By Sadie Hunter
For nearly a year, local musician and “public historian” Janet Gilray has spent time teaching people in the community about their history through music.
Her regular series, “Antique Songs & Antique Stories,” takes place on the second Saturday of each month at Old Picket Fence, an antique store in downtown Noblesville that sits at the corner of Logan and Ninth streets.
“It begins when the first person walks through the door,” Gilray said. “It may be an elderly couple or a young family, whoever, I start a little song. I use anecdotal information to launch into something melodic.”
Gilray said the series began last spring, near the beginning of Indiana’s bicentennial year. While performing, she becomes a character, Miss Melody, an old schoolhouse marm, which can also be seen each year at the Indiana State Fair’s Pioneer Village.
“As a public historian, I encourage others to explore history through artifacts, antiques, old China that your grandmother had, old songs she used to hum,” Gilray said. “Kids should have an early awareness that there’s history around them and to know to ask questions – ask your grandma, ask your granddad. There’s always a story that ties in. And if you look for clues when you’re in downtown Noblesville, they’re all around.”
The songs she sings are on a list of “Keeper Tunes.” Old Picket Fence owner Rosie Hoistion has a motto “every item has a story,” but Gilray said she takes from that “every song has a story.”
For example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a true story.
“That actually happened in 1802,” Gilray said. “A principal of the school wrote down what happened when a little lamb followed the girl right up to the blackboard when he was there to observe her teacher. ‘Happy Birthday’ came from a nursery school teacher in Kentucky in the late 1800s, and it’s traveled all around the world. That’s the history that we keep finding.
“What’s the oldest song in your brain?” Gilray continued. “‘Home on the Range’ is a good one. It gets everybody in the whole room singing, and not a lot know that it was John Lomax’s collecting of cowboy songs on the prairie back in the 1900s with an old victrola. This one guy went around for years as part of a thesis to document these songs in a 3-inch-thick volume of cowboy songs that were sung by rote. People had little iPod brains with 200 songs embedded.”
For her master’s degree, Gilray spent time researching best methods for teaching. She said she “wanted to explore and further the effect of music as far as motivating children to learn.”
Years later, in 2007, she would publish her book, “Voices in Time,” a music book teaching American history through song.
“It’s really to help children optimize their learning opportunities, to make them feel good in school, even if it’s only one song per day or per chapter in a class,” she said.
Gilray said when she moved back to Indiana after more than 20 years of being away from her Hoosier roots, she landed in Indianapolis but was drawn to Noblesville for its rich history.
“I am encouraged by Noblesville,” she said. “When they say to revitalize the downtown district, and we’re now a new arts district, talk about vitality. Nothing puts out a welcome mat like music.”
- Antique Songs & Antique Stories, begins at 10 a.m. Feb. 11 at Old Picket Fence, 894 Logan St., Noblesville. Series continues on the second Saturday of each month.
- Indiana Landmarks Center, 1201 Central Ave., Indianapolis, Feb. 23.
- First Friday at Nickel Plate Arts, 107 S. Eighth St., Noblesville. 6 to 9 p.m. April 7.
- Gilray regularly performs with Dan Wethington and Prairietown at Hedgehog Music Showcase, 101 W. Main St., Arcadia, and at Nickel Plate Arts in downtown Noblesville for its family programs.
MEET JANET GILRAY
Janet Gilray is a founding member of Legacy Keepers, a nonprofit organization that connects youth and families to older generations of music and life. Originally from the Eagletown/Sheridan area, Gilray moved to California, where she lived for two decades. She served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps. She holds degrees from California State University and Chapman University. Gilray moved back to Noblesville in 2005 and spends her time taking part in and promoting historical and musical events within the community and teaching music lessons.