Contemplations on Music and Family

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

My recent fourteen-day road trip across country and back gave me plenty of time to muse about a variety of matters and how they may have affected our lives and those of our families. Time and again, my mind pondered the role of music in my family and the continuity it provided among generations.

The presence of a piano in the house was a constant as I grew up – first at my grandfather’s year-round and summer homes, and later at my parents’ house. The latter piano now graces my own living room, although I play it far too seldom. Gathering around the piano on a summer’s evening is what my family did for entertainment, as much of a cliché as that may seem. The music would begin while it was still daylight, often stopping only long after there was no light in the room save for the pool of light shed by the gooseneck lamp over the piano. The homely pleasure of hearing music spilling out into the yard would often tempt Ralph, one of the bachelor farmers who lived down the road, to join us, making six voices in the intimate darkness. It remains a lovely memory of a much simpler time.

During these evenings I learned to sing alto, playing not only hymns but the music of the older three generations in the room. I now sadly realize that I am the last in my family to have knowledge of much of this music. These evenings also provided insights into family history: stories about the gospel hymn books that my great-grandmother had purchased when attending Baptist revivals in Springfield, Massachusetts; why we skipped over music that had been sung at my grandfather’s wedding; and the fact that we did not sing Aloha ?Oe (Farewell to Thee) because my uncle had remained in Hawaii after the war and his absence was fraught with layers of unspoken emotions.

I now have ten conservation boxes of sheet music, with the earliest music purchased by my grandmother (before her marriage in 1920), on which she had written her name, Mildred Carolyn Abbe. As a child I was fascinated by this signature, left behind by a person I would never know (she died in 1927, leaving two small children) and who was almost never mentioned “to spare my grandfather’s feelings.” Some of the music belonged to my mother, both before and after she was married, and some is mine from a later era. This music provides an interesting insight into what kinds of music the family liked, but also offers a rich insight into the cultural history of the United States through the decades.

My grandmother’s music is often tattered and fragile, with old Scotch tape holding pages together. Nevertheless, this music features beautiful cover artwork. Just a few of the titles include the Missouri Waltz (1914), a song much on my mind as I crossed this river several times over the past two weeks; I Will Always Love You As I Do To-Day (1915); My Isle of Golden Dreams (1919) featuring the Dolly Sisters on the cover; Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home (1921); and Among My Souvenirs (1927), later recorded by Connie Francis in 1959 and Marty Robbins in 1976.

My mother’s music looks more modern, slowly changing from art on quality linen paper to slick paper with photographs of stars and orchestra directors. One of the earliest pieces, with her maiden name written clearly on the cover, is God Bless America (1939) which includes a cover note stating that its first performance was by Kate Smith on Armistice Day, 1938. The war years are well represented with Remember Pearl Harbor (1941); Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition (1942); I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen (Irving Berlin, 1942), produced for This is the Army, “the new all-soldier show produced for Army Emergency Relief;” Sing With Lucy Monroe: A Community Song Book for Home, Schools, Civic Recreational Groups, Army Camps and Training Stations (1943), and Bell Bottom Trousers (1944). Other music includes songs from motion pictures of the era with cover photographs of singers and actors such as Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Rosemary Clooney. The cover of Galway Bay (1947) features an impossibly young picture of Bing Crosby.

My music is much more eclectic, ranging from Ballad of Davy Crockett (1954) – did you know that song has seventeen verses? – to the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me (1955) and Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings (1982).

I did find one intriguing booklet among the boxes, one that may have belonged to someone in the family but could also have come from an auction or other source now long forgotten. Published by Oliver Ditson (Boston, 1887), it is a copy of the new and correct edition of  Bugle, Fife, and Drum Signals and Calls as Used in the Regular Army and Militia of the United States. The introduction offers the following information: “On August 1st., 1867, the War Department ordered that ‘Upton’s Tactics’ be adopted by the Army of the United States, and by the Militia, as standard authority in place of all others. These tactics provide uniformity of system in all branches of the service, and therefore many changes have been made, which will hardly be recognized by the old soldier of twenty years ago. The bugle (or trumpet) signals and calls, as well as those of the fife and drum, have consequently undergone a change like the other systems, and are now the same in all branches of the service, excepting such signals as pertain to some individual act of the cavalry or artillery soldier which cannot be performed by the infantryman … In this new book we give these calls, together with the old ones which were in use during the civil war…” From their bugles to our ears…”

Your family archive may not include the wealth of family sheet music as does mine. If not, EBay is a perfect site on which to search for vintage sheet music. A quick look identified thousands of items. Most are auction-priced around $9.95 for a single piece of music – sometimes for multiple titles. I saw several that I already own and several that I’d like to add to my collection. Another commercial site for vintage sheet music is Kampko Vintage Sheet Music Shoppe, while several others provide information about vintage sheet music art and collecting.

There is little online about the connection between genealogy and music. Some websites1 have listed music with genealogical themes including Mark Cohn’s The Things We’ve Handed Down, I’m My Own Grandpa, Iris DeMent’s Let the Mystery Be, and Bon Jovi’s Who Says You Can’t Go Home, but some of the titles represent a bit of a stretch with regard to topic. These songs, however, do not really get at the heart of the music and genealogy connection.

For me, an individual piece of music has the capacity to create a personal connection back to a specific time and place in my life with all its personalities, atmosphere and feelings. Two quotes seem to sum up my thoughts on the music and family connection. In Thoughts of the Cloister and the Crowd (1835), British historian Arthur Helps stated: “Music recalls a state of feeling, and not merely a series of incidents. When we listen to the long-forgotten melody, we do not review the scenes and actions of our childhood in succession, but we become for the moment children once again.” Daniel J. Levitin, in This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 2006) stated, “Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there: weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep … music is a part of the fabric of everyday life.” We should always include such memories as we depict our family history, populating it with details of American cultural life as they relate to our family. Fact is, when we pursue this musical connection to our family’s history, those melodious memories add depth, warmth and understanding to our personal histories.


1 Randy Seaver, “More Genealogy-related Songs,” Genea-Musings ( : accessed 31 July 2012); James Gilmore, “Music Ideas for a Family History CD,” E-How ( : accessed 31 July 2012).




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