Singing a different tune

“The Attic”

The Legal Genealogist is used to reader questions — the queue is always backed up with interesting and intriguing legal inquiries from genealogists who wish they’d gone to law school given the issues that keep coming up in the documents we rely on.

music-notesBut the one that came in just recently was a little different.

And intriguing.

Reader Bill Williams, who always signs off as “Just a Family Genealogist,” asked for something altogether different when he wrote: “I rarely make requests of very distant friends, but would you mind going to iTunes and look a song by Dan Berggren (Album “Tongues in Trees”) and listen to the song “The Attic”. It is great and it could be a genealogists’ theme song.”

I did, and Bill’s right. “The Attic” would make a great genealogists’ theme song. So much so that I imposed on the singer-songwriter for permission to reprint the lyrics here. In giving permission, Dan added: “It may be the nature of folk music, my mother’s stories, or that I’ve been involved with my hometown historical society (Minerva, NY) for a long time, but I love and respect the work of genealogists.”

“The Attic”

by Dan Berggren, album: Tongues in Trees

Wouldn’t Grandma laugh
Wouldn’t Grandpa shake his head
And make a face
And wonder: what kind of fool
Wouldn’t recognize a tool like this

It was up there with the ghosts,
A reminder of the folks who used to live here
At the top of the stair
Hidden away up there in the attic

The attic’s full of memories
That’s where they go to rest
Until someone searches through them
And rescues from the best
Their former glory, and tells a story from
The attic.

Documents of life
Telling tales of the way things used to be
Essential in the shanty
Or in the kitchen pantry, but no more

From the workbench in the barn
And every room in the house you can imagine
If you look past the rust
Under cobwebs and dust is buried treasure

Pieces of time
Well-preserved or victims of neglect
Secrets from the past
Revealed at last with respect

They were up there with the ghosts,
Reminders of the folks who used to live here
At the top of the stair
Hidden away up there in the attic

The attic’s full of stories,
That’s where they go to dwell
Some are lost or forgotten
But there are many more to tell from
The attic, from the attic, from the attic

Other nominees?

As I read the lyrics and listened to the song, I realized that singer-songwriters like Dan Berggren have always told genealogical stories in their music — and that I’ve been a fan my whole life.

And I also realized that there are a couple of other songs I’ve always thought of as kind of genealogical anthems. One is “Forefathers” by the late Dan Fogelberg, which includes this wonderful refrain:

And the sons become the fathers and their daughters will be wives
As the torch is passed from hand to hand
And we struggle through our lives
Though the generations wander, the lineage survives
And all of us, from dust to dust
We all become forefathers by and by

Another is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Family Hands,” with this refrain:

Raised by the women who are stronger than you know
A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth
By your mother…and her mother, the weavers of your cloth

So… what’s in your musical attic? I’ve added Dan Berggren to my listening list. What else should I as a genealogist be listening to?

Print Friendly
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Singing a different tune

  1. Heather Choplin says:

    I’ve always liked “Guardian Angels”, performed by The Judds and written by Naomi Judd, John Barlow Jarvis and Don Schlitz.
    The first lines are:
    A hundred year old photograph
    Stares out from a frame
    And if you look real close you’ll see
    Our eyes are just the same.
    The rest of the lyrics describe the Judds’ ancestors, Elijah and Fannie, and their simple, loving life together. Wynonna sings about finding encouragement from her “guardian angels” as she goes through difficult times.

  2. Mindi Stevens says:

    These Are the Women We Come From by Bonnie Keen and Tori Taff

    They are faces in photographs, heads all held high
    Not afraid to look life in the eye
    They were women with backbone, keepers of the flame
    With a spirit even hard times couldn’t tame
    And I know that this same blood is in me

    [truncated by The Legal Genealogist - remember copyright!!]

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’m listening to it right now — wow. (And sorry about having to keep it short but we all have to remember copyright!)

  3. Joy King says:

    What are the chances of getting an email from a new atDNA match named Christer Berggen, living in Sweden, and the next day seeing the surname on the Legal Genealogist?

    I’ll be sending him a link to this site as well as Dan Berggren’s. This is not a surname that’s presently known in my ancestry, but I sure hope to find the genealogical connection!

    Joy (Wright) King

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh I love those little genealogical serendipities! Hope you find your connection (and oh wouldn’t it be funny if you and Dan and Christer…?)…

  4. Linda J Barnes says:

    AS USUAL another great article, Judy! May I add my 2 cents to this list~~

    Brad Paisely’s “When I get where I’m going” –

    Tony and I heard him sing it in concert when he first released it. Well RELEASED was the word as we didn’t know the song but had just had experienced a series of loved ones’ passings and this song really hit home ~~~ I cried all through that song and pretty much the rest of the concert!

    With all the research we are doing I often think and wonder how our “reunions” will be when we get where we’re goin’…. and hope and pray that my research will bring about a happy reunion!

    Stay warm in NJ,
    Linda xoxo

    PS Not posting any lyrics, I don’t want to mess with our Regal Legal Genie’s copyright ethics but here is a link to them if you’re interested: — Is that ok, Judy?? :o )

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Perfect (you can always post a link — it’s the complete copying that gets us into trouble), and I LOVE that video!! Sniveled a little myself with that last audio clip at the end.

      • Linda J Barnes says:

        Just had another good cry myself! I love to send it to new genies to help inspire them on their journeys — this song tells them what our mission is all about! <3

  5. Chad says:

    “I think I hear a Woodpecker Knocking at my Family Tree”. Sheet music and a link to this 1909 ditty here:

  6. Chad says:

    And then of course there is the song I am My Own Grandpa:'m_My_Own_Grandpa

  7. Eileen Souza says:

    Some excellent editions to my list. My favorite genealogy music has been “Song for our Ancestors” Steve Miller Band on the album “Sailor.” There are no lyrics but it always felt to me like it represented their journeys across the oceans to come to their new home.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Love it — and searching for that one on iTunes turned up a batch of others with the same or similar names that are all interesting!

  8. Mary B. Figgins says:

    I love these songs. I wonder how many of us still have family attics or basements to search. We don’t.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Some of us at least did at one time or another, Mary. Someday I’ll tell the story of my biggest find… a brother…

  9. Ian Hadden says:

    My personal favourite remains “The Family Tree” by Venice. The song is available on iTunes and Venice can be seen playing the song on YouTube at

  10. Melissa says:

    Loving all these. A funny one from Chris Young White Lightning Hit the Family Tree.

  11. Jade says:

    I’ve long appreciated Bill Withers’ poignant and loving “Grandma’s Hands.”

  12. John D. Tew says:

    Judy: At the risk of injecting sadness and tears into this wonderful post, I cannot avoid bringing one of the most plaintive and emotive songs I have ever heard. It is positively haunting once heard! The song is based on actual letters sent from a father in Mayo, Ireland to his son who left for America in the 1860s and never returned. Peter and Steven Jones are the composers. Peter used letters from his great great grandfather for the first four verses.

    I first heard the song on a wonderful album titled “The Winnowing” by a Scottish husband and wife duo (Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis) known as The Cast. [Folks might be familiar with their version of Auld Land Syne, which was used in the Sex in the City movie of a few years ago.] There are two excellent versions available for listening on You Tube. The first is by The Cast here and the second is here by Moloney, O’Connell & Keane — but I warn you and your readers to have a box of tissues nearby (especially if you decide to listen with headphones in the dark).


  13. John D. Tew says:

    Sorry! I see the URLs to the You Tube locations I included did not go through. Here they are again (I hope):

    The Cast version is here

    The Moloney, O’Connell & Keane version is here and another one (with lyrics) here

  14. Janis Martin says:

    There’s a song that reminds me not save all the “stuff” that accumulates at the end of a life. I don’t think that the lyrics are available online; the artist is Amy Rigby. Here’s a snippet of a verse & chorus from The Things You Leave Behind:

    “Now I got an attic
    And you’ve got a basement
    Put it together and what do we see
    A piece of you and a piece of me
    Moving on to antiquity

    Sooner or later we’re all gonna find
    That we’ve made it to the end of the line
    It gets heavier every mountain we climb
    It’s the things you leave behind”

  15. Cindy says:

    I nominate Wise Woman by Caroline Herring:

    Saving Me a Place by Robin and Linda Williams, from their album Deeper Waters. I can’t find a link to the song or lyrics.

  16. Cindy says:

    And I forgot:

    Immigrant Eyes. Here is Dolores Keane’s version:

    Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears (Irish Tenors)
    The song starts at 2:04

  17. I have to echo Linda J. Barnes’ nomination of Brad Paisley, “When I Get Where I’m Going.” As a country music lover, I’ve also appreciated Jessica Andrew’s “Who I Am” as it shows the determination of a young woman who understand that her ancestors are a part of her. Also, Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” is fabulous. Finding those childhood or ancestral homes is a powerful thing. I visited my childhood home site (the house my father built with no power tools is now gone) in Alaska this summer, 34 years after we moved to Washington State.

  18. Please forgive all the mistakes in my previous comment. I was up reading blogs and commenting at o’dark-thirty, thanks to two cats who decided to get scrappy. Insomnia and decent writing skills don’t mix!

  19. Michael says:

    After All by Dar Williams is a favorite of mine in terms of family history lyrics:

    There are four family history verses, starting with:

    And if I was to sleep
    I knew my family had more truth to tell
    And so I traveled down a whispering well
    To know myself through them

    There’a great payoff three verses later, and an even better one at the end of the song – well worth a listen! It’s on her album “The Green World”.

    What a wonderful topic. I know the Miranda Lambert and MC2 songs but will need to check out the others.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>