Thursday, September 8, 2011

Using Music in your Genealogy Research

At the 2003 Federation of Genealogical Societies/Florida State Genealogical Society conference in Orlando, I attended a lecture by Katherine Scott Sturdevant which has heavily influenced the way I do my genealogy. Her lecture, “Don't Throw it Away! Artifacts in Family History Research and Writing,” was based on her book Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History. After the lecture, I immediately went to the dealers' room and bought the book, because Professor Sturdevant had lit a fire under me with her ideas.

The heart of the lecture was the preservation and analysis of family heirlooms, the artifacts of our ancestors' material culture. But there's more to it than that, as explained in her book. In her foreword to Sturdevant's book, Sharon deBartolo Carmack, CG, says, “Prior to the debut of social history – the history of ordinary folks in ordinary society – it was difficult for many genealogists like me to see a relationship between traditional history – politics and military campaigns – to their own families." (1) Social history helps us, as genealogists and family historians, bring our ancestors to life and to gain insight into who they were and why they did what they did.

Music is part of that social history, woven as it is into the fabric of human life almost from the beginning. I love to listen to all kinds of music while I'm doing research, and I tend to tailor my music to the era of the ancestor or ancestors I'm researching at the time. Thinking about this, I realized that this music is a key to the social and cultural atmosphere in which our ancestors lived.

One album I enjoy listening to when I'm working on Samuel Packard (ca1612-1684), my Puritan ancestor who emigrated from Suffolk, England to Hingham, Massachusetts in 1638, is called Ghoostly Psalmes, a collection of Anglo-American psalmody 1550-1800. (2)   In the liner notes, Anne Heider observes:

Surely one of the most invigorating changes the Reformation brought about was the institution of congregational singing in the vernacular as a regular part of worship. . . The Puritans who left England to settle in America brought with them the tradition, already a half-century old, of congregational singing of plain tunes.

There, already, is an insight into the religious life of Samuel Packard. I know from my research that he was a Puritan; I also know now some of the songs he might have sung in church on Sunday, thanks to Ghoostly Psalmes. And I know that that music was part of a tradition, and that it had an important place in the life of the society in which Samuel lived.

Another facet of that life was the span thereof: “The unhealthiness of daily life may well be the most striking of the great divides between past and present,” writes Jack Larkin of the life expectancy from 1790 to 1840. (3) Women and children were particularly at risk: “Between 25 and 50 percent of all women died in childbirth or from childbed disease, and the infant mortality rate was comparable.” (4) This is borne out in a number of the hymns on Ghoostly Psalmes, such as “Brevity,” a one-verse song written by Abraham Wood (1752-1804):

            Man, born of woman, like a flow'r,
Short-liv'd is seen to rise;
At morning blooms, at evening hour
He withers, falls, and dies.

My ancestor Richards Packard (1763-1840) may have been familiar with a hymn called “Chester,” published in Boston in 1778. Richards enlisted to fight on the Patriot side at the age of 17 in 1781. The hymn makes no bones about which side it is on:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God
New England's God for ever reigns.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton, too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In the Infernal league combin'd.

When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were shattered in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our coast.

Thus music directly reflects the social and often the political tenor of its times. This is reflected quite starkly in another album I like to listen to: the original soundtrack recording of Ken Burns's seminal documentary, The Civil War, (5) When I'm researching my own Civil War ancestors, Matthew Hale Packard (1822-1881), who served in two different units of New York cavalry, and Charles Reed (1840-1920), who served in Company F, 140th Indiana Infantry, I listen to the more Yankee-oriented songs such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (“The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!”), “Hail, Columbia,” or “Marching Through Georgia.” That last one does irritate my husband, descendant of Southern soldier Daniel MacLeod Marshall (1836-1919), who served in R. F. Kolb's Battery (artillery), a CSA unit raised in Alabama. For him, I switch to “Dixie,” of course, or the plaintive “Lorena,” though that tune was (as Mr. Burns tells us) sung by soldiers of both sides, and banned on both sides by commanders concerned that their troops not be affected by it and rendered unfit for battle.

The period between the World Wars saw a musical renaissance, the burgeoning of jazz, and the rise of one of my favorite composers, George Gershwin. When I'm researching my maternal grandfather Perry Wilmer Reed (1886-1938) or my paternal grandfather Walter Heatherington Packard (1879-1937), or my parents Arden Packard (1911-1954) and Martha Shideler Reed (1916-1980), I listen to Gershwin on one of several albums I have of his music. One of my favorites is “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra,” composed 1925 and tentatively titled “New York Concerto.” The piece reflects both the singular loneliness and the vibrant involvement we find in our big cities. It's a portrait of New York, and a portrait of America, reflecting the energy and optimism of the 1920s. Music can show us the spirit of an era; we can listen to the songs and instrumental pieces that moved our ancestors.

Bringing research on my parents forward into the 1940s, there is a lot of music to accompany that quest. The music of this time ranges from the silly “Cow-Cow Boogie” and “Hut Sut Song” to the poignant “Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover,” the latter reminding us of the many Londoners who sent their children into the countryside or even over the water to Canada or the United States to get them away from the devastation and the horror of the Blitz:

The shepherd will tend his sheep,
The valley will bloom again,
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.

And as my father was in the United States Navy during World War II as a Naval aviator and flight instructor, I listen to another of my favorite composers with one of my very favorite suites of music, Richard Rodgers's Victory at Sea. (5) Rodgers composed the suite for a television series of the same name which ran in the early 1950s (and much later on in syndication), which I remember watching as a child – and therefore this music touches my own past as well. 

Take another look at your music collection, and see if you can't use it to get some insights into your own ancestors – and into yourself as well.


1.  Sharon deBartolo Carmack, Foreword, in Katherine Scott Sturdevant, Bringing Your Family History to Life Using Social History. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2000, np.
 2. Goostly Psalmes, His Majestie's Clerkes, Paul Hillier, director. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907128
3.  Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840. New York: HarperPerennial, 1988, page 72.
4.  Dale Taylor, The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, From 1607-1783. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1997, page 79.
5.  Original Soundtrack Recording: The Civil War (a Film by Ken Burns). Elektra Nonesuch, 9 79256-2.
6.  Richard Rodgers, composer. Victory at Sea and More Victory at Sea. RCA Victor, 09026-60963-2, 09026-60964-2.

1 comment:

Heather Rojo said...

Great post! I have a line of ancestors that were musicians and music teachers going back 100 years in Salem, Massachusetts. I never thought of finding out what types of music they might have played or taught. This puts a whole new twist on my research! Thanks!