Homemade Jam: Preserving Your Family’s Musical Heritage


Photo courtesy of Cindy Higby via Flickr.

This post has its roots in an audio file posted by my Facebook friend Alia. She recently shared a recording her family made of her playing her violin with her grandmother Marian playing piano, produced about 10 years ago. They are playing a song that Marian wrote; Alia is improvising her part around the melody.

Listen to Marian’s Song on Your Listen

Alia’s post reminded me of the songs that my partner and I recorded together for our Vows of Oneness commitment ceremony. We recorded the songs because we thought we’d be too emotional to sing at the event. The DVD we produced was a big hit at the ceremony – and we were able to enjoy it along with our audience! We still get it out to watch close to our anniversary each year.

My partner and I grew up in musical families. We both experienced first-hand the benefits of making music as small children. Alia’s recent post brought the sounds of my childhood back to me … Singing as a family around the piano (which I remembered happening EVERY NIGHT as a toddler; my much-older sisters assure me this was not the case) … Listening to my Grandma Massey sing “O Holy Night” while accompanying herself on electric organ … Holding musical jam sessions with my friends as a teen and young adult … All the way up to my music-making sessions with my partner.

Music is a huge part of personal and family history. Whether we play, sing, or listen appreciatively, it is inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives. Leaving out the soundtrack of your life is as significant an omission as forgetting to mention what you wore, or where you lived.

Collectively, the soundtrack of an entire community – especially in generations past – became an integral part of its cultural legacy. Musicologist Alan Lomax spent most of his career recording the folk music of the world, building on he work of his father, John, who traveled across America in the 1930s and 1940s collecting the music of the South and the Southwest.

Don’t feel that your family’s musical moments are unworthy of documenting because no one among you is a professional musician. Your descendants will be able to gain so much from your legacy – better understanding what songs you loved, how you collaborated together as you made the music, how you celebrated your big and small life events, and how the power of music united your clan.

What will future generations know about your love of music? (Photo courtesy of Andrew Malone via Flickr.)

What will future generations know about your love of music? (Photo courtesy of Andrew Malone via Flickr.)

How to preserve your family’s musical legacy

Get in the habit of recording family jam sessions. My father used the term “woodshedding” when he was referring to getting together with an instrumental or vocal group he was playing with to informally rehearse. That term provides the sort of relaxed and close to nature idea of just documenting life as you live it – not because this is a special performance, but because it’s fun and educational to record audio or video of loved ones making music together. The result doesn’t have to sound perfect or polished – even very rough sessions can be intriguing for others down the road. And these days recording is a snap with smartphones. Turn the phone app for recording audio or video on, get it close enough to record but not so close that the audio “clips” from being recorded at too high a level, and you’re set!

Create private video or audio albums to share with your family. Soundcloud, YouTube, Your Listen and other platforms have options for only sharing your output with people you select. This is a great way to share private holiday musical extravaganzas with relatives in far-flung states or collaborate on musical works-in-progress.

Remember that family music makes a priceless gift. My dream DVD gift to receive would include community opera performances by my sister, compositions arranged by my father and performed by his church’s choir, my mom singing “Do You Know The Muffin Man” to me when I was little, super 8 movies of my family singing around the piano, and a video of my grandmother singing at the Hammond B-3 organ. Not all of these items actually exist, but oh, if they did … I would be in heaven!

Don’t be bashful about considering this option as your gift to the family for a special occasion – it will be very much appreciated; if not now, then in the future.

Learn how to preserve your family’s sheet music. No matter what instrument or vocal part your family members played/sang, a collection of sheet music is an amazing record of the tunes that they loved and aspired to master. This blog post has some ideas for getting started with storing and organizing it.

If your family has significant audio recordings that you don’t know what to do with, consider donating them to an archive. Not everyone wants to be responsible for recordings that are in obsolete or hard-to-access formats, or for organizing collections of recordings for generations that are long past. But don’t throw out or leave behind these treasures; find them a good home at a museum, archive or library, which often is glad to get a collection of materials that relates to whatever their archival mission is. You never know what will happen to it! For example, the Wall family from New Southgate in London made some of the earliest known home recordings on wax cylinders between 1902 and 1917, and because someone had the foresight to donate them to the Museum of London, we can all now enjoy what may be the earliest existing recordings of a family Christmas celebration.

Remember that EVERYONE has a musical legacy. Almost every hearing individual has an opinion about music and a favorite type of music. If you’re doing a family storycatching project, you can ask your narrator – whether he or she is a musician or not – some of the following questions to capture the significance of music in their lives:

  • What is the first song you remember singing or hearing?
  • What type of music did your family listen to? Did you like this type of music or did you choose other things to listen to as you grew up?
  • What types of music were popular in your community? What’s an example of a song that everyone in your town/community would have known when you were a kid?


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