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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 1, March 1969

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Vol. XXV, No. 1, March 1969

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 This is unfortunate for there are many available unpublished documents of that century's popular songs.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 1879–1883.

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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