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Sound and Memory

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The Librarian of Congress today named 25 new entries to the National Recording Registry, a designation given to recordings that are culturally, historically or aesthetically significant and at least 10 years old.  This year’s entries bring the total to 300 and include recordings made famous by a range of artists from Tupac Shakur, Little Richard and Bill Cosby to Loretta Lynn and Patti Smith.

One of the newly named recordings is a 1969 album by the rock group The Band.  It includes two well-known songs, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek.”

This album became a favorite when my older brother toted it home from college.  There was something gritty and uncontrived about the sound of this group – it almost seemed like material collected by Library of Congress folk researcher Alan Lomax.  We lived in Denver, and for years when we’d drive through the old mining towns in the nearby Rocky Mountains, tunes by the Band would come unbidden into my head:

 “Up on Cripple Creek, she sends me

If I spring a leak, she mends me.

I don’t have to speak, she defends me

A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one … “

For years, I couldn’t put my finger on why The Band’s sound was so evocative to me. Not long ago, I finally put it together.

After a lifetime of knowing zip about my family background farther back than a couple of generations, genealogy resources enabled me to identify some forebears who were alive in the mid-1800s.

They weren’t up on Cripple Creek, though – it was Clear Creek. 

If Hollywood ever made a movie of my paternal ancestors’ lives, music by The Band could be the soundtrack.

 Across the Great Divide —

Just grab your hat and take that ride!

Get yourself a bride

And bring your children down to the riverside.

In the late 1860s, my great-great-great grandfather Frank McCunniff and his son Tom hit it big in silver at a stake they dubbed the Pelican Mine, above Georgetown, Colorado.  The house Frank built is still there in Georgetown, and occupied.

The McCunniffs got into a drawn-out legal struggle with the owners of the next claim over. Much, if not most, of their wealth got litigated away. One of their employees, Jake Snider, was gunned down in the street. Eventually, Frank and Tom packed up their families, moved to the San Luis Valley in southwestern Colorado and took up ranching. A man named William Hamill bought the Pelican; one of his descendants is Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” (which was inducted into the Library’s National Film Registry in 1989).

Music triggers memory – that’s well known. In this case, it touched a sonic chord for me that evoked a lifestyle, an historic atmosphere of some ancestors I didn’t yet know I had.

 I can feel you standing there

But I don’t see you

Anywhere …

Postscript:  My father, Tom Gavin, was brought up during the Great Depression in the San Luis Valley by his paternal grandmother Kate, the daughter of Tom McCunniff.  The following exchange caused him to view any talk of the Georgetown days as baloney:  “Grandma, Uncle Emmett tells me we had a silver mine in the family! I could get used to being a rich kid.”

“Tommy, if there had been any money left in this family when I met your grandfather, I’d never have married him, and you wouldn’t exist!”

Comments (8)

  1. Thank you for this…a favorite (The Band). Music as memory reinforcement (or recall) is part of my therapy as a PTSD w/TBI patient.


  2. Does this mean the we can listen to a recording online somewhere?

  3. Ran across your blog and recognized the name. I am a few generations down of Tom Mc’s son Frank (Emmits Bro). Been doing some family searching and was just in CO this weekend with everyone in the Mc family asking for our riches. I have stumbled across this mine information too! Glad our stories match up. Though we have some legals wanting to reopen some dispute about where this money went Haha!

  4. Thank you for personalizing this article with information about your great-great-great grandfather and his son and including a mention of the Pelican Mine and Georgetown, Colorado.

    A Centennial, CO citizen

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