Who Do You Think You Are—A Musician? Genealogy in the Music Division

By Bob Kosovsky, Librarian
January 31, 2011
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Cover page of 1927 directory of Local 802, the New York Chapter of the American Federation of Musicians

Genealogy is back on prime time with the resumption of the show Who Do You Think You Are?, now beginning its second season on NBC-TV on Friday, February 4th.  Genealogy is my hobby too, so I'm always excited when I can combine it with my professional activities in the Music Division.

According to the American Library Association, "Genealogical research has become one of America's favorite pastimes."  I've heard that a recent national library report stated that 80% of researchers working with archival collections at libraries, museums and historical societies are working on genealogy. Wow!  While that may be a slight overstatement, it suggests that genealogy is a topic that engages our user community - whether it be for research or recreation.

I suspect most people start out searching their own family history, or searching the family history of famous individuals.  The pattern of their research is usually finding an individual in various sources.  Less often, one finds people interested in the sources themselves—sources which, when thoroughly examined, can provide a lot of interesting information.  So I'm going to focus on one source that I've found particularly useful and interesting.

Genealogists love resources that have listings of names with additional information.  Among the more useful are directories.  Probably the most well-known kind of directory are city directories.  These were usually published annually (sometimes more frequently), and contain listings of the occupants of a city, usually with their address and occupation.  Many of these city directories were published by Polk's (a search of Polk's directory in our Catalog will reveal many such city directories).  By the mid-1920s, city directories were often supplanted by phone directories.  (New York City stopped producing such directories by the 1930s.)   One of our leading genealogical online resources, AncestryLibrary (produced by Ancestry.com, the creators of Who Do You Think You Are?), is always adding to their already large number of digitized versions of such directories.  (AncestryLibrary is available for free in all branches of The New York Public Library.)

Beyond city directories, numerous smaller associations such as social clubs, professional organizations, associations, and unions also kept member directories.  Local 802, the New York chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, is one of these unions. The website proudly calls itself "the largest local union of professional musicians in the world."  Beginning with their earliest years, they have issued membership directories annually.  These directories help employers who want to hire players, and allow for networking among musicians.  While the Music Division does not have a full run of these directories, we have an ample number of them beginning with 1927.

Union directories of Local 802 - American Federation of Musicians on Music Division shelves


The earliest of these directories begin with a date calendar where musicians could write down their performance engagements - known in the business as "gigs."  Under union rules, freelance musicians need to report all their gigs in order to be paid.
The earliest directories organized members by instrument.  

Index of the 1927 directory of Local 802, Greater New York Chapter of the American Federation of Musicians

People who played more than one instrument would be listed mutiple times under each instrument.  Non-performers, such as composers, arrangers, and theorists (those who teach about music) are listed at the end.  (Today, where out of necessity many musicians play multiple instruments, the current directory lists all musicians alphabetically, with coded cross references indicating which instruments they play.)

The opening page of the directory listings shows the format: name, address, phone number.  

First page of listings from the 1927 directory of Local 802, Greater New York Chapter of the American Federation of Musicians

At first glance It might look humdrum, but there are a number of interesting things here.  Note that addresses are not restricted to New York City, since musicians active in the city did not necessarily live here.  Any musician active in New York City would need to register with Local 802, no matter where they lived.  One expects addresses of members residing in Long Island, but what is less expected are people such as Nicholas Acrivelis from Saranac Lake in upstate New York, and Charles F. Adams from Rockford Illinois.  Their inclusion suggests an itinerant lifestyle, or one split between their listed residences and New York City.  (A little bit of research showed that Acrivelis eventually settled in Saranac Lake and ran one of the hotels there.)
Look at the first name, Hyman Aaron.  It's a usual entry, giving his street address, apartment number, borough, and phone number.  Now compare that with Irwin Abrams, whose contact information is simply:  Harding Hotel, and the hotel's phone number.  Clearly Mr. Aaron had settled into an apartment, while Mr. Abrams's living situation made him rely on a room in a hotel.  That highlights the difference in economic state among musicians' lives.  Established musicians could manage a permanent residence, while others had to settle for what they could afford at the moment.  Some months ago a reference question came in from a distant state, asking us to trace the whereabouts of an ancestor, a little-known musician.  I found him in the union books over a ten-year span, but with few exceptions, each union book listed him at a different address.  Sometimes he was not listed at all (maybe he didn't pay or couldn't afford membership dues).  That means he changed residences nearly each year.  It underscores how the life of musicians, especially those starting out, can be very difficult.
For those genealogists who are used to just the 10-year Federal census reports, these union directories provide a much more vivid picture of the lives of its members. 
The back of the directory also lists members who passed away the previous season:

Page of those deceased in the past year - from the 1927 directory of Local 802, Greater New York Chapter of the AFM

This kind of list can provide information when other sources do not (not all deaths appear in newspaper obituaries, or online indices).  It is especially valuable if the individual did not live within New York City, or died outsite of the city limits.  On this list at least two musicians are well-known to me: Joseph Carl Breil is one of the first American composers to score a silent feature film (D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation from 1915; the score's love theme was later transformed into "The Perfect Song," made famous on the radio as the theme song for the Amos 'n' Andy show), and Emil Gerstenberger, an orchestrator for Broadway musicals in the 1920s.

While each individual directory can provide a wealth of information, when taken collectively, their value is even greater.  As New York City has long been a magnet for musicians, a number of historic incidents are indirectly reflected in these directories:  At the end of the 1920s, numerous theater musicians were put out of work due to the wholesale adoption of sound film.  On top of that, the 1929 Depression had a greater impact, putting many musicians out of work.  Yet by the end of the 1930s, the annual membership directory grew larger due to mass immigration from Europe.  By the 1950s, one can see the increase in musicians specializing in rock music, and so on up to the present day.  
Taken collectively, these directories provide a sociological history of musicians in New York City.  They are a wonderful tool not just for genealogists, but also for those studying evolving trends in music.  
They are still being published, but I suspect that within the next few years, the expense will be overruled by the convenience of an online-only directory, available wherever one has Internet access, but only to union members.  Should the day come when Local 802 ceases publishing these directories, we will lose an important research tool.  Fortunately, the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will still have its collection.
For more about directories at NYPL: A Look at "The Book": The Fall and Rise of the Telephone Directory