In response to the Week #13 Blogging Prompt, I decided to write a little about researching and using music in fleshing out the lives and characters of our ancestors. Though it’s never been my day job, my education/avocation has been music, and specifically vocal music. For most people, enough information can be gained from relatively brief Internet searches. In the past couple of years I’ve noticed movies and books where music of a wrong time period has been used and, for me, that indicated a lack of research diligence or even a “who cares” attitude. A movie illustration was a John Wayne cavalry-type picture that had the military guys marching while singing a ditty that wasn’t written until a later war.
A book illustration is Rilla Askew’s Fire in Beulah, about the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots. This is a very well researched and written fictional account of that ugly time – except for this one little musical misstep. In describing a worship gathering in a small black church, Ms. Askew said they were singing Victory in Jesus. Having been raised as an Oklahoma Southern Baptist and a musician, I knew this had been written by Eugene M. Bartlett, Sr. and, though I was unsure, I strongly suspected 1921 was a too early time frame. A minuscule Internet search by song title revealed it had been written in 1939. Obviously, Ms. Askew assumed the song had been around longer than it had.
After my daughter and I began to put together some basic information about my grandparents, I began to fill out their lives with my own imaginings and it wasn’t long before I started writing a fictional story based on the facts we’d been accumulating. We had heard from my Mother that my grandmother, Eva Keithley, and her sister, Violet, had sung duets. When I arranged, in my fictional account, for my grandparents to meet, it was natural for me to utilize singing as a part of the story. Because they must have met sometime in late 1899, that entailed doing some music research to find an appropriate song for Eva and Violet to sing.
One of the first websites I found was Oremus, which has a number of hymnals available. The one that included 1899 includes the hymnal song texts and midi files. There is also the cyber hymnal, which has a searchable listing of hymns with brief composer notes and dates as well as lyrics and midi files.
Because I wanted to know how my grandmother might have obtained music for performance purposes in 1899, I had to do a little background research. For popular music, one of the sites I used was History Matters. Here’s a quote from that site that gave me a background on the transmission of music in the era in which my grandmother lived: “American song in the second half of the nineteenth century underwent a tremendous commercial expansion, which extended into the twentieth century and indeed has not abated today. Initially, sheet music and pocket songsters were the primary means of circulating songs, since many Americans played and sang music in their own homes. The music publishing industry was increasingly concentrated in New York City’s famous ‘Tin Pan Alley’ by the 1880s. After that point, however, songs also came to be bought, sold, and preserved in a succession of new media: sound recordings and player pianos in the 1890s; radio in the 1920s, movie sound tracks in the late 1920s…”
A fun website for finding music in the public domain (meaning you can use the lyrics and melody without permission) is Public Domain Music. Though searchability is limited at this site, you can find music by some specific American composers or examples of types of music as well as examples by time period.
YouTube can also be a fun source for inserting performances into your blogs. In a tribute to my Mother, I found and inserted a video clip from a 1929 movie she had seen and then, by her own account, performed the music at her grade school.
By utilizing the websites above in selecting music for my grandmother and her sister to sing in church, I was a little surprised to discover a Christmas song I particularly like, O Holy Night, had been composed by the mid-19th century (both the lyricist and composer had died by that time) and was therefore an appropriate choice to use for my fictional account. Utilizing the lyrics as well as vocal characteristics allowed me to flesh out the characters of both my grandmother and grandfather.
For those of you who would like to see an illustration of adding music to a fictional account, I’ve added a page to my blog site of the chapter where I’ve used O Holy Night as a part of the development of my grandparents’ characters. Much of the thought processes in my grandfather’s mind was based on letters he wrote to his brother, Leander Lineberry, from 1895 until his death in 1915. Those letters can be viewed at my daughter’s genealogy website, My Tree House.