Sunday, October 26, 2008


You all know about genealogy, my hobby and my passion.

I began researching my family tree in 1984, and like most people I concentrated first on my own surname - Dobbins. I worked solidly on it for a year on it. By that time, not knowing any better, I figured out I had found about as much as I could.

There were lots of little loose ends, though, and one of them was a "Missouri Harmony" that appeared on a probate inventory list of my great-grandfather's brother, Robert Gaston Dobbins, who died at age 21. I wondered what a Missouri Harmony was and I looked in every dictionary I could think of, even the huge, all-inclusive Oxford English Dictionary. But having never found a thing, I assumed the word "harmony" must simply be a regional variation of "Harmonica" and I let it go at that. That was about 19 years ago.

Some time back after a hard day doing research for other people at the local library, I came home and asked the computer if it had anything for me to "make my day." I nosed around all the genealogy websites for about a half-hour, getting absolutely nowhere, and decided before I logged off I'd give Google a try. I entered a few phrases with no successful hits, and finally out of the recesses of my mind and into my fingertips flew "Missouri Harmony." Unbelievably, I got more hits than I knew what to do with, and it was here I found out everything I wanted to know!

The Missouri Harmony was the most popular of all frontier tunebooks, with a history going back to 1820, when singing master Allen Carden introduced it into his St. Louis school. The 185 selections in The Missouri Harmony, compiled from earlier tunebooks, were old favorites used in churches and singing schools which sometimes convened in taverns. Abraham Lincoln and his sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, are said to have sung from The Missouri Harmony at her father's tavern in New Salem, Illinois. These tunebooks and others like them, used in the frontier singing schools, taught average Americans to read music. The Missouri Harmony, continuing the European tradition of shaped notes, contained the largest collection of compositions for congregations and choirs.

It was a "Eureka!" moment for me, especially since in an old Dobbins family paper it mentions that John Calvin Dobbins and Robert Newton Dobbins, uncles of young Robert Gaston, held singing schools in Fulton County, Illinois in the 1850's and 1860's. At Robert's death in 1851 the inventory showed he had his own shape-note book, a Missouri Harmony!

As if that wasn't enough, Google gave me another link, which was to the University of Nebraska Press. There, it listed a sale on the last of their Missouri Harmony books, reprints of the original. Selling price was a mere ninety-nine cents! Did I buy it? You bet!

I was familiar with the U of Nebraska Press because it had reproduced another book, Midnight and Noonday, which was ghost-written by my great-grandmother Louise Ryland and featuring many stories of her husband, James A. Ryland, who went early into Caldwell, Kansas. One of the original books remained in our family at least through the 1950s but has since disappeared. At least I have a reprint done by U of Nebraska Press.

All of you who are genealogists, or just interested in history, might want to spend some time with the University of Nebraska Press websites, as they have a wide variety of books on Western development. In fact, you may look at the catalog of other University Presses. Who knows, you may just find a Eureka moment too!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bobby Gail -

You may be interested in knowing that the St. Louis Shape Note Singers, in conjunction with the Missouri Historical Society, have reissued the Missouri Harmony, as a hard bound book. This 2005 edition corrects numerous errors in the previous edition and adds a number of "old" and "new" shape note songs not otherwise currently available. Missouri Harmony 2005 was set using modern computer techniques and is thus far more readable than the 1993 facsimile reprint of the 1846 edition. More information about the St. Louis Shape Note Singers and about Missouri Harmony 2005 is available at