Preserving the Jonestown Tapes for Future Generations

by Shannon Howard

I grew up in San Francisco in the 1980’s. Every day on my walk to school, I would pass by Peoples Temple on Geary Street. I was just a child. No one mentioned the significance of this place to me. My introduction to Jim Jones and the people of Jonestown did not come until many years later.

I first learned of Jonestown through a television program that chronicled the most important moments of the 70’s. The show spent a good amount of time talking about Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple movement and the tragedy in Guyana. I was immediately intrigued. The whole thing was shrouded in mystery. Who was this enigmatic man with his radical cultural ideas? Who were these people who were so devoted to these ideas that they set aside their normal, everyday lives to follow him? What went wrong? How did it happen? Pondering these questions only led to more questions.

The program I watched played segments of a recording made during the final moments of Jonestown, often referred to as the Death Tape. I was able to obtain a copy of the tape from the internet. Listening to it was a chilling experience. As soon as I’d gotten past the emotional impact of the recording I began to make some analytical observations.

I am a musician and a sound engineer. My interest and skills are quite centered in the world of sound and the recording of it. My experiences in audio engineering have led me to believe that sound recordings are a far more accurate and whole picture of a place in time than photographs. A photo is a snapshot of one moment with no movement and very little depth. Sound recordings say so much more with their capture of many moments and the palpable emotional tones in people’s voices. They transport you in a way a photo never can.

In my study of the Death Tape, I discovered three layers of audio. There is music being played that is pitched down. It is slow and slurred and sounds very unnatural. Then, there is pitched down, backwards radio transmissions, quite hidden in the background of the recording. All of this is beneath the unsettling sounds of Jim Jones’ last speech and the commotion of the people. I eventually learned that this had probably occurred because of repeated use of these tapes by the people of Jonestown.

I have also learned that there are more than 900 tapes other than the Death Tape. Hundreds of them have never been transcribed or properly analyzed. I was surprised that something with this kind of historical relevance had not yet been entirely catalogued and preserved for the future, either by the FBI which recovered the tapes in Jonestown in 1978, or by the Jonestown Institute which has a complete collection of them.

Audio tapes are really quite fragile and they age badly. Digital copies will stay pristine for ourselves and future generations. Recognizing this – and because the job well suited my skill set – I offered to help. For the last few months I have been taking these aged tapes and making digital copies of them for CDs, websites and the like. I have also been transcribing these recordings.

These tapes elicit a wide range of emotions from me. I began to see the story through the eyes of the people of Jonestown. I came to the revelation that Peoples Temple was more of a socialist counter culture group than a religious cult. These people were willing to move to the harsh jungle of Guyana and work day and night to create a community that protected and cared for one another, unlike the cruel world that they had left behind. I could now see Jim Jones as a human being instead of merely a fanatical cult leader.

My mission is to preserve and document as much of the Jonestown audio as I can. These recordings should be easily accessible for people who want a better view of what happened and why. People shouldn’t be afraid of radical ideas. It is important that we understand what led to the tragedy in Jonestown. We must not forget these people and the pieces of history that they left behind.

(Shannon Howard can be reached at showard4@austin.rr.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 27th, 2014.
Skip to main content