NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XXV, No. 1, March 1969
A SCHOHARIE COUNTY SONGSTER
W. K. McNeil
IN THEIR search for songs of the nineteenth century American
music historians have traditionally relied upon sheet
music, song-books, and published collections of the period.
Few have bothered to see what other sources exist. This is
unfortunate for there are many available unpublished documents
of that century's popular songs. Included among these are such
unsuspected items as valentines and autograph albums. Then there
are the manuscript songsters which were kept by many people as
their very own repository of musical favorites. An example of the
latter is the small book kept by Ida Finkell during the years
The subject of songs contained in books such as Ida Finkell’s
has never been properly explored. This neglect is evidenced by
the statement of the late Harold W. Thompson, whose book
A Pioneer Songster was in itself a pioneer study, that he had
never seen a manuscript songster from the period 1880–1900.
Yet only through the examination of these albums and similar
sources, can we be certain what songs were best liked by the
ubiquitous unfamous people. Perhaps, after this future study, it
can then be ascertained what songs were really popular.
The discovery of Miss Finkell’s songster was accidental. One
day while doing some research in the manuscript room of the
New York State Historical Association’s library I came across
what first appeared to be an autograph album. Closer inspection,
however, revealed it to be a handwritten collection of songs.
Immediately I searched the book to see if it contained any information
about its original owner. I soon found that the songster
was kept by Ida A. Finkell, a resident of Argusville, Schoharie County, from 1879 to 1883. By searching through the donor files of the Historical Association I found that a daughter of
Miss Finkell is presently living in Chatham, New York. My next
step then was to write her for information about her mother.
Her prompt reply made the next paragraph possible.
Ida Adelaide Finkell was born on March 15, 1863 in Brunswick,
New York, the tenth of eleven children of Joseph Jeremiah
and Mary Elizabeth Colehamer Finkell. Sometime during 1864
or 1865 the family moved to a farm near Argusville, a small
town in Schoharie County. This was Ida’s first and last move.
In 1884, at the age of 21, she married her neighborhood sweetheart,
Wellington Shafer. Mrs. Shafer lived on almost to the
middle of the present century. When she died on April 20, 1942,
at the age of seventy-nine, she was buried in Schoharie County’s
Slate Hill Cemetery.
The first entry in the “ballad book” was made when Ida
Finkell was only fifteen while the last came when she was twenty.
The songs she found worthy of inclusion fit none too neatly into
four broad categories. There are the Civil War remainders, tales
of murder and tragedy, temperance songs, most of which are
parodies of popular songs, and the ultra-lachrymose sentimental
ballads which seem to have always been with us. The difficulty
of categorizing such material is demonstrated by the fact that
all but a few of the songs are marked by great sentimentality.
Many of the songs in the collection have long been in oral
tradition and it is pretty certain that the versions given here are
ones learned orally. Each song is supplied with a title but it is
often different from that given in printed copies of the same
song. Then the spelling, the lack of punctuation, and the variations
in wording between most of these songs and published
versions all preclude the use of printed sources...
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