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History & Genealogy - Through Music

We tend to focus on census returns, biographies, and legal documents as sources for history. Then we record the information on family sheets or in a database. A unique source for downstate Illinois history is a CD of radio music from the 1930s punctuated with true stories about the performers and an oral record of the performer's own genealogy.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Many cultures have used the oral history to document family heritage. Folk musician and songwriter Joel Mabus' biography follows this oral tradition, as he explains that he was born and raised "in a modest Southern Illinois town, about 105 miles southeast of Mark Twain, 190 miles northwest of Bill Monroe, 110 miles southwest of Burl Ives and just over the river and up the hill from Scott Joplin."

In reality, he was born in Sesser, Illinois. You realize from the get-go that Mabus weaves everything into an interesting story. Mabus' family, from his great-grandfather Louis Charles Lee, have been fiddlers. During the Great Depression, Mabus' parents made a living by traveling the Midwest with road shows. These shows were sponsored by the Prairie Farmer, founder of the WLS Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry.

In the tradition of his own family, he has performed on radio, on The Prairie Home Companion. Mabus has released a string of CDs and performed at festivals.

In 2007, he released "The Banjo Monologues," in which he tells his family's genealogy between folk songs. It immediately reminded me of the oral tradition of yesteryear or the "begats" from the Bible.

Only a genealogist can appreciate the rules of naming conventions; and only a genealogist - or a storyteller — can appreciate how often the conventions are broken. The first piece I heard from the "Banjo Monologues" was "Cindy/Gerald & Jerald Lee." The song Mabus plays is "Cindy" and the story he tells is that of his father, Gerald, and Gerald's twin brother Jerald Lee Mabus, who were both musicians. It is a fun and true story about confusion caused by family names. Haven't all genealogists been there?

The "Uncloudy Day" is the story of Leonard Lively, a Kentucky coal-miner with black lung. The "Crazy Water Crystals" tells of a real medicine show from the mid-1930s. All the stories are sprinkled with real names and places.

It occurred to me while listening to entire cuts from this CD that this would be a great way to preserve genealogy, in a format that might be more interesting to youth. A fourteen year-old may not be very interested in transcribing census information, but teens might love to use the technology they use every day to help preserve their family's history.

Music seems to be such a part of our world. Anyone can podcast with nothing more than an inexpensive microphone and a computer, using free software. Here are some ideas:

Make a copy of your own home video, explain the story of who is in it, and include some of those precious little family stories that can so easily be lost.

Record some music during a birthday party. Later add a couple of minutes at the beginning or end explaining whose birthday it was and who was present. Tell the oral story of the family's genealogy.

But, whether you decide to use this technique to preserve your family's history or would just like to hear stories of the Great Depression from an unusual source, give a listen to Joel Mabus' "Banjo Monologues." Snippets of the "Banjo Monologues" can be downloaded for free from his web site.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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