HISTORY: Strike up the brass bands
In a time before iPods, radios or even Victrolas, live performances were the only musical game in town.
From about 1880 to 1920, Wyandotte supported at least nine community brass bands.
Brass bands blared brightly, like a pirate’s chest flung open revealing gleaming gold. They boomed from bandstands, beer gardens, pavilions, gazebos, concert halls, excursion boats, picnic and parade grounds.
Descended from military lineage, their origins go back to Prussia, Serbia and throughout Europe.
During the Civil War, regimental bands, including Michigan’s 15th and 24th, consisted largely of bugles and saxhorn. Popular tunes included “Battle Hymn of The Republic,” “Rally Round the Flag” and “Hail, Columbia.”
When the war ended, musicians headed home to form civic bands. Members sported natty uniforms to reinforce an esprit de corps. Typical outfits consisted of plumed hats and blue cloth jackets and trousers with gold trim. For added dash and dazzle, bright sashes were worn across their chests.
Armed with tubas, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, French horns and flugelhorns, their musical salvos could be lively and celebratory, or solemn and stately. They provided sprightly tunes for bringing the circus to town and patriotic airs for sending boys off to war.
The photograph displayed here shows the J. B. Ford band in about 1902. Close inspection reveals the drum major wearing epaulets and holding a baton while band members wear kepi-style caps. Their instruments are mostly brass, but also include a clarinet and a snare drum. This was a marching band.
Other bands were the Wyandotte Excelsior Band, Wyandotte Concert Band, Wyandotte Cornet Band, Wyandotte City Band, Wyandotte Brass Band, the Italian Band, the Knights of Columbus Band and the Michigan Alkali Band.
When electric street lights were installed in 1889, the Excelsior celebrated the occasion by marching along the street after sundown, pausing briefly beneath each light to play in its luminous circle. The light reflected off the burnished instruments like flashing lightning bugs.
On a regular basis, they assembled on the open air balcony of the Arlington Hotel at the corner of Oak Street and Biddle Avenue and regaled crowds that gathered on the street below.
Local bands had their own version of famous bandmasters Patrick Gilmore and John Phillip Sousa in the person of Joseph Warrich, who led more than one band in his day.
Under the right conductor, the low, sonorous vibrations of the tubas and the piercing, bright highs of the trumpets, the smooth and sweet, the strong and strident, somehow combined to form a uniform sound.
Adding cymbals and drums produced an ensemble capable of rousing anthems.
Some popular tunes around the turn of the century were “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay,” “Hot Time in the Old Town” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
These were amateur bands. Members took a pledge to keep uniforms pressed, horns polished and to practice regularly. Much of the practice was done at home. No doubt, struggling greenhorns sent many off-key notes wobbling next door to assail their neighbors’ ears.
These musicians were factory workers, mechanics and laborers, and most always male. However, family bands usually included girls.
In the 1880s, Wyandotte’s Denman Family Band featured their five children: Charles, Belle, William, Bertha and John. Charles grew up to become an accomplished cornetist and the leader of the Belleville Citizens Band.
By the 1920s, times and tastes were changing. For the younger generation, a preference for jazz and gin replaced brass and beer. In addition, once phonographs and radios became plentiful, it was no longer necessary to congregate to enjoy music.
The brass bands themselves were changing. Woodwind instruments —saxophones, clarinets, bassoons and flutes — joined their ranks, similar to present-day high school marching bands.
The mid-19th to early 20th centuries are considered the golden age of brass bands. The Great Depression tarnished their sparkle, but even today, a parade without a band is like a birthday cake without candles.
Brass bands evoke both the innocence of sweet summer nights on the village green and the ardent patriotism of an awakening world power. They resonate not only with musical notes, but also with sentiments of a bygone era.
Whatever their legacy may be, brass bands were in tune with their times.
Wallace Hayden is the head historical librarian in the Bacon Memorial Library District in Wyandotte. He writes about history for the News-Herald on a monthly basis.