About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Songs and Stories Keep the Past Alive: A Reflection on Kids' Camp at NGS

Last week (was it really that long ago?) I had the choice opportunity to work with some great folks to present the concept of family history research to a group of young folks (ages 8 through 16) at the NGS conference in Salt Lake City. It was an interesting experience because the "audience" included people of all ages (many adults joined their children/grandchildren) and they seemed to appreciate the "kids' songs" even more than the youth.

I started the program with the song "Old Dan Tucker," which is one I remember fondly from my own childhood (I've discussed this, and some others, on the earlier blog about my new "Songs of Early Childhood" CD). I informed the kids that their ancestors did not have CD or MP3 players, so they made their own music and this was one example. Personally, I fell in love with the song when I was a kid and would visit my grandfather. He had an extensive collection of 78 rpm records (which I have inherited).

I also performed "Tom Dooley," but didn't go into great detail about the back story on that (it's a bit racy). But I did mention something I have remembered since that song first hit the airwaves in 1958: my elementary school music teacher, Miss Shaddock (spelling may be wrong here), taught music to one of the members of the Kingston Trio (no, I don't remember which one, I'm afraid). When she told the class about that, I was quite impressed, even though I was very young - I really enjoyed their music from my earliest memory.

I told the back story of "Pretty Little Horses" (see earlier blog) and we discussed lullabies. I was pleased to see so many hands go up when I asked who had been sung to sleep by family members. I also sang "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" (which some people consider a lullaby) and "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain." In this latter one, I got the group doing the motions that accompany the words (they knew them better than I) and pointed out that the motions and some of the verses were a modern addition. This actually makes the song more of a "Play Party" piece - the songs that were created to circumvent dancing prohibition of an early American society.

In between songs, we did a little storytelling. I told a couple, then the audience members got involved. It was great: they told stories of injuries (of their own and others in the family or circle of friends - good thing no names were given as some of the narratives could have been considered embarrassing . . . you know how kids can get!), messes, disobeying rules, and scary situations. Some of the adults got into the storytelling, too, which made it even more enjoyable for me (I love stories and could hear and understand the adults' stories a little better than those the kids told). Then I informed them that they might want to share these stories in the years to come, so they should write them in their journals . . . time will dull the memory of something that seems so vivid today. But I also reminded them that, for our ancestors, stories and songs were often used to communicate a message or warning about things they should not do; many of their stories could serve that same purpose in the future with their children.

I don't know if the program had the desired effect, but I hope that my songs and stories gave those present a reminder that family history is not just names, dates, and places: it's experiences, interests, activities, occupations, and relationships. Through the songs and stories of earlier generations, we can connect with our ancestors. So take a break: tell a family story this weekend and make sure there's a record of it. Let's not lose these pieces of our lives to history!


  1. I also loved "Old Dan Tucker" as a kid! Jean, do you know of a good resource for titles and origins of lullabies and other traditional songs if all that is known are lyrics? Google has not turned up anything on a song I remember from childhood.

  2. Jean, I'm related to one of "Tom Dooley's" lawyers -- in the Armfield family. I got to tell that story to one of the current members of the Kingston Trio who lives in the Greensboro area. There is an annual reenactment of the Tom Dula trial.

  3. I, of course, love the music that you do!