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?
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.
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.
Adding Keywords to Your Article Search
To learn about specifics, I incorporated keywords such as “origins.”
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.
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.
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:
- Civil War Music Makers: Finding Drummer Boys in Old Newspapers
Cole Porter, Bing Crosby & Leonard Bernstein: News & Obituaries