By Daniel Hubbard | September 12, 2010
I think almost every genealogist has or will have at least some interest in the lives of ancestors that goes beyond learning the facts necessary to find the next ancestor. For me their music is one of those aspects of their lives that holds a special fascination.
I’ve always loved old music. One CD I bought years ago uses recreations of instruments so old that they were reconstructed from objects found at archeological digs. The first tracks are best described as melodic banging and clicking. I’ll admit that it is an acquired taste.
I was going to title this post Sweating to the Oldies but, except for the occasional summer cemetery visit, I rarely, if ever, sweat while working on genealogy but I do listen to a few oldies. Very old oldies in fact. I find it puts me in the right mood and perhaps even gives an insight or two. I’ve mentioned before how I like to put myself into the heads of the people I’m researching. Music that might very well have echoed in their own heads is, I think, a fine way to try to do that. The question is, what did your ancestors sing, play and hear?
For soldiers it is often easy to tell what songs they sang and heard, though the variety is often surprising. That the Revolution put Yankee Doodle into people’s consciousness is well known but what about the ever amusing The Battle of the Kegs—the story of the Royal Navy versus some old wooden barrels? What about The World Turn’d Upside Down that, in legend at least, heralded the end? Today Chester is virtually unknown. It was the closest there was to a national anthem then. There are many, many tunes beyond Yankee Doodle.
The number of songs from the Civil War alone is enormous. Sometimes they are about glory, sometimes horror, sometimes just about the food (Hard Cracker Come Again No More). Not so long ago I was reading an original little scrap, written in faint pencil by a Union soldier, letting his wife know that he was fine, everything was alright, it was just that had been captured and was in in a Confederate prison. Reading that little note of a few almost imperceptible words, shorter than a Tweet yet more than a novel, I did some checking and found that the soldier who had written those words had starved to death in prison just a few weeks before the war came to an end. For that there was only one song that could suffice. When Johnny Comes Marching Home, played as a funeral dirge, as it sometimes is, for someone who came so close but wouldn’t be marching home. Sometimes I think that for just about anything you might read in a letter from that war, there is a song.
I might chose the CD Goostly Psalmes for when it is late at night and I’m looking into an accusation of witchcraft from some dark recess of my own Puritan ancestry. The Jam on Gerry’s Rocks works for ancestors in the north woods. For one ancestor who was “bound away ‘cross the wide Missouri” just a decade after Lewis and Clark, only Shenandoah will do. It is one of those songs that can send a shiver down my spine.
So many experiences were preserved in song. Heading through New York, we can learn that “The Erie was rising, The gin was getting low, And I scarcely think we’ll get a drink, Till we get to Buffalo.” Not my first image of westward movement, I must admit. In The Wisconsin Emigrant, you can hear the debate that must have occurred innumerable New England farmhouses—to start again in the west or to stay put. In the song, the family stayed. My New England ancestors headed west to Wisconsin. For some people songs of slavery may resonate. For me, the personal resonance is with the weary and abused indentured servant of The Trappan’d Maiden.
Other songs are not about any particular event or time and place but belong to the right culture. The Birks of Endermay might be just right when I want something melodic and a Scotsman is my focus. Other times a little frenetic Scots fiddling or bagpipes for a red-coated highlander is more in keeping with the situation. For Swedish research I often listen to Carl Michael Bellman, an iconic 18th century bard whose music is still part of the Swedish cultural canon. There are even times when music attached to an ethnicity can bring back memories and link to things never known. My mother had no knowledge of being one quarter Irish as she grew up. Her Canadian-born Irish grandfather died long before she was born and was not missed by her father. Years later, after her father was gone as well, and more or less by accident, she became interested in Ireland. She was shocked by how much old Irish music she knew from growing up, even though back then she had no idea that she or the music were the least bit Irish.
Will these oldies help me with my genealogy? No, probably not yet they do add to it. Will they help me with my, or anyone else’s family history? Only directly if I find a person who was actually mentioned in an old ballad. These oldies do help me though with my storytelling. They help to recreate the attitudes and the ambiance. They help turn records and evidence into people. When pondering life in a log cabin in the woods, the sound of a fiddle or a folksong is as welcome an addition now as it would have been back then in that cabin itself.Twitter It!