Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Getting Ready For A Research Trip: On the Road to Nottamun Town

Woman With Dulcimer - 1917
As a researcher, I consider myself truly fortunate that I can work on my grandchildren’s New England and New York family lines and also on their ancestral families with deep roots in Virginia and West Virginia - roots that go back to Jamestown. 

First of all, the kinds of records that are available for colonial New England and colonial Virginia are vastly different, so it’s a challenge. Despite being on the same coast and continent, 18th century New England and 18th century Virginia were places worlds apart. Historian David Hackett Fischer described those worlds in exquisite detail in Albion’s Seed, a must-read for anyone working on 17th and 18th century families in either location.

I’m always on the lookout for things that can make the research experience easier or more fun.

A while back, I discovered that the Virginia Historical Society put up a great online exhibition loaded with information called “The Story of Virginia: An American Experience”  You can check it out here;  there are all kinds of things to see and if you don’t come away richer for the experience, I’d be greatly surprised.  

The neat thing about the site is all the material for teachers.  One of the things that caught my eye was a pdf file designed to be used to develop lessons about early Virginia history.  The file told the story of “Becoming Virginians” in language that even grade schoolers could understand. 

One of the things I zeroed in on was the quotation from 17th century Virginia Governor Sir William Berkeley that succinctly expresses one of the key differences between researching families in New England and in Virginia.  In 1671, Berkeley said:

But I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.

On the last page of the pdf file, you will find a single page that summarizes these New England – Virginia differences.  It was adapted from Fischer's Albion's Seed mentioned above.  You can check it out here:  http://www.vahistorical.org/sva2003/sov_virginians.pdf

I always look forward to these research trips, and it’s not just in the anticipation of great new finds. 

It’s because right about now, a day or so before we’re on the road, the music starts in my head, softly, incessantly, drawing me into the worlds of the backcountry Virginia and West Virginia counties I study.  It’s that clear, crisp sound of the mountain dulcimer (now you know the point of the picture above) and the story-ballads that were passed down through the generations of folks raised far from “free schools or printing.” 

These are the kinds of songs that singer-collector John Jacob Niles (1892 – 1980)   gathered in the hills of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and in other parts of the rural mountain south as well.  These are  the songs and ballads with roots in the Middle Ages of the British Isles that crossed oceans and mountains -  songs never written down, that, committed to memory, carried the story of a people, their melodies hummed and whispered by generations of grandmothers shelling peas and rocking cradles. 

All over the world, people without “free schools or printing” transmit their fragile cultures this way  -  by word of mouth, by story and also by music. 

One of my favorite “transmitters” of this kind of music has always been Jean Ritchie, the remarkable voice from Viper, Kentucky who has been able to capture the essence of a people and culture unlike anyone else I’ve heard.

Here’s the link to an MP3 cut of Ms. Ritchie telling the story of, and performing, the song “Nottamun Town.”   It’s on the website of the Florida State Library and Archives – specifically, the music from the Florida Folklife Collection.  The song – its track number 16 – has its ancient roots in England and was recorded in 1976.  Even though it’s here on a Florida website, it’s the kind of ballad that can be found in Virginia and all over the mountain south. 

It’s well worth a listen.  Even if you have no Virginia or Appalachian roots. 

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