Does your family history suffer from The Sound of Music effect? What’s that, you ask? Well, it is not when your family has a penchant for suddenly breaking into song about their favorite things or when saying good-night is an elaborate Broadway production. The term came to me after I recently watched Sound of Music both on stage and on film and I became interested in the real Von Trapp family.
The enormously popular musical film The Sound of Music premiered in 1965 and was based on the the 1959 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The story, if you’ve lived in a cocoon for years and never heard it, is about a novice nun-turned nanny for a widower’s seven children who falls in love with the dad, marries him, brings the joy of music into their lives, teaches the children to sing beautifully, and escapes the evil Nazis in a late-night chase over the Alps. But the best part of the story? It’s based on a true story!
Ay, there’s the rub, as Hamlet would say. “Based on a true story” and “true story” are not the same thing.
As it turns out, both the Broadway and the movie version of the family’s story are somewhat more dramatic than the German movie and memoir of the family’s lives. Being more dramatic obviously makes the story infinitely more interesting. Escaping the Nazis by traveling on foot over the Alps to Switzerland? Wow! Except, in reality, the very real Von Trapp family “escaped” Austria a full two years before the Anschluss (and seven years after the couple got married). And they left by train. In broad daylight. To go to Italy, where they were citizens based on Georg von Trapp’s birplace. No Nazis were in pursuit.
To disappoint The Sound of Music fans even further, I should point out that the children’s names were all changed and Georg was neither as wealthy nor as strict as the movie portrayed.
Hence, what I have christened as The Sound of Music effect…when the true story is, well, just a story. But when the story “based on a true story” is A STORY!
Sometimes we have The Sound of Music effect in our own family stories. While the majority of our family histories were not livened up for the sake of dramatic license on the silver screen, they may have been spruced up…for the sake of the story.
Face it, what’s the more exciting story?
Choice A: Grandpop couldn’t afford a ticket/was on the run from the authorities so he stowed away on the ship. OR
Choice B: Grandpop bought a ticket, boarded the steamship, and spent two weeks with hundreds of other immigrants in steerage.
Yup, Choice A wins every time.
Many other family history myths may be the result of The Sound of Music effect. Was your ancestor descended from a Cherokee princess? Was the family’s name changed at Ellis Island? Are you related to someone really famous in history? These are all great stories. But are they true, or merely based on a true story? These stories may be true – but only solid genealogical research will answer the question. Chances are there is a kernel of truth in the exciting story – but just a kernel. The true stories are often…well, ordinary, everyday, and somewhat boring. But not to a genealogist or a family historian! Being chased by the Nazis is certainly a dramatic story, but the ordinary tale can be just as much fun.
Does your family history suffer from The Sound of Music effect?
Good point! But it can be so hard to find the facts behind the fancy. I have a few of those stories, only one is verified (the KKK “riding” on my family due to untrue gossip) by my sister who was there. The other stories…… well, they are just another brick wall to chip at.
What a good subject for a post. I guess we all have the family stories that may or may not be true. So many tales are, as you said, based on a true story but the narrative has wandered far afield over the years or even centuries. The amateur detective in all of us will probably eventually uncover the kernel of truth – and that makes it worth the effort and much fun.
Haha yes! My family has a story about an ancestor who deserted from the Civil War and joined a wagon train going west. On the wagon train, a young man had a fight with the trail boss, shooting a horn off the oxen and forcing the trail boss to leave. After they reached their destination, he revealed he was Frank James, fleeing after they shot his brother Jesse.
My ancestor did fight in the civil war, but as far as I can tell, never deserted. Also, the dates don’t match at all for him to have met Frank James on a wagon train. Jesse James was shot in 1882, long after the Civil War. But I bet the grandkids enjoyed hearing him tell the embellished version. 🙂
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