America’s Brass Band Heritage – Brass Bands Mature in America

by Larry Johnson

When the Civil War broke out, all the elements necessary to provide Regimental Bands were in place. When recruiters raised a regiment, all they had to do was go into an area and muster in enough preexisting militia companies to form a regiment. No matter where the recruiters went, somewhere nearby was a town band which had probably been serving with the militia. The band already had military or marching instruments and instruments playing them. And they were nearly always willin gto enlist as a unit. Of course, this readiness to serve was prompted somewhat by the alternative, which was to be conscripted as an infantryman. But by and large the bandsmen’s motives were pure. They were aware of the contributions the bands made, and they felt that serving in a band was the patriotic thing to do. So enlisting in an intact band was no problem, there were plenty of them, on both sides, and the members were eager to join up.

Once the War was underway, the Regimental Bands on both sides were of inestimable value. These units performed every type of service, in all weather, and under every imaginable condition. Bands were everywhere, at the front, at the rear, on the march, in camp, everywhere. They played for the entertainment of idle troops, and they played under fire to inspire men in battle. Bandsmen performed lively tunes for grand reviews and they produced somber tones for funerals. They played hymns for divine services and provided music for dances. Bands even played a part in military execution. In every facet of military life there was a role for bands and the bands served well.

The Civil War was the culmination of the brass band movement. Some 600 bands served the Union cause. Confederate bands were fewer but there were probably more bands in Southern armies than previously thought. The federal army felt it had too many bands and in 1862 the Regimental Bands were discharged. Many of the members reenlisted as Brigade bands and for the remainder of this conflict nearly every brigade had a band. Confederate bands remained on the Regimental level and either served for the duration or until their enlistment expired. But there came Appomattox and the day it was finally over. Then all the bands went home and the heyday of the Brass Bands was over.

Musical, not social, forces had brought about changes in the composition of bands. The over-the-shoulder instruments had served well in the field but they had been severely out of tune and were not acceptable for continued service once the bands returned to a concert role. Hence they were discarded and their day was ended. The importance of the clarinet had been rediscovered and bands began readmitting reed instruments as soon as the war ended. By the time of the Spanish-American War the conversion to mixed reed and brass instrumentation, led by a young John Philip Sousa, had been completed and the brass bands were heard no more.

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