Reaching Into Music History

Singing at bed time is a ritual in our house.  Our kids have been scarred by my renditions of a variety of folk songs, sea shanties, military ditties and other songs their peers have almost certainly never had to sit through! One of the great pleasures I have is coming across a digital repository of music that allows me to try something new.

Folk Music

The evening song book is a binder that I have created over the years with songs from sites like the Mudcat traditional music site.  Actually, my first stop was a mirror site that made it easy to search and browse music.  The music has been contributed with all sorts of extra metadata about who sang it or its appearance in a particular film or slight variations in verses.  One of my favorites was this note appended to a version of The Golden Vanity (good song about the sinking of a Turkish ship off the Low Country) that pokes fun at the safety concerns of Canadians:

From Folksongs from Southern New Brunswick, Creighton Collected from Angelo Dorman (between 1954 and 1960). Note: This has got to be the only version of this song that plugs life jackets. It’s also typical of the Canada penchant for providing tidy retribution in ballads.

The Library of Congress’ American Memory site has an incredible digital library of public domain song sheets.  Not only it is (personally) fascinating to see the tunes and music that were printed during the American Civil War and other important periods, but it’s fun to find songs that are referenced but not song.  For example, we loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the stories of Pa playing fiddle tunes.  You can find the music to sing Blue Juniata among others.


Shows like The Sing Off have done a great job of introducing people to a cappella music who may not have had the opportunity to see it before.  One of my favorite styles is barbershop.  The Jack Baird Music Library , hosted by the Barbershop Harmony Society, is a great collection of MP3 music files of historic barbershop performances.   As someone who grew up in Ann Arbor listening to the U of M Glee Club and the Friars, it was fun to hear old versions of Ann Arbor Days and the Yellow and the Blue.

 Classical Music

Booklist’s Point of Reference blog recently highlighted an interesting project started by a student to digitize old classical music scores.  The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) has scanned versions of thousands of public domain music scores and recorded performances in the Petrucci Music Library.

Some of my favorite composers composed, not unsurprisingly, using folk songs collected in the British Isles:  Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so on.  A resource I came across recently is the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  It was fun to access the Take 6 archive and see the handwritten notes of songs collected by people like the composer George Butterworth.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.