This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Band for Juneteenth

25 January 2013

    A short fiction   
    glimpsed through the summer haze    
    of an old photograph.   

It was still early in the afternoon, and being a Sunday, people were in no hurry to get to the park. The teams had yet to arrive, so no one was up in the bleachers. Hal took the band through the march one more time.

"No, no, no," he shouted. "Something's not right." The music sputtered to a stop. George gave one last thud on his bass drum. "That last part wasn't even close to the right speed. And you," said Hal, pointing to the trombones, "are playing it all wrong or something." He squinted at the music on his stand. "I know Mr. Sousa didn't write it that way."

The boys looked at one another. Henry called out from the back, "Maybe Tom's got gum on his shoe again and can't tap his toe." They giggled. And laughed again when a loud burp came from one of the tenor horns.

"Would you all just keep quiet a minute and let me figure this out," cried Hal. He scratched his ear and frowned at the music. He looked toward the fence where a man was sitting on a picnic table. "Say Franklin, can you make out what the problem is?"

The tall black man came over to the band and smiled at the boys. "Well Mr. Hal, I was listening right close and I think when the tune comes round again, some'a you cornets played an extra bar." He looked at the trombones. "And there's a queer note sounding in that 'companiment."

"Dang it, Milton," said Hal. "That's an A-flat. Watch your key signature." He twisted the curl on his mustache. "Cornets did you get that? The second time through you got to skip over that first repeat.  Show them how it goes, Franklin."

Franklin drew a breath  and in a deep voice sang their part, adding emphasis to the correct pitch. He gave a nod toward the drummer. "Mr. Francis, you could help them out with the rhythm there too. Taaa, tuh, ta, ta, ta.  Taaa, tuh, ta, ta, ta.  Ta, ta, ta, Taaa, tuh, taaa"

Hal picked up his tuba. "Alright. Let's give her another push, and maybe get her going down the right track. From the top. ONE, TWO. ONE, TWO." The music stumbled along with a melody that stayed mostly upright. Franklin stood to the side waving his hand to the beat.

The band finished and Hal could see that the crowd in the grandstand was getting larger now. "Take a short break, fellas. Leo, you keep next to your brother and don't go wandering." They placed their instruments down on a bench near the diamond's backstop. . "And don't forget," he called, "we got a photographer from Marshall's going to take our picture after the game!" 
Just past the assembly of wagons and pony traps over at the corner, some of the players were getting off the street car. The umpire had unpacked his bag and was setting out the bases. There was a pleasant summer taste to the air. It was a fine day for baseball.

Hal re-shuffled his stack of music. "I sure am glad for your help, Franklin. Ever since Mr. Holloway left, we've been lacking a good ear." He set his tuba down by the bench and walked over to the table. "We don't play the Tremont team too often. Shame we couldn't do it on Flag Day, but that rain last week was enough to float Noah's boat. It would have made a real special day for the band."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Hal, but it's still a special day alright." He smiled at the sky. "It be Juneteenth. A very special day"

Hal frowned. "Juneteenth? Oh, you mean June 19th."

"No, I mean Juneteenth. The day Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves." He smiled again. "My daddy was in Galveston back then, and ever since I was a little'un we always celebrate Juneteenth. Now since I come up here though, there not many black folk around to remember with."

"I never took you for a Texas cowboy, Franklin." Hal pulled out his watch and checked the time. "Now I recollect my paw used to talk about Emancipation Day being in January. He served with the 36th Illinois Volunteers."

"Well down in Washington D of C they take their day in April, and others got January or September. But daddy always said that to hear those words was to hear a rainbow, so I always liked Juneteenth."

Hal watched his friend sigh and thought back to the stories his own father had told. All along the campaign, from the mountains in Tennessee to the ocean in Georgia, he had seen countless black people rejoice at liberation. That wondrous joy had made the terrible great burden of war easier to bear.

Hal saw the umpire was waving the players onto the field. "Come on boys, let's form the circle," he said picking up his tuba.  He motioned to Franklin. "Get your self in the center and lead us through the anthem, Mr. Franklin. I 'spect this town needs a Juneteenth jubilee song."

There was no need for the folios as the boys knew this tune from heart. George and Francis struck up the drum roll. Franklin turned to the flag now waving in a light breeze, and his strong baritone soared above the ball field noise. 

       My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
       Of thee I sing;
       Land where my fathers died,
       Land of the pilgrims' pride,
       From ev'ry mountainside
       Let freedom ring!

       My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
       Thy name I love;
       I love thy rocks and rills,
       Thy woods and templed hills;
       My heart with rapture thrills,
       Like that above.

       Let music swell the breeze,
       And ring from all the trees
       Sweet freedom's song;
       Let mortal tongues awake;
       Let all that breathe partake;
       Let rocks their silence break,
       The sound prolong.
       Our fathers' God to Thee,
       Author of liberty,
       To Thee we sing.
       Long may our land be bright,
       With freedom's holy light,
       Protect us by Thy might,
       Great God our King.
< >

Lost in time and space, this photograph of an unknown band was never meant to be anything but a memento of a day. But it had one element that made it different from the thousands of similar photos of bands from the 1900s - a black face. We can't know if this man played an instrument or just drove the wagon, but since he wears the same simple uniform cap, there is a small sense of inclusion, perhaps even acceptance of this man in an era when African-Americans were not afforded an equal place in society.

On this week where we commemorate the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. and inaugurate President Barack Obama to a second term as leader of our nation, it seemed fitting to use the Sepia Saturday theme photo to inspire a small story about how far our country has moved. Juneteenth is a real holiday that deserves to be celebrated by all Americans. And despite today's over production performances of the Star Spangled Banner, in 1900 it was not the usual national anthem performed in most small towns and America, perhaps because it is easier to sing,  was the better known patriotic song.

** **

As a special treat, in honor of Sepia Saturday No. 200
which invited me to submit my personal favorite from the last 200 themes,
I've added this 1917 recording of the song with baritone Arthur Middleton
accompanied by unnamed singers and band, produced by Edison records,
and restored by the Library of Congress Archives.

** **

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can stop in for oysters on the half shell.


Cameron said...

A great story & tribute. You are an excellent writer, and your blog posts are always enjoyable as well as informative!

Wendy said...

And your inspiration for Mr. Franklin seems to be sporting a pin just like the one on the musician in front of him. What's the story?

I always enjoy your fictional pieces. My favorite thus far has just lost its spot to this one.

tony said...

Thank You.A Fitting Juneteenth Post! You Blend the Image & the Prose without ever missing A Beat!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

What a wonderful story and history lesson. I have never heard of Juneteenth before. I have always loved the song America, and yes, it is much easier to remember the words to it.

Kathy M.

Bob Scotney said...

Thanks, Mike. I've marked Juneteenth in my diary to make sure I remember it on the day. A great photo and a story fit to match.

barbara and nancy said...

What a great story. Not only are you a great sleuth, but I find you are also a great story teller. So many talents!
Juneteenth - I love it.
We used to sing America in school every day after the pledge of allegiance. Maybe because it was easier to sing than the national anthem.
Kelly Clarkson did a fine job of it at the inauguration. But my favorite was James Taylor singing America the Beautiful with just the simple strains from his guitar.

Peter said...

Juneteenth is new to me but not anymore! In both SS and your contribution there is Afro-American man so you are right on theme!

Brett Payne said...

A most appropriate choice of picture, Mike, and a wonderful story to go with it. I would love to go to a band performance with you, and you can tell me exactly who is who, what they're playing, and what they ate for breakfast.

Little Nell said...

I'm afraid I'd never heard of Juneteenth either Mike, but learning about it through your wonderful storytelling is a treat.

ScotSue said...

I love the way you have created a story from the old photograph. Juneteenth is new to me too.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

What a lovely photo and tribute!

Postcardy said...

I never learned anything but the first verse to that song. It would be quite an accomplishment to sing the whole song from memory.

Alan Burnett said...

I love the way that you weave the story not just around the photograph, but using the detail in the photograph, so that fact and fiction are almost seamlessly interlinked. Great story, great piece of history.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

You got a tear out of me. You write a fine story indeed and make this band and these people come alive. A great post!


I'm moved.......................
and yet,
from liberation to integration,
it took a long time.
Too long a time not to leave scars
in a the collective psyche of a whole community.
What would MLK Jr think of the current state of things?
He had a dream...
What of it?



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