes at the end of tape Q636, when a senior citizen leads the entire community in a rousing rendition of the old spiritual “I’ve Never Heard A Man Speak Like This Man Before,” followed by a Native-American-style “war whoop,” intended symbolically to scare away their enemies.
Q953 – LA Sermon May 1974 – “That’s Violence!”
Amidst all of the horribly closed-minded condemnations of the members of Peoples Temple – that they were brainwashed ghouls, that Jim Jones was a psychotic madman – it’s easy to forget that every member had a very compelling initial reason for joining. Many of them came from deplorable conditions; they found shelter, food, family, and control over their own destiny for the first time in their lives. Many of them were interested in progressive social change and saw Peoples Temple as their catalyst. Many of them came for the “church,” but stayed because of its good works. It’s fair to say, however, that all of them felt, in some way, failed by America.
Q953 helps dispel a few myths about Peoples Temple. We see that Jim Jones was not a “Jesus freak,” but a radical socialist. We see that Peoples Temple was not so much a “cult” as a budding social movement, and that the “church” was as much a place of personal empowerment as a place of worship.
In Q953, Jim Jones touches upon many common themes, a condemnation of the hypocrisy of Christianity, the concept that Godliness is within all of us, and the goodness and solidarity of Peoples Temple. Most compelling, though, is a fiery rant about violence, attributing blame for the rampant street violence of the time to the violence inherent in the political system. Indeed, many of the specifics offer an eerie mirror-view into the social and political conditions of today. Jim’s prediction that America will be locking people up in concentration camps, superimposed over the Guantanamo-bay mentality of present day post-911 America, is a stunning reminder that the lessons of Peoples Temple have never been more relevant.
Q597 – Jonestown Meeting, April 8, 1978 – “Dancin’ Off the Learning Crew”
What starts off as a seemingly ordinary day in Jonestown turns into what is hands-down my favorite tape – so far – in the FBI collection. In this recording, Jim Jones reviews the names of those currently serving on the Learning Crew and decides who is eligible to be released. The Learning Crew was a disciplinary unit in Jonestown, a group made up of those who for one reason or another had recently goofed. Expected to work faster and longer, with less rest, less food, and in silence, a member of Learning would be released back into the regular community by demonstrating discipline and a good attitude. In this case, however, Jim Jones offers a man currently serving on the Learning Crew a get-off-of-Learning-free card in exchange for a spoof of old-time religion. “Can you show how it feels to praise the Lord?”, Jim implores. “Run down that aisle and shout!” He finds Joe’s comical performance so funny that he offers everyone on the Learning Crew a chance to get off in exchange for “an old-fashioned Holy Ghost show.”
This formerly mundane meeting thus erupts into riotous laughter and a series of increasingly wild Pentecostal satires. Even the band comes up and starts playing revival music to get the mood going. Jones occasionally joins in the dancing himself.
We all know that feeling of infectious laughter, those moments where we’ve gotten so caught up in laughing and in feeding off of one another’s laughter that at some point, we no longer remember what we’re even laughing at; it’s the laughter itself that simply incites more laughter. This tape is simply delightful. It highlights so many of the forgotten truths of Peoples Temple, their philosophical rejection of Christianity, their often desperate disciplinary measures, and above all else, the idea that at the end of the day, they all loved to laugh and have a good time.
Q757 – April 1, 1978 White Night – “I Don’t Like Shit, I Like Flowers”
It’s fair to say that the media has tended to overemphasize the sensational aspects of Peoples Temple, and overlook (or blatantly ignore) everything else. This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of fuel for that fire. Sensation abounds in the FBI tape collection. If that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, you’ll want to check out Q42, “The Death Tape,” arguably the most popular recording, which chronicles the final moments of Jonestown. There is also Q594, in which Peoples Temple members come up to the mic at the Jonestown pavilion and describe, in gruesome detail, various way they would like to torture their relatives back home, who were seen as antagonizers and enemies of their movement.
I enjoy Q757 for its relative banality. This recording seems somehow to have a gentle feel. There are certainly still tense moments. Jim has a headache and complains consistently that he is mistrusted and underappreciated, and that he carries a greater burden than anyone else. He speaks out angrily against Tim Stoen, a Temple leader who had left the community and is now considered a “class enemy.” But there are subtly tender moments. Jim muses sentimentally about his alcoholic uncle, and the lesson learned that he should always “stick around,” that “it’s terrible to disappoint people, it’s awful to leave people alone.” A commentary on a recent sex urge leads to a discourse on the overemphasis on sex in relationships, and that for Jim, warmth and character are the great attractors. With a distinct tenderness in his voice, Jim says: “I would like to hold all of you in my arms and, so that you never have any more pain.”
There’s something about this tape. I think it’s comforting to remember that wherever Peoples Temple wound up going, they were coming from an extraordinarily compassionate place.
(Norm Scott’s work with Jonestown audiotapes includes transcription work, for which the managers of this site are grateful. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)