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Musical roots: creating a guide to family history resources in the Musicians’ Union Archive

During the summer of 2017 Henry Carden, a postgraduate Communications, Media & Culture student, carried out a research placement in the University Archives funded by the Musicians’ Union. Here he writes about his work opening up the family history resources contained within the Musicians’ Union Archive.

Marbled edges of MU membership registers (Musicians’ Union Archive)

For the past 8 weeks, I’ve been hiding away in the Musicians’ Union archives putting together a guide to family history resources as part of a graduate trainee programme entitled ‘Musical Roots’. The guide aims to provide an overview of the resources available within the Musicians’ Union archive which may be of interest to people researching their musical ancestors.

As a young-at-heart mature student, I certainly had mixed emotions at discovering that I myself have been archived:

In spite of my ‘illustrious’ musical career, my details in an old branch membership guide were the only mention. So, if my great, great, great grandson is reading this, unfortunately you’ll have to look elsewhere to locate information about my short-lived mid-2000s indie-rock career

As part of the Musical Roots project, I created a database of over 500 obituaries spanning over a hundred years, from the early days of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union right up to the relatively recent past. It’s worth noting that quite often, tributes and reports weren’t actually described as obituaries, but they featured the kind of information which you would expect to find in an obituary. It’s also worth mentioning that the inclusion of updates about members (both in life and death) was at the beck and call of Branch Secretaries as this article from The Musicians’ Journal demonstrates:

Furthermore, I also included some retirement tributes in the database as they presented a lot of similar information to obituaries. Unfortunately, not all deceased members of the Union received obituaries (understandable given the sheer volume of members) and more often than not, obituaries were reserved for “good union men” who had played active roles in the organisation – and also for more famous members such as John Lennon.

 In addition to the obituaries document, I also created databases of photographs and membership cards which are available to consult in the University Archives. The membership cards database doesn’t include the Edinburgh and Glasgow branches as they were too numerous to document, although highlights there included a few familiar names such as Shirley Manson, Gerry Rafferty and Edwyn Collins.

Glasgow Branch membership cards (Musicians’ Union Archive)

The Musicians’ Union Archive contains a huge amount of historical information on its members and this material is of great interest to people researching their family history.

Whilst some people might have a romantic notion of discovering personal information about one of their musical ancestors, it should be noted that a lot of the resources contained are predominantly administrative. That said, if your relative was an active member of the Union or held an official role, such as Branch Secretary or member of the Executive Committee, for example, then that increases the likelihood of finding more personal information.

Unfortunately, for most members, the only things you’re likely to discover are membership numbers, addresses, the instrument they played and in some cases, their reason for leaving the Union – most likely for falling into arrears with their subscriptions. But don’t let that put you off! You never know what you might discover.

A detailed guide to the family history resources contained in the Musicians’ Union Archive is available here.

 

Musicians Union – what did the branches do?

The vast majority of the Musicians Union collection has now been catalogued and added to our online catalogue. The collection includes material from Central and District offices and also material from over 65 branches of the Musicians Union spread across the whole of the United Kingdom from Aberdeen in the north, to Bournemouth in the south. As you might expect the records tell us much about the administration of the MU, its structure and operation. The campaigns around the use of recorded music, promoting live music as well as defending the terms and conditions of working musicians and supporting them in times of hardship are well documented throughout the branch records.

Minutes from Liverpool branch meeting
Minutes for Liverpool branch meeting 

For some branches we have a large number and a wide range of records. For example for Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool we have records that reflect the size of the union in terms of individual members in those areas and the range of employment opportunities for musicians.

The minutes of committee meetings and correspondence record the concerns of the Union, for example in protecting terms and conditions of employment for musicians employed in local orchestras and in local theatres.  Liverpool minutes  MU/4/5/1/5

We have membership records that provide not only evidence of the size of the branches in terms of recorded members but also provide information which may be of interest to family historians. Membership registers include names, address, date of joining the union, instruments played and if the person had transferred from another branch or moved to another branch.  The membership records cover more than a century of MU membership from 1893 onwards.

MU Membership Register

Blackpool branch membership register

It is perhaps not surprising that the MU branches in these large cities produce many records; however some small towns also had very active branches. For example we have records from the Blackpool branch which reflect its history as a popular seaside resort with several theatres and attractions including the Tower Ballroom. The minutes of the Blackpool branch meetings and correspondence record negotiations with the Blackpool Tower Company over the terms and conditions of musicians. MU4/15/3/1

Use of recorded music at the Opera House, Blackpool.

Use of recorded music at the Opera House, Blackpool.

The impact of historical events is also present in branch records for example the Blackburn branch was involved in negotiations with the local council for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and the use of recorded music. MU/4/11/3/1

Letter from Blackburn branch correspondence file.

The BBC looms large in many branches especially in those branches where members are employed in the BBC orchestras. Much of the correspondence of the Glasgow branch covers negotiations with the BBC over cuts to orchestras and the resulting strikes during the 1980’s.

MU P010

MU Confr026

Photographs taken during the 1980 BBC strike.

 The strike in Bournemouth in 1950 is well documented in a Strike Day by Day Scrap book MU4/18/5/1

Day by Day scrap book of the Bournemouth strike

Day by Day scrap book of the Bournemouth strike

 

The Grierson Factor

The John Grierson Archive has been held at the University Archives since the early 1970s and continues to be one of our most popular collections. This reflects Grierson’s importance in cinema history, often being described as ‘the father of documentary film.’

A bust of John Grierson by the sculptor Kenny Munro at Stirling Train Station.

A bust of John Grierson by the sculptor Kenny Munro  at Stirling Train Station.

There seems to be a renewed interest in Grierson in the ether at the moment. His bust now stands proudly in Stirling Train Station, placed there as part of the great efforts of the Stirling Rotary Club to improve the building. The choice of the station is apt as one of Grierson’s best known films is Nightmail, the 1936 documentary tracing the journey of the post train from London to Scotland made by the GPO Film Unit. The film has also recently been the inspiration for a new track by Public Service Broadcasting, a musical project inspired by old public information films:

Nightmail – Public Service Broadcasting

Another musical response to Grierson’s work was recently created by the band Field Music who composed a new live score to accompany Drifters, Grierson’s 1929 documentary about North Sea fishermen. The band premiered this new soundtrack at the Berwick Film Festival and plan further performances in the coming months.

Drifters

Scene from Drifters, 1929.

Drifters was originally a silent film, but Grierson was aware of the potential of music to heighten the dramatic intensity of the heroic struggles of the fishermen he recorded. He laid out very clear instructions for his suggested musical accompaniment to the film, choosing pieces of stirring classical music such as Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave to accompany the action.

2012 End-of-year review: Top of the Charts

As we head towards xmas it’s time to collect and collate the statistics for the use of our collections in 2012 to create our end of year chart. We’ve combined the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room and have a new No. 1 this year, knocking the ever-popular John Grierson Archive into the No. 2 spot.

In 2012 our most used collection was the Musicians’ Union Archive. The collection provides a comprehensive record of the work of the union and its responses to the various challenges (both political and technological) which have faced musicians over the last 130 years. There are a number of factors that contributed to the collection’s popularity in 2012:

  • The increased accessibility of the collection due to cataloguing, making previously unaccessible material available to researchers
  • The heavy use of the collection by an AHRC-funded project based at the University of Glasgow which is researching the history of the Musicians’ Union
  • The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic which led to many enquiries from the media and researchers relating to the musicians on board the ship

The collection also received many genealogical enquiries from people tracing the careers of family members, the membership records providing a wealth of useful information, and a range of enquiries from researchers investigating various aspects of political, social and musical history.

MU Archive

Material from the Musicians’ Union Archive

Cataloguing of the Musicians’ Union Archive will continue in 2013 as the records of the local branches located across the UK are added to the catalogue, providing a comprehensive record of union activity from Aberdeen to Exeter.

Further down the chart our Lindsay Anderson Archive made the top 3 for the second year running, the final fruits of the work of our ARHC research project being published in November. It was also encouraging to see the university’s own institutional records being well used (at No. 4) and featured in an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the macrobert in September and on television in a report on the Howietoun Fishery on BBC 2 Scotland’s Landward in November.

The statistics for our flickr pages highlight the success of our Going Wild In the Archives exhibition which took place across the campus in the spring of 2012. The top 10 most-viewed flickr images all hail from the natural history collections which were photographed for the exhibition and include beautiful Victorian illustrations of birds of paradise, sea anemones, butterflies and Himalayan plants. With plans in place to open-up some interesting new accessions to researchers in the new year we’re looking forward to a busy and stimulating 2013!

Our most-viewed image on flickr: ‘Resplendent Trogon and Ceylonese Sun Bird’, from Beautiful Birds in Far-off Lands, Kirby, M. (London, 1873).

Musical Toons

The Musicians Union Archive includes a full set of the various journals, reports and bulletins produced by the union over the years for its members. These publications provided information relating to union activity and reported on the major issues affecting musicians. From 1921 – 1931 the union produced the Musicians Journal. This publication is notable for the cartoons which featured in many of its issues, these images both entertaining the journal’s readers and illustrating many of the threats to the livelihoods of musicians in the period.

Cartoon from the October 1925 issue of the Musicians Journal

The first cartoons, which begin to appear in 1923, reflect the working conditions of many of the union’s members with amusing scenes depicting such common complaints as overcrowding in orchestra pits. The benefits of union membership begin to be stressed in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926 with a number of cartoons illustrating the valuable role played by the union and urging members to renew their (increased) subscriptions.

Towards the end of the decade technological advances in film and sound presented a major threat to musicians employed in cinemas and the Journal includes a series of cartoons which reflect the concerns felt by its members by these new developments. A number of these cartoons also illustrate the views expressed in a number of journal articles that the ‘talkies’ were a passing fad. Facing the new decade of the 1930s the fears of an uncertain technological future were summed up in the Journal in this striking image from the January 1930 issue…

Cartoon from January 1930 issue of the Musicians Journal