I had a dear Great Aunt whose musical talent brought much pleasure to many generations of family and strangers alike. Born on my birthday in 1911 she belonged to a generation whose parents and grandparents had migrated from the close-knit East End of London into the eastern suburbs.
She was growing up just at a time when the popular music hall scene was still in full swing, surrounded too by the nostalgic and poignant songs coming out of recent civilian and military experiences of World War I. By the late 1920s and 1930s there was still a lively music scene in the social venues around her neighbourhood.
Her ability to play piano enabled her to earn money in local drinking establishments. But not enough to buy the music scores of the numerous songs she was requested to play. And the story goes that she would nip into Woolworths to memorise the sheet music.
She had a very distinctive style of playing utilising the full keyboard, quite characteristic of pub pianists during the first half of the 20th century. A style appropriated perhaps to distract the listeners’ ears from the well-worn keys in the middle octaves of those pub-smoked and pickled pianos.
Her musical heritage was a defining element of her legacy to her family.
My cousin, her grandson, lovingly collected the titles of the tunes and songs she recalled to him, which numbered many hundreds. Even into advanced age she’d wryly smile when she told you she was off to play piano at the local community centre for the “old people’s” aerobics. You knew they were in for a trip down memory lane.
Does your family have a musical heritage still pervading family life which dates from the early 20th century? Or do you have an even longer musical tradition stretching back to the 19th century? Has your family retained musical traditions which originated in former countries of origin prior to migrations made by family members to new places and cultures?
The musical soundtrack to my Great Aunt’s life was particular to a group of decades when homegrown musical entertainment was still commonplace and enjoyed by many in very informal settings, such as pubs, social clubs and in the home. It was a time when communal singing outside of religious establishments and semi-professional choirs was still part of everyday shared experience in Britain.
Perhaps your family’s musical heritage was founded well away from popular tavern and music hall culture, rooted in more traditional folk song culture. Such musical heritage is richly shaped by the specific culture of regions, dialects, language and local experiences. British folk heritage has experienced a resurgence of interest lately with a new generation, who share an interest in collecting traditional tunes and songs from the “tradition bearers” who still retain this heritage.
But whatever the national, cultural or linguistic background of your family there are sure to be others around the world who share a similar musical heritage and active interest in it. There are several institutions and collectives in many countries which hold collections of music and help share the collector’s passion for traditional songs and musical traditions, particular to specific locations, languages and cultures. And if there isn’t, maybe you could start your own.
So what are the songs your ancestors sang? Can you find a way to capture them? You could write down the lyrics you remember or record the tune. Perhaps older members of your family are tradition bearers who can recall specific songs. It would be immensely valuable to record them if they are still able to perform them for you.
Maybe your family’s musical heritage goes further than songs? Do you have a family tradition of playing specific musical instruments? Have you inherited a love of a particular instrument or specific type of music which was shared by your ancestors and whose legacy has been passed through generations to you? Do you have heirloom instruments? Like Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle do you know the instrument’s story or what the musical accompaniment to that story was in the form of antique sheet music?
Do you have the musical skills to bring your family’s musical heritage to life again and become a tradition bearer yourself?
Sam Lee and The Song Collectors Collective, http://songcollectors.org
Hungarian Folk, http://hungarianfolk.com/hungarian-folk-music
The WPA California Folk Music Project collection including music from a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Northern California, USA, originally instigated by Sidney Robertson Cowell, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/afccchtml/cowhome.html
Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made In The Great War, http://www.madeinthegreatwar.com
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 31/03/2016
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You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Tradition Bearers and Musical Heritage – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Yaroslav B.
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