Sunday, December 15, 2019

Writing Ed's Musical Family History

Page 2 of illustrations to accompany "Music in the Life of Edgar James Wood"
In the previous episode of "obsessed family historian," I said I was going to write a brief biographical booklet introducing the sheet music fake book created by my late father-in-law, Edgar James Wood (1903-1986).

Brief? Good grief. My original estimate was a couple of pages. Once I got going, I found more and more to say and show.

To create a narrative about Ed's musical life, as an intro to the fake book being given to his grandchildren this holiday season, here's what I did, step by step.

Start with the Research

What do I know about Ed and his piano-playing? I have a great deal of info on his life. Some of the sources I consulted included:

  • My paper files on Ed (including his copyright documents, passports, etc.)
  • My trees on Ancestry and MyHeritage (to check what happened when and locate passenger lists and other documents) 
  • A new Google search for his songs, which turned up published copyright notices like the one above!
  • My digitized photos of Ed's life (ranging from his Roaring Twenties period to the year before he died)
  • My archival boxes, which held treasures such as Ed's photo album from his 1926 European tour with the Dick Bowers Band and Ed's album of negatives (with captions!!) from his 1928 European tour, again crossing the Atlantic on Cunard's R.M.S. Berengaria.
  • Interviews with Ed conducted by my husband in the mid-1980s and later transcribed (easy to search for key words).
I typed out a few notes from these sources, showed them to my husband to get his recollections and any corrections. Then I arranged my notes in rough chronological order.

Create a Time Line

Next, before I began to write, I put together a simple two-column table of years on the left and events on the right. This timeline kept me on track and forced me to expand my research and add notes when I had little or nothing for a particular period.

Also, the time line revealed a conflict between what Ed remembered when interviewed in 1984/5 and what Ed's passenger lists revealed from my research. How did I resolve this conflict? I opened one of the archival boxes where I store Ed's photo albums. There, in his own handwriting, were captions dated 1926 for the trip I was referencing. It's not surprising that Ed was a year off when trying to recall events from nearly 60 years earlier, is it?

Write and Insert Subheads

I wanted to tell Ed's musical story chronologically, a sneaky way of spoon-feeding some of his family's history. But too much text can be daunting. To break up the pages, I inserted subheads that guide the reader through each stage of the story--and lead to the eventual reason for this musical bio, Ed's fake book:

  • Playing [piano] at home and at school
  • Playing at college
  • Playing all summer
  • Playing after college
  • Playing for Gershwin
  • Playing for his wife and his family
  • Playing from the fake book
Include Lots of Illustrations

Younger relatives, in particular, always enjoy illustrations. I had some they'd never seen! I scanned Ed's photo albums from the 1920s to show him with the band on the Lido in Venice, in Paris, on board the S.S. Rotterdam and the R.M.S. Berengaria.

I also included his passport, some news clippings about his musical exploits, and copyright publications. I arranged the illustrations with captions as shown in the sample page at top. Page one is a title page with a large, full-color photo of Ed playing piano for family caroling on Christmas, 1985. These pages all include a touch of color, and I'll have them color-laser-printed at the local copy shop, to catch the eye of younger descendants.

Present in an Easy-to-Keep Format

All pages (bio and sheet music) will be three-hole punched and inserted into a small loose-leaf binder, ready to be saved for posterity. Of course I'll use my trusty label-maker to add the title "The Musical Life of Edgar James Wood" on the front and "Ed Wood's Fake Book" on the spine. The binder is easy to flip through and easy to store on a bookshelf.

In all, the brief booklet I envisioned as a couple of pages turned out to be eleven pages: four pages of text, two pages of time line, and five pages of illustrations. But because I did this little by little over the course of a couple of weeks, it was fairly easy and very satisfying.

I can't wait for the family to open their fake books this holiday season and peek into their ancestor's musical life!

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