Genealogy #OffTheGrid

Musical Notes On The Family Tree

Genealogy#OffTheGrid Series

Back in the day, a trip to visit my Dad’s parents would start early and end late at night. I can still hear my Mom saying, “You know these girls have got to get up early in the morning and go to school”. Each visit would last well into the night filled with laughter, good food, stories, current events and music. It was always dark when we left and my sister and I would fall asleep in the back seat of the old Chevrolet Malibu, listening to the hum of the engine as Dad took us back home. My grandparents lived just over fifty miles from our home and the trip was filled with traffic and scenery along old Highway 66 and 52 heading north in the piedmont area of North Carolina. I didn’t realize how important music was to this side of my family until I reached my pre teen era. I just took it for granted that the music I heard was part of a normal visit with them, nothing out of the ordinary. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the music much more and because of this I began to learn the history associated with the music. I learned how it influenced my ancestors, my grandparents, my Dad and me.

Mom & Dad the summer before they were married in front of Grandpa’s house

In order to explain how and why I began to study the musical side of my family, I have to give you a normal scene at Grandpa’s house. When you pull into the driveway, you see a small white house with black shutters. It was the style of home that Jim Walters advertised during the 1960s. Basically, two bedrooms, one bath, living area and kitchen. Grandpa purchased the land and the home as a package deal. He also purchased the adjacent lot and another home which was the exact replica of his own. The heat was provided by a large wood stove in the living area and another one in the bedroom to the right and rear of the home. The kitchen was equipped with a long porcelain sink and counter space overlooking the side yard and Grandma’s flower garden. My grandparents, Hattie and Wiley, had six boys and all were grown except for the youngest who was still attending high school when I started kindergarten. Out of the five uncles and my Dad, four were musically talented and played several instruments. Guitars were plentiful in the home and you would always see one leaning in the corner of a room or resting against one of the kitchen chairs near the table. Harmonicas were found next to a coffee cup on the table or lying on the arm of the sofa. An old autoharp had a special place on the corner table in the living room, underneath it was an old family Bible. Old pictures hung on the walls all throughout the house. People standing in front of old cars, posing with horses, standing in front of a cornfield or log house. Many were captured with their instruments, the fiddle, guitar and an old banjo.

A few of my personal friends all through the years

Aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends would all visit Grandpa and Grandma on any given Sunday. Upon arriving, Grandma made sure you were fed properly which included a full meal, homemade biscuits as large as a small bowl and dessert. Conversations were shared to catch the latest news and events. Typical subjects like the weather, fishing, gardening and hunting all were discussed from one visit to another. But, as the talks would slowly wind down, Grandma would put on a fresh pot of coffee and the music would begin. Sometimes, it would start with a simple strum on the guitar, may-be tuning the strings while talking. Sometimes it started with a soft humming of an old tune or a question, “Have you tried Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane in A?” But no matter how it got started, eventually, the gang would pull up a chair and the music would serenade you through the early evening hours. Feet stomping to the beat, Grandma clapping her hands and singing. This was a normal ordinary visit with Grandpa and Grandma.

Musical Notes On The Family Tree

The music was just as much a part of this family as the people themselves. The words and the melodies captured the essence of who these individuals really were, what they stood for and believed in. I can remember each and every session ending with an old gospel tune, The Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace, I Love To Tell The Story and much more. I knew the words of Old Cripple Creek before I knew how to read and write. One of my favorites was Froggy Went A Courting because of the Uh-Huh at the end of each line. It still makes me laugh looking back and remembering all of us singing this.

The music was passed down from one generation to the next adding new songs, new riffs and new members to the family band. Grandpa would speak of Soldier’s Joy with such enthusiasm that his passion for the old tune would enlighten you with stories from his grandparents who fought during the Civil War. Grandpa would go further to state that this particular song traveled the ocean and reached North Carolina before the American Revolutionary War. “This is your heritage Gal”, was his words to me many times. Indeed, Grandpa was 100% right.

I picked up Dad’s guitar at the age of 13 while he was away at work. Mom always made sure I was careful with it and she later bought me a small book with chords in the back. I learned to play by placing my fingers on the neck and practicing every chance I got. A few months later, Dad asked me to bring him his guitar and sitting in the kitchen I played my first chords for him. Just like that, we formed our own family band. Dad and I played at various places all throughout North Carolina and Virginia, he on the banjo and me on his guitar. We picked up others along the way. Several of my uncles would join us and it became the “thing” to do on the weekends. I was thrilled to meet all kinds of people playing the old songs and sharing the legacy of our ancestors through the music. I met relatives I had never knew, distant cousins with different names and different songs. I found myself surrounded by not only the music, but the history behind it. The stories and the general conversations were all absorbed in my mind. Later these years were added to my family tree.

Dad was given a guitar by his uncle Broner Doss who was crippled due to polio. Broner was a well known musician in Surry County and “could play any instrument if he could get his hands on it”, Dad would say. He taught Dad the basic chords and strumming. Dad. later joined several bands all through the 1950s. He traveled to Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, toured with a band for a year in Michigan and up to Canada for a few months. He always said, “I can play rock-n-roll and country, but bluegrass is what I like to play”. Dad’s uncle, Henry McBride, was a well-known fiddle player and his great grandfather, Patrick McBride, played for all of the local dances in Surry County, NC and Patrick County, Virginia following the years after the Civil War. It is said that my 5th great grandfather, Francis McBride, brought a fiddle with him to North Carolina from the old country. I’ve not seen it, nor do I know if this story is true. But, there can be no doubt that music arrived with Francis and his family. “It’s in the genes”, as Mom used to say. Natural talent is passed down from one generation to the next.

As the years went by, my interest gave way to other activities on the weekends. Dad and Mom would still travel the old roads together while Dad continued to play the songs of yesterday. They never tired of the journey. Dad and I would get together whenever we could to play the songs like we did years before. We always knew the rhythm, never questioned what the next song would be. We just picked up right where we left off. One of our favorites together was Down Yonder. I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any recordings of me and Dad playing together. But the above link is one I found on YouTube a few years ago. It reminded me so much of the way Dad and I played this song. Time changes everything as Grandpa and Grandma left this world many years ago. I can still see Mom and Dad on the road, traveling the backroads, climbing the hills and hollers of long ago. Mom smiling, Dad driving and the banjo sitting behind them. They have both been gone for years now and I think Dad would have really enjoyed me sharing this with you all. I still play and share the old tunes with my sons. They both can play the guitar and in their own way, they carry on the musical tradition as the family band plays on. We share now by way of video chat as the miles are between us. I tell them the stories of long ago and enjoy the experience while remembering how it used to be.

Photo of Dad while on the road

I can close my eyes and see their faces, hear the tunes and listen to the singing. Those days are forever gone, but if we share the memories of our ancestors, they indeed live on among us. My family tree would not be the same if I removed the musical notes from it’s branches. The music is just as much a part of the family as the individuals are. Thank You so much for visiting Piedmont Trails and be sure to share your genealogy experiences with me. Let me know if you have musical notes hanging from your family tree. Our ancestors left an amazing journey to follow. Allow me to dedicate this article to my Dad as I Thank him for teaching me the old songs. Miss You Dad !! I will always remember the stories, the laughs, the good food, the people and the music.

Enjoy Your Journey !!

7 replies »

  1. I love this post! As an only child with a very small extended family, who always wanted a big, messy clan, the musical family gatherings you describe are my idea of heaven. What a treasure.

    I have two special musical family memories. My grandfather was a very talented, very secretive classical pianist. He only played when everyone had gone to bed. As a child I used to sit halfway down the stairs to listen to him. I don’t think he ever knew I was there.

    The other was when my dad’s handsome young cousin Dick came to visit wearing his Navy uniform and looking dashing. I was five. He brought his guitar and sang to me. I was ecstatic and “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” is still one of my favorites. I blogged about him just this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love Love Love this! My Grand Uncle Nolan Johnson carried on the tradition of music of my ancestors and even had a cassette tape recording made along with his wife which I am fortunate to have a copy of. He played fiddle and she played ukulele. It also has Soldier’s Joy!

    He is also mentioned in a book by Bob Carlin entitled “String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont”. Do you have this book? I don’t have the book but I found it through a Google search for ancestors. Got to love the internet! A Dempsey McBride is also listed in the index.

    A cigar box banjo that his father made was donated to the High Point Museum years ago.

    Unfortunately, I did not inherit the musical gene. My son plays the trumpet in band at school and picked it up pretty quickly though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great post! Lots of musical notes in my family tree. My great great grandfather was a well-known fiddle player in Northeast Georgia just after the Civil War. My grandmother played mandolin. My dad played guitar. I play/ played (my arthritis is so bad I can hardly play anything anymore) guitar, autoharp, Appalachian dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, bowed psaltery, and harmonica. My 9-year-old grandson doesn’t play an instrument, but he sings. I can sing one of the old hymns or old songs for him just one time, and that boy has an uncanny ability to remember the lyrics and the melody.

    Liked by 1 person

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