Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When Hobby Meets Work

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

I’ve played the violin since I was in the fourth grade, and I’ve fiddled for 24 years. (Violin is classically composed music, fiddle is folk music often, but not always, written by Anonymous or Traditional.) Along the way I’ve acquired a harmonica, some penny whistles, a mandolin, a tenor banjo, a ukulele…you get the idea.

I’m lucky enough to incorporate my hobby into my work in various ways. I often play background music for our events, from Geneva Night Out to fundraisers at Rose Hill. There’s often a giraffe-in-the-zoo element to it: people rarely see one person casually playing music, and almost no one anymore grew up with a relative who played folk music around the house. Most folks recognize the violin, but the mandolin, ukulele, and sometimes the banjo are completely foreign. I don’t consider these performances historical, but it does show people a time before MP3 files and YouTube.

I also play music from a specific time period for special educational events such as Farm Heritage Day, held every other year at the John Johnston House. The goal is to get people to think about music of 150 years ago. If you wanted music, someone had to play it; if you wanted it louder, more people needed to sing. Even without radio or television, there were national “hits” like songs by Stephen Foster; it was spread by sheet music and word of mouth.

Some fiddle tunes I know, like Turkey in the Straw, date back to the early 1800s and are appropriate. Jim Kimball, a musicologist at SUNY Geneseo, published a tunebook of his research into NYS dance tunes. His time period is the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but again many of these tunes were around earlier. I’m fortunate to know Katie Boardman, an independent musician and researcher who formerly worked at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown. She has researched  and shared tunes that were played in the first half of the 1800s, as well as songs done by community “singing schools”.

My current project is coming up with temperance songs for a fundraising party at Rose Hill. (A temperance party with beer and wine? While “teetotalers” abstained from all alcohol, many temperance people felt beer and wine were acceptable but hard liquor was the real enemy.) A national resource for period music is the Library of Congress American Memory Collection at I have found sheet music for 1870s classics such as “The Poor Drunkard’s Child” and “The Lips that Touch Liquor, Shall Never Touch Mine” as well as temperance lyrics set to well-known tunes.

I feel lucky to combine my interest with work. I don’t think there’s much call for fiddle tunes in real estate, insurance claims, or podiatry


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