I love researching family history, just like my mother before me. My mother left a wealth of material that I have used, including diaries written from 1935 to 1944, many labeled photos, many journals including one written by her mother in a bank passbook that detailed the family’s trip from Oklahoma to California in 1931, high school yearbooks that led to the discovery of two of her high school classmates with Fresno connections, and her book, “Climbing Our Family Tree,” published in 1988.
In 2006, with my mother’s permission, I published her 1935-1939 diary, adding many of her photos, and dedicated it to my twin sister for her 60th birthday. In 2011, it was my grandfather’s violin that triggered my passion.
My grandfather Harry Lackey played fiddle tunes in the early 20th century. My mother notes in her book that his favorite piece seemed to be “Over the Waves” and that his most lively tune was “Turkey in the Straw.” My grandmother liked to sing along with “Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet” and “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” My mother also notes: “He owned two violins, each in its own case, and whenever we moved, the violins were taken with us.” Those violins were important enough to include in a car packed with a family of seven and all their worldly possessions in the Lackey family’s 1931 move from Oklahoma to California.
Three years after arriving in California, my grandfather died unexpectedly on May 21, 1934, at the age of 47, leaving his wife and five children with no breadwinner during the Great Depression. I learned from my mother’s diaries that the family became reliant on New Deal programs, particularly the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Newly widowed, Nellie Lackey, along with the three oldest children, worked any menial jobs they could find, often in fields or orchards. They were at the mercy of landlords and government programs, and were forced to move often. The violins were kept in the family, even though no one played them.
In 1989, my mother decided that my daughter and her granddaughter, Lisa, the only descendant who played the violin, should own one of Harry’s violins. They traveled to my uncle’s home in San Dimas, where Lisa selected one. Fifty-five years after the death of her great-grandfather, Lisa was holding his fiddle in her hands.
A wonderful surprise awaited her inside the tattered violin case: a list of his songs, written in Harry’s own handwriting, on a scrap of paper. The tunes that my mother named in her family history book were there, along with many more.
In 2011, I was inspired to pick up the violin after playing briefly as a child and learned to play it fiddle-style so that I could enjoy some of Harry’s songs myself. Rediscovering my grandfather’s list of songs also launched me into a fascinating journey of finding all of the songs and producing “Harry’s Songbook.”
There were many challenges along the way. No song was found named “Sweet Evelana” but changing the “a” to an “i” produced “Sweet Evelina,” a beautiful waltz from 1863. “Chase That Pretty Girl Around the World” turned out to be a line from “Fare Thee Well.” “Golden Wedding” was better known by its original French name of “La Cinquantaine.” Late in the search with eight tunes remaining, five were found by contacting the Dalhart (Texas) Public Library, a city in which my grandfather learned many of his tunes.
I created a CD to go with the songbook. My daughter plays “The Irish Washerwoman” on her grandfather’s heirloom fiddle. I play “Red Wing” and Linda Guerrero plays the remaining songs. My 90-year-old singer, Bernadette Siegel, sang these songs throughout her life and is still pitch perfect. She adds authenticity to the 26 songs she recorded.
The journey of Harry’s violin and the music he played continues with the preservation of his songs in the songbook and on the CD and every time I pick up my violin to play.
Denise Sciandra is president of the Fresno Folklore Society. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
What: “Harry’s Songbook” launch celebration and sing-along
When: Dec. 5, noon
Where: Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave., between Willow and Chestnut