America’s Brass Band Heritage – Bands Come to America

by Larry Johnson

Military bands in America developed along the same lines as those in Europe. What few American bands there were at the time of our Revolution were clarinet and oboe-centered. These saw the introduction of keyed bugles in the very early 19th Century, and then converted to brass as soon as the valved brasses reached America. By the end of the 1830s a phenomena known as the brass band movement was underway, and before it was over it would have an enormous influence on the course of American military music.

In the early 1800s American society was predominantly rural. Small towns and villages were the core of America, and much of our culture developed from them. Such was the case with brass bands. As towns grew, so did the need for music and entertainment for private and civic events. The only music available before recording was live music, so every town had a need for musicians. This need was filled by the creation of town bands, which, because they played outdoors, were usually composed of brass instruments. Town bands became popular and soon spread. By the 1850s nearly every town had a band, and larger towns and cities sometimes had several. The brass bands eventually found themselves at the center of a town’s social life and in this position it was only natural that the soon grafted into another social institution, the militia movement.

Originally nearly every settlement in America had formed militias for the necessary purpose of protecting themselves from marauding Indians. But as the frontier steadily moved west, the need for militias passed. So with nothing of a military nature to do, the militias became social organizations. In many towns militia muster was a major social event, calling for music and entertainment. Naturally the town bands turned out for these musters, and it was inevitable that the bands became closely associated with the militia units. This association led to the need for the bands to march, and that in turn led to the next development in brass instruments.

The saxhorns were first built either as upright or bell-front instruments. Trombones, which were widely used in brass bands, also had bells facing forward. This configuration projected the sound of the bands towards their front, which was desirable when playng concerts. But when bands were on the march, forward-projecting instruments became a liability because troops marching behind them could not hear the music, much less march to it. To remedy this situation, some now-unknown manufacturer produced a series of saxhorns with the bells facing ot the rear over the player’s shoulder. The Dodworth Band in New York City, which purchased a set of these over-the-shoulder instruments in the late 1830s, is believed to have been the first band to have used them. The rearward -facing design proved workable, and by the late 1850s a majority of the brass bands all over the country, in particular those that performed in conjunction with the various militia units owned a set of the over-the-shoulder instruments.

Next time; Music of the Civil War and beyond.

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