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
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Brown's Family Orchestra

21 November 2014

Some puzzles turn out to be more challenging than they first appear. The solution seems tantalizingly apparent but somehow remains concealed. For some time this musical photo has been a riddle that remained unsolved. At least it was until this week when its secret was finally unlocked. The answer turned out to more interesting than expected.

It is a postcard photo of a family band posed outdoors in a field. Their name is displayed on the bass drum.
Brown's Family Orchestra
Wilmington, Del.
Father and mother stand on the left behind their five young children. All wear durable band uniforms with heavy capes and military style caps. Father holds a French horn which, because it is my instrument too, is the reason the photo first intrigued my interest. Mother has a tenor saxophone and in descending age the children hold a tuba, drum, cornet, alto horn and alto saxophone. The oldest boy appears about age 13 while the two on the right might be 5 or 6. Are they boys or girls? Maybe twins? The bobbed hair style suggests 1920s or 1930s. They have the look of a professional family band, a musical tradition that has its own album in my collection. The two stories that most resemble this group are the Lehr Family Orchestra and the Biehl Family Orchestra. Both of those groups included a violin player which at a stretch allowed for the term orchestra, but the Brown's instrumentation is just a small seven piece wind band. 

The back of the card has a note that reads
Harvest Home

A name, a place, a date. This puzzle seems pretty easy. But the question of who they are turned out to be a difficult question to answer.

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The surname Brown is perhaps one of the most common in America, and quite a few live in Wilmington, Delaware. The date of 1925 makes the censuses of 1920 and 1930 of limited usefulness, since searching for a husband and wife named Brown with 5 children produced too many possible matches.

The note also adds confusion as it refers to a fairground called the Bullion Harvest Home which is in Venango County, Pennsylvania, some 300 miles from Wilmington. This private park was the property of Perry Edward Hoffman who established it near his farm west of the Alleghenies near Franklin, PA and rented it out for family reunions and fraternal society events.

Even the name Brown Family Orchestra proved problematic as there were several other groups with that same name beginning in the 1880s and going into the 1960s. The photo is actually on the Delaware State Heritage website but there is no information provided. No full name and no date.

It was a puzzle. Who exactly was this jovial family of musicians?

This week I tried searching again in which is a super archive that I only recently added to my list of research sites. Instead of orchestra I substituted band, and Bingo! the lock clicked open.

The Neosho MO Times
October 14, 1926

A detailed announcement of a Unique Program coming to the Orpheum Theater appeared in the Neosho MO Times for October 14, 1926. The Famous Brown Family Band was to perform.

The company includes Ralph, 15 years, bass; Vera, 12, the only girl, plays drums, traps, bells and xylophone; Martin, 9, the cornet; and Albert, 7, the cymbals and alto, while Mrs. Brown plays the piano and saxaphone (sic) and Mr. Brown, director, is master of the violin and French horn, and last but far from least is Gordon, the youngest of all who is past master of the saxaphone. 

In all it is just a true American family of musicians.

The family traveled with its own tutor, a licensed school teacher who made sure that Whether in Maine or California the Brown juniors get the instruction just the same as if they were in their school at home.

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Riverside CA Daily Press
February 2, 1927

The Brown family band was next mentioned in a report from the Riverside CA Daily Press of February 2, 1927.

The family consists of Mr. and Mrs. H. H. Brown and five children, whose ages are 18, 12, 11, 10, 8 years respectively. Their home is in Delaware. Last winter they played in Florida and last summer at Revere Beach, near Boston. When crossing the continent they stopped along the route and played at theaters. They traveled in a well-equipped house on wheels. A school teacher accompanies them at all times, so the children keep up with the public schools.

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With those initials and names I quickly found them in the 1920 census for Wilmington Delaware. Herbert Brown, age 36 was born in Pennsylvania and worked as a Contractor. His wife's name was Luella Brown, age 34, and five children, Ralph, age 10; Verna, 5; Martin, 4; Albert, 2; and Gordon, 1. The father's draft card from 1918 gave his full name as Herbert Hinmon Brown and he worked for a company that made components for shipbuilding and railway rolling stock. How did he become a master of the violin and horn, two instruments with very different musical disciplines? Was he from a musical or theatrical family? That's a question that may never get answered. 

1920 U.S. Census, Wilmington, DE

Rocford IL Republic
September 25, 1926
According to the several newspaper notices that I found, the Brown family performed around the country from Florida to Massachusetts to California from 1925 to 1928 playing vaudeville theaters, county fairs, dance halls, church socials and the like. They traveled in a kind of early motor home described as an auto pullman car. I have been unable to find a picture of this vehicle, but it may have been a large converted bus or a house trailer towed behind a car. It even had a fold-out platform that Mr. Brown had built which the family used whenever they needed a stage.

In September 1926, Mr. Brown got into a dispute with a tourist camp near Rockford, IL which charged him 50¢ even thought the signs to the campground read "Free Tourist Camp".

In the 1920s most people used the trains to move around the United States. The interstate motorways did not exist and even the few numbered national highways were largely incomplete. Recreational camping was still a novelty and for a family of 8 people, including the tutor, to crisscross the country in these years was a formidable logistic feat.

How long they maintained this lifestyle is unknown but the dates suggest that it was more than just a summertime activity and evidently they made enough money to keep going. Undoubtedly the decline of the vaudeville theater circuit and the new popularity of movies with sound and then the rise of radio contributed to the end of traveling show business families. The Brown family decided to leave Wilmington and relocate to Shreveport, LA.

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  Neosho MO Daily Democrat
October 16, 1926

Their Neosho, MO performance received several writeups in the papers. One report made special mention of the two youngest musicians, Albert and Gordon and corrected their respective instruments. Albert had the nickname of "Pud" Brown and was promoted as a seven (actually 8) year old saxophone wonder.  In a closeup of the band we can see that Albert Pud Brown is the older  boy on the right holding the alto saxophone.

Instead of picking up "Al" or "Bert" as a nickname, the family called him "Pud". The appellation stuck and he continued to use it for the rest of his life. Had the Neosho report left out this detail we might never learn about the rest of the Brown's story.

Though the family's roving life came to an end, Pud Brown chose to make his career as a professional musician playing saxophone and clarinet. He settled in Chicago which had become a booming center for jazz music as a result of Chicago's prohibition era nightclub scene. His specialty was in Dixieland music but his talent found him work playing with many well known bands like Phil Lavant's orchestra in 1938 and then Lawrence Welk's band where he met his future wife in 1941. During the war he returned briefly to Shreveport but Hollywood beckoned and he moved to Los Angeles where he was a sideman in the bands of Les Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Doc Cheatham, Kid Ory, and Louis Armstrong among many others. In 1975 he returned to Louisiana and the birthplace of American jazz – New Orleans. He played in Clive Wilson's Original Camelia Brass Band and was a regular featured musician at the French Quarter's Palm Court Jazz Cafe.  He was celebrated in jazz circles as one of the best of traditional Dixieland soloists on clarinet and saxophone.

Pud Brown died on May 27, 1996 and his obituary was written up in several newspapers including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Independent. Some made just a mention of his early years touring in the family band but I don't know that anyone has ever made his connection to the postcard of Brown's Family Orchestra.

 Jazz Funeral for Albert "Pud" Brown, May 1996
Source: Wikimedia

Of course the musicians of New Orleans had to give one of their own a time-honored jazz funeral parade. Someone has generously posted several photos of their tribute on Wikimedia and this one shows the parade leader starting off under a traditional umbrella while holding a large photograph of Albert "Pud" Brown (1917 - 1996). You can see more at this link.

Solving a photo riddle always provides a satisfaction, but the surprise of discovering it was a very youthful photo of a celebrated musician makes this a very special reward. The bonus came from YouTube with a chance to actually hear Pud Brown and get a sense of what his family band sounded like. 

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Pete Daily and his Chicagoans was a Dixieland band led by the cornet player Pete Daily. He started his band in Chicago but in 1942 moved to Hollywood and formed a 7 piece band. It included Pud Brown on clarinet and saxophone and may be the reason why he moved there. The band made several short films in 1951 and here are two which feature Pud. The first is called Goat Blues and Pud takes a solo at about 1:40.



This second clip is entitled Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone. and Pud Brown starts the tune playing tenor saxophone. This uptempo song by Sam H. Stept with lyrics by Sidney Clare was published in 1930 but shares essentially the same chords and melody structure as an earlier song from the 1920s – Has Anybody Seen My Gal? also known as Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue. It was a very popular melody in 1925, the same year that Brown's Family Band was touring. I suspect that Pud knew it backwards and forwards. 



But wait! For my friends at Sepia Saturday, there's a dog too!

Neosha MO Times
October 14, 1926

And not just any dog, but Sandow the World's Greatest Dog!

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more family stories that may include a dog or two.


Alex Daw said...

Fabulous detective work! How wonderful to get the answer. I do like newspaper websites - they are so satisfying. Well done you! And of course I liked the songs - particularly the first one right at the end - made me laugh and smile. Thank you.

Jo Featherston said...

Fantastic research, as always! Did the band provide musical accompaniment to the film about Sandir, do you think?

Bob Scotney said...

Great research again, Mike. The newspaper cuttings are interesting reading. To track Pud Brown to his funeral march was remarkable.

Mike Brubaker said...

To answer Jo's question, the film, Code of the Northwest, was a silent movie as far as I can tell so maybe the Brown Family Orchestra did provide the musical accompaniment.

Postcardy said...

Great post. I'm glad you solved your riddle. I wonder why they used the orchestra name on the drum.

Little Nell said...

How thrilled you must have been to make the connection! I’m impressed that the siblings had their own travelling tutor too; I wonder how usual that was.

Deb Gould said...

What a great post, Mike, about all those Browns! And the funeral for Pud Brown...hurrah!

Wendy said...

The nickname "Pud" was invented for a jazz musician. Or maybe a baseball player. Your family band stories are always amazing and interesting, probably my favorites. This one though is going to be hard to top.

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

Great story! Don't you just love it when your research finally all comes together? Yours, of course, is always excellent. I particularly liked the article about the father refusing to pay for the campsite. Such insight into their personalities!

La Nightingail said...

What a wonderful successful story. Pud could sure play that sax - a sound I particularly like. Not bad on the clarinet either! I wonder if any of the other children went on to play their instruments - even in community bands or such? Great sleuthing, by the way.

Diamant said...

What a bunch of cuties. it's marvellous when all that elusive information finally comes together and gives you a full story. So satisfying for you. One of your best posts. Thanks. - boundforoz

Alan Burnett said...

Wonderful. Tracing Pud Brown's career makes a fascinating post and a timeless contribution to the history of music. As I have often said before Mike - Nobody Does It Better ...

Tattered and Lost said...

This was just fantastic! An old photo came to have such life. Loved all of it.

Gerry Gorman said...

Hi. Just want you to know that the descendants of the Brown Family Band are all still in contact and have even made a FaceBook group recently to stay in touch. I am the daughter of Verna, the drummer. A daughter of Gordon, and daughter of Pud, and a daughter of Buster are all still in touch. Call 903-983-3745

BillRayDrums said...

Fascinating stuff! I am descended from this family, Gordon E. Brown Jr. was my grandfather. I too am a musician and you can check out my work at

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