Sunday, December 28, 2008


I started researching my family ancestry in 1984. At that time my dad, at the age of 76, was a new widower, so I spent a great deal of time with him, much of which was in finding out about his early life, his parents and so on. He spent a lot of time telling me about his depression era jobs as a door-to-door salesman for Wearever Aluminum, selling tap dancing lessons, registering voters (for 5 cents a name) and representing American Alabaster Company of Colorado in Southern California and Arizona. By 1940 he was working for Montgomery Wards, from then on he was a salesman, a "promoter" and finally owner of a large appliance sales and repair shop. There came a time when I thought I pretty much knew everything about him.

I spent a lot of time researching in the Los Angeles Public Library. One day while I was waiting for my friend to wrap up her research, I had to kill a little time, so I decided to see if I could find a city directory for Long Beach and an entry in the late 1930s that might show my Dobbins family. I really was looking to see if I was in it, as I was born in 1935 and sometimes those directories list the children. The first city directory I grabbed was for 1936 and sure enough, I found a listing for Scott W. Dobbins on Dairy Avenue, where they lived when I was born. Here's the entry:

So you can imagine my surprise when in 1936, the year after my birth, my father was listed in this city directory as a musician. I was dumbfounded and had no way to account for this entry. Surely my dad would have told me if he had been a musician.

I photocopied the page and the next time I drove in for a visit to my dad I took it. Pointing at the word “musician,” I asked him what on earth that meant.

His face lit up. “I played the banjo!” he offered. And with my mouth hanging open in surprise, I listened to him tell about growing up on the dry lands of eastern Colorado, where Sunday fun in the winters was getting together with neighbors and making music. My dad was 8 when his father died, and a kind neighbor fellow sat my little dad down beside him at these music fests and over those tough first few months taught him to play the banjo.

Dad also said he played the banjo in a WPA “B” band during the Great Depression. These “B” bands were comprised of non-professional but talented musicians and played on weekends at local dances. Musicians were paid $5 each time the band played, and frankly that was about all the money that was coming in to our family during those depression years.

As he was talking, a memory came back to me of the Christmas that my mother gave my dad a banjo as a gift. It must have been after I had been married and out of the house, because I do not recall being there on the Christmas morning when he received it. I also have no recollection whether or not he played it, or what ever happened to it. You know, when you are young and involved with starting a new family you don't pay much attention to the details of things your folks do. As far as genealogy goes, who would ever have thought to look themselves up in a city directory and find such a piece of information that opened up a whole new vista of their parents' lives.

And it was in listening to his story that I finally realize the musical heritage that the Dobbinses left. Dad played the banjo, his father played the cornet, his one Dobbins uncle the trombone and other the clarinet. He had great-uncles who lead singing schools back on the Illinois farm land. My folks insisted that my sister and I had violin lessons, and I continued with piano, guitar and ukelele. My son and grandson are horn players and a granddaughter a flute player. So the musical heritage is still being made. I might not seen that connection if I hadn't stumbled across that little entry in the Long Beach City Directory of 1936.

I have to admit that surprises like this are what keep us researchers going. We never know when we are going to turn up something new, a real serendipitous find, like a banjo playing father.

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