Old Music in Historical Newspapers: Tips for Finding Songs

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary provides newspaper search tips to find articles and musical scores about the songs our ancestors enjoyed

When doing your family history research, have you ever wondered about the old music your American ancestors enjoyed?

What were the popular melodies and tunes of earlier days, what were their origins, and what musical discoveries can we find in historical newspapers?

Yankee Doodle

A fun place to start is by researching one of the more ubiquitous tunes in American history: “Yankee Doodle.” Just think—our parents, grandparents and great grandparents knew the same lyrics to this song. What a wonderful shared experience that is.

Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni.

To find a wide assortment of news articles about “Yankee Doodle” and amusing renditions of this popular American song, enter the title into GenealogyBank’s search engine. This search returns over 64,000 “best matches,” so you may wish to sort the results by date from the earliest to newest, or vice versa.

One of the earliest newspaper articles, from 1769, reports that the British military used the song as a type of verbal bantering or taunting of the colonists.

According to the article:

…the Officer of the Guard, in a sneering Manner, called upon the Musicians to play up the Yankee Doodle Tune, which completed the Conquest of the Military, and afforded them a temporary Triumph.

New-York Journal (New York, New York), 14 September 1769, page 2

New-York Journal (New York, New York), 14 September 1769, page 2

Limiting Music Searches by Categories

With so many search results, I looked for ways to narrow the focus. A promising option was the “Poems & Songs” category with over 1,200 historical newspaper articles to explore.

search results for "Yankee Doodle" in GenealogyBank

Adding Keywords to Your Article Search

To learn about specifics, I incorporated keywords such as “origins.”

Enter Last Name










A newspaper article from 1861 reported that “Yankee Doodle’s” music was derived from the “Lucy Locket” nursery rhyme. I wasn’t familiar with it—but if you hum “Lucy Locket,” you’ll find it has the same musical syntax, or structure, as “Yankee Doodle.”

Lucy Locket lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a bit of money in it
Only binding ’round it.

 
After the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, the patriots came up with their own lyrics. An early version was titled “The Yankee’s Return from Camp,” used as a battle march.

The old song has direct references to George Washington (then a Captain) and Capt. Isaac Davis. See article on Capt. Isaac Davis at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Davis_(soldier).

Photos & Illustrations

You’ll discover a number of musical scores in the “Poems & Songs” category on GenealogyBank’s search results page, and there are others in the “Photos & Illustrations” category. By examining these, I found a promising lead from 1910 that was reprinted three years later, in 1913.

Historical Music Sheet Tab in Historical Newspapers Genealogy Bank

This sheet tab reference isn’t actually from the “Yankee Doodle” song itself, but instead a composition called “The Boys That Fight the Flames” by George M. Cohen. He composed it as part of his play, Fifty Miles from Boston.

Forgotten Old Songs

The “Photos & Illustrations” category is also a wonderful place to find musical scores of forgotten pieces. Although not familiar with “Life’s a Bumper,” I might try playing this song on my piano.

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 14 December 1839, page 1

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 14 December 1839, page 1

Search Tips for Finding Old Music

This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg on musical discoveries found in newspapers. Try these steps and be sure to share your own tips for researching the music of our ancestors in old newspapers.

  • Do a general search for a song title
  • Sort by Best Matches, Oldest Items or Newest Items
  • Narrow by the category “Poems & Songs”
  • Experiment with other categories, such as “Photos & Illustrations”
  • Repeat the previous steps by adding keywords, such as “origins” or a composer’s name

Related Music Articles:

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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