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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Arlington National Cemetery Removing Mementos Left at Graves

Military cemeteries traditionally have a uniform look: clean, unadorned, orderly.

photo of Flanders Fields American Cemetery and Memorial

Credit: Flanders Fields American Cemetery and Memorial

The appearance of the military crosses was immortalized in the lines of the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian John McCrae during WWI on 3 May 1915:

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Now, a century later, there has been a growing trend by families and friends to decorate military gravestones of their loved ones in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Military authorities are reminding families that this decorating is not allowed. Photographs and mementos left at the gravesites have been removed, and the historical landmark cemetery has returned to its traditional appearance—with silent rows of gleaming white crosses.

A London newspaper ran a story on this clean-up project at Arlington National Cemetery last month.

article about Arlington National Cemetery removing mementos left at gravesites,  Daily Mail newspaper article 10 October 2013

Credit: Daily Mail (London, United Kingdom), 10 October 2013

Read the entire news story from the Daily Mail (London, United Kingdom), 10 October 2013, here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2451626/Arlington-graves-stripped-personal-momentoes-controversial-clean-up.html

Here is a copy of McCrae’s handwritten poem.

photo of the handwritten original copy of John McCrae's poem “In Flanders Fields”

Credit: Wikipedia

Lt. Colonel McCrae died 28 January 1918 while serving in France during WWI. He is buried in Wimereux Military Cemetery in northern France.

photo of the tombstone of Lt. Colonel John McCrae

Credit: Wikipedia

Here is the complete text of the poem “In Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Cole Porter, Bing Crosby & Leonard Bernstein: News & Obituaries

During this October week in American history three musical geniuses died who had a big impact on music—both in America and around the world:

  • Cole (Albert) Porter, American composer, died at 73 on 15 October 1964
  • Bing Crosby (Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby, Jr.), American singer and actor, died at 74 on 14 October 1977
  • Leonard Bernstein, American composer, conductor, and pianist, died at 72 on 14 October 1990

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Cole Porter (1891-1964)

Cole Porter, best known for his musical Kiss Me, Kate, had a long, prolific career in musical theater. A composer and songwriter, he had a string of hits on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics for his songs, and his many hit songs include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “You’re the Top.”

Porter’s career was interrupted in 1937 by a severe accident while horseback riding, leaving him disabled and in pain for the rest of his life.

Cole Porter Hurt in Riding Accident, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 25 October 1937

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 25 October 1937, page 14

He carried on, however, and his triumph Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 placed him at the top of his profession once again.

Cole Porter's 'Kiss Me, Kate' Wins Royal Salute, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 31 December 1948

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 31 December 1948, page 11

Along with his successful Broadway shows, Porter also wrote numerous film scores, to great acclaim. He wrote his last musical, Silk Stockings, in 1955, and his last songs for a film were for the Gene Kelly movie Les Girls in 1957.

The next year was a turning point in Porter’s life. His severely damaged right leg was finally amputated—and he never wrote another song again. He lived the last six years of his life quietly, primarily in seclusion, and died in Santa Monica, California, in 1964.

Cole Porter Dies; Leaves Legacy of World-Famed Music, Seattle Daily Times newspaper obituary 16 October 1964

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 16 October 1964, page 9

His obituary stated:

“Porter’s works revolutionized song writing in many ways. It was he who first broke away, successfully, from the restrictions of Tin-Pan Alley traditions that a popular song had to have a 16-bar verse and a 32-bar chorus. Some of his pieces almost doubled this.

“His lyrics were so good they were published as a book of poems. Their sophistication, wit and complex inner rhymes won him accolades as the foremost Indiana poet since James Whitcomb Riley.”

Bing Crosby (1903-1977)

Bing Crosby is a towering figure in American music, radio, and film history. From the 1930s to the 1950s Crosby had tremendous success, from multi-selling records, popular radio shows, and movie roles. As a recording artist alone, Crosby sold more than half a billion records! He is honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for his records, movies, and radio shows.

The extent of Bing Crosby’s fame and popularity can be glimpsed in this 1949 newspaper article.

'Raffles' Changed His Mind about Robbing Bing Crosby, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 22 February 1949

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 22 February 1949, page 1

Bing Crosby died doing something he loved. Late on the afternoon of 14 October 1977, he and a partner defeated two Spanish pros after 18 holes of golf in Madrid, Spain. Immediately after securing the victory, Crosby had a heart attack and died on one of the greens of the golf course.

Bing Crosby Dead, Boston Herald newspaper obituary 15 October 1977

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 October 1977, page 1

His obituary described Crosby as “the golden-voiced singer-actor who serenaded three generations of lovers” and reported:

“Crosby was ‘happy and singing’ during the 4½ hour round of golf that was to be his last, one of his golfing partners said.”

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most famous musicians in the world, renowned for his composing, conducting, and piano playing. He gained his fame as the long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, but in his long career he conducted most of the world’s best orchestras. He was equally well-known for his tremendous talent at the piano, often playing at the keyboard while conducting piano concertos.

Bernstein was also a gifted composer, achieving lasting fame for his music for the musical West Side Story, which opened on Broadway on 26 September 1957. The next day, this review noted that “the first-night audience gave it a rousing reception.”

'West Side Story' Linked to Bard, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 27 September 1957

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 September 1957, page 17

Bernstein, suffering from lung disease, conducted for the last time on 19 August 1990 at a concert with the Boston Symphony—a performance unfortunately marred by his suffering a coughing attack during the playing of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. On 9 October 1990 he announced he would no longer conduct; five days later he died from a heart attack.

Bernstein Dead at 72, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 October 1990

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 October 1990, page 1

Calling him “the impassioned American maestro,” Bernstein’s obituary noted some of his many achievements and the causes he supported:

“The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he led an orchestra performance at a liberated concentration camp, raised money for the Black Panthers and on Christmas 1989 celebrated the demise of the Berlin Wall by conducting [in East Berlin, Germany] Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!

The Leaves of Fall: Leaf Stories, Poems & Decorating Ideas

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott celebrates the colorful foliage of the autumn season by finding lots of leaf stories in old newspapers.

I am an unabashed lover of autumn and all it brings us! It is my favorite time to go out and take photographs at cemeteries. I love the crisp mornings coupled with the still-warm afternoon sunshine, walking in the woods, and perhaps most of all the leaves as they present us with all their magnificent fall colors.

One of our family’s favorite autumn pastimes when our children were young was for me to rake the leaves into a huge pile and then allow our children to make a massive leaf “fort.”

photo taken by Scott Phillips of his son in a leaf fort, circa 1979

Photo: the author’s son in his leaf fort, circa 1979. Credit: Scott Phillips.

The other day, I was enjoying the wonderful fall colors and delightful vistas—along with some wonderful autumn memories stirring in my mind’s eye—when I decided to take a look at the online historical newspapers of GenealogyBank.com to see if other folks shared my love of autumn. Let me just say it appears, much like the colors of our autumn leaves, to be a bit of a mixed bag.

Fall Fairy Tale

My first discovery was a delightful fairy tale from a 1917 South Dakota newspaper. Featuring autumn leaves, “Mr. Wind,” the “Breeze Brothers,” gnomes, and fairies, it is exactly the kind of story I would have enjoyed telling my children and I have now saved it so that I can read it to our grandsons.

Daddy's Evening Fairy Tale: Autumn Leaves, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 10 October 1917

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 10 October 1917, page 7

Decorating with Leaves

Next I came across a name that rang a bell with me. It was “Cappy Dick” in a 1954 issue of my hometown newspaper in Cleveland, the Plain Dealer. I recall looking forward to Cappy Dick’s “Hobby Club” ideas in the newspaper every week when I was a child. In this article, Cappy instructed his young fans to take a vase and “Brush shellac all over the surface. Then stick the bits of leaf to the shellac after first applying glue to the back of each leaf.” Reading it made me laugh out loud at the thought of how my mother and grandmother might have reacted had I ever dared take shellac, glue, and autumn leaves to any one of their precious vases.

Decorate a Vase or Jar with Leaves, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 October 1954

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 October 1954, page 51

Moonshiners Make Crafty Use of Leaves

Still chuckling over my likely “shellacking” had I shellacked a vase, I came across an article from a 1928 North Carolina newspaper, during the height of Prohibition, that contained a unique take on autumn leaves. The article reported: “Officers in recent days have discovered that the moonshiners are taking advantage of the fall of autumn leaves in a unique way. A trench deep and long enough to contain about four barrels of beer is dug next to the log of a fallen tree in the depth of the woods…On top of these is (sic) laid sheets of iron roofing and then leaves are raked so that they gradually slope up to the top of the log as if blown by autumnal breezes. Four barrels like this were found during last week by the use of sticks to punch into the leaves.” I guess there were smart moonshiners in those days—but perhaps even smarter officers.

Officers Locate Horse Head in Barrel of Corn Beer in East Davidson County, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 12 December 1928

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 December 1928, page 13

Leaves Cause Broken Ankle

Mrs. Francis M. Whitlaw evidently did not take too kindly to autumn leaves, as reported in a 1908 Missouri newspaper. While it made me a bit sad that Mrs. Whitlaw broke her ankle due to the leaves, I found it an interesting bit of time-travel to read that she was treated by her doctor at “Rose & Gordon’s drug store” and was taken “in a carriage” to the hotel where her husband was the manager.

Autumn Leaves: An Accident, Kansas City Star newspaper article 9 November 1908

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 9 November 1908, page 4

Leaves Cause Fall Fatalities

Then I got a real shock when I read an article from an 1898 New York newspaper about a fatal train wreck caused by autumn leaves. While definitely a tragic story, I found the amazing details related to this autumn leaves event extremely interesting.

Wreck Caused by Autumn Leaves: Clogged Brakes, and Sent Lehigh Valley Train Dashing Down Mountainside to Collision, New York Herald newspaper article 12 November 1898

New York Herald (New York, New York), 12 November 1898, page 7

Poem about Leaves

I closed out my searching after making a delightful discovery in a 1911 Idaho newspaper. Oh what memories this lovely poem brought back! I could smell the wonderful aroma of burning leaves (now forbidden in our community) in the fall. I encourage you to read this nifty little poem. As the anonymous author writes, “such scented censer smoke” brings each of us “The glory of our olden dreams.”

A Poem: The Burning Leaves, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 29 October 1911

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 29 October 1911, page 4

I hope you enjoy the wonder of this autumn’s colorful leaf display, and indulge in some fun memories of your own as you rake the leaves. And if you have a moment, how about sharing your favorite autumn family memories here with me in the comments section? I’d certainly enjoy hearing them!

A Peek into Yesteryear: Using Scrapbooks for Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena describes how scrapbooks can be a surprising and valuable resource for your family history research.

Did you ever keep a scrapbook? I’m not referring to the modern-day scrapbooks that are essentially decorated photograph albums. I’m referring to the type of scrapbook that held postcards, letters, favorite poems, photos and newspaper clippings. When I was young I would fill my scrapbook with all the events I was a part of, like band concerts, school graduations, and church activities. I would include postcards I had received from family members, and newspaper clippings I found interesting (I still have a clipping my grandmother gave me about how to cook a bat).

photo of a scrapbook

As a family history researcher I have found scrapbooks from past generations that included genealogically significant information such as newspaper clippings of births, marriages, and deaths. I’m always amazed at the dedication some people have put into documenting their community and their family through scrapbooks. Scrapbooks tell a story, a fact that was reinforced for me a few years back when I was helping a client preserve her childhood scrapbook that included valentines given to her by elementary school classmates. Some of those classmates were Japanese Americans who would later be held at the Manzanar internment camp during the World War II years.

photo of a scrapbook showing newspaper clippings

In her book Scrapbooks: An American History, Jessica Helfand describes scrapbooks as being a “visual autobiography.” Looking at the scrapbooks I own, it’s easy to see that they are autobiographies and community histories. Scrapbooks contain visual representations of what was important to the owner. Scrapbooks can hold a variety of genealogical treasures, even in cases where the scrapbook’s original owner was not related to you.

Consider some of the items that get pasted into scrapbooks: letter correspondence, newspaper articles, and photos. These all document the interests and life of the scrapbook owner, and include people from his or her community: neighbors, family members, and friends and associates from school, church and work. As virtual autobiographies scrapbooks should be part of a genealogical search, even in cases where they are not your ancestor’s but rather from someone who lived in their community. In one scrapbook that I own that dates from 1930 to 1950, there is a newspaper clipping showing the names of a graduating class as well as photographs, correspondence, thank-you notes and invitations, all documenting the life of a community.

photo of a scrapbook showing an old letter

While we often think of scrapbooking as an individual pursuit, it’s important to remember that individuals weren’t the only ones who kept scrapbooks. Organizations also kept scrapbooks that documented the people, history, and achievements of their group. So while an individual’s scrapbook may provide you with social history and even a possible mention of an ancestor, an organizational scrapbook will provide information about a group that your ancestor was a part of, allowing you to better document their activities.

photo of a scrapbook showing a picture of a high school graduation

How do you find scrapbooks to use in your genealogy research? They can be housed in manuscript collections found at libraries, historical societies, museums and archives. To find scrapbooks you can use a union catalog like ArchiveGrid. A recent search on the keyword “scrapbook” resulted in over 36,000 results.

Other combined library catalogs also exist. When I searched the catalog for Online Archive of California, which includes museums, archives, universities and public libraries in California, I found scrapbooks for organizations and groups such as:

You can also search an individual repository’s catalog for the keyword “scrapbook.”

Individuals, organizations, and other types of groups created scrapbooks that they filled with items they were interested in and didn’t want to forget, as well as ephemera that documented the activities and events of the life of their community. Many are often packed with old newspaper clippings that provide a wealth of genealogical information. Scrapbooks are just one more example of a genealogy resource that can tell your family’s history. Be sure to include them in your family history searches.

Note: all photos are from the author’s collection.

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

Books of the Week – Donald Lines Jacobus

Millions of books are going online.
Entire libraries – that never close; a
vailable 24/7.

It is now possible for genealogists to read, download and keep genealogies, local histories – publications of all types and sizes. Instantly accessible online and easily stored on your personal laptop or handheld computer.

Donald Lines Jacobus (1887-1970) – well known as the Dean of American Genealogists was writing since he was a young boy. The New Haven Register 18 May 1900 carried a remarkable, lengthy article about his discussion of Biblical and Classical genealogy – written at the age of 12. Click here to read the entire article. It is published online in GenealogyBank.

Jacobus was a prolific writer and his books are going online.

You can read some of his earliest publications – The Lines Family – about his mother’s family that was published in 1905


and The Wilmot family of New Haven, Conn., published in 1904 by the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

You may even read his book of Poems published in 1914 by the Harty-Musch Press, Inc. in New Haven, Connecticut.

Milestones in the Wilderness (1914)

Take full advantage of what the Internet has to offer. You will find thousands of published genealogies & local histories online at:


Internet Archive
Google Books
Family History Archive

and GenealogyBank is your best source for online newspapers – over 4,200 newspapers and 260,000+ digital books and documents online.

It is a great day for genealogy!