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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A Song for Memorial Day

25 May 2012

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A short fiction contrived from an old postcard

It was that last step. Some fool carpenter put the stair treads in uneven and that last one stuck out more than the others. Nearly busted the camera. Damn leg.

“You alright, Mr. Beedy?” The boy peeked around the door.

“Yessss,” he groaned. “Just caught my shoe on that dang step. Come on up and help me set up the tripod.” He grabbed hold of a box to push himself to his knees. The air was full of dust and mold.

“Where should I put it?” The boy unfolded the legs.

“Over there by the window of course. The camera can't see through walls.” He opened up the case. Damn. He thought he'd heard a crack. “Avery, I'll need you to go back to the shop. I've broken the glass plates. Go ask Mrs. Beedy to get you three negative plates and fetch them back here as fast as you can. She'll know where they are.” The boy set the tripod down and scampered down the stairs. “But you be careful and don't run with them,” he shouted.

He hobbled over to the window and raised the sash. Despite the sun and clear sky, the heat today wasn't so bad. The crowd swayed like a field of black mushrooms from all the ladies' umbrellas. The swirl of animated voices melded into a thrum of a hundred conversations.

There was Mrs. Olsen holding court. Maybe she'd tell the other ladies about that fine set of portraits he made of all her children. That might make up for the overdue payment. You could sooner teach a mule to dance than persuade Mr. Olsen to pay cash on time.

A flash of red caught his eye. It was May Ellen, Avery's sister. There wasn't an umbrella large enough to keep the freckles off her fair complexion. Little flocks of girls wove paths around the boys and young men. Always moving contrary to the pace of the older women.

The band had formed a circle and started a spirited march. That Mr. Harrington sure played a swell cornet. He leaned out the window. Where was that boy?

The start of summer, a special day to be sure, everyone into town after weeks of hard farm work. No doubt the weather was the main topic of conversation. Too wet, too dry. Then maybe aches and pains too. He'd certainly heard a lot of that at his chemist shop preparing their medicine and tonics.

Maybe they'd give a thought to the purpose of today. Later when there were some speeches, a sermon or two. The G.A.R. had asked him to speak, but he declined, as usual. Every year they asked him out of respect, and every year he said no. The band's medley of patriotic tunes seemed to attract people like a magnet.

How many down there really knew about war? A few. Mr. Lang had served in the 78th Pennsylvania. He knew. But most of the young lads had arrived here well after even the Indian wars. Come over from the old country. A few did some service and one or two had even gone off to fight the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines. But he didn't think it was the same. What was keeping that boy?

People out here were quiet and not much taken to gossip. They never asked many questions, though he could see when they thought them after they stole a look at his leg. Some had heard he'd been in the war. He'd seen the elephant all right. But his story was not for the telling.

The sound of Mr. Harrington's cornet cut through the noise as the band played. He looked off to the horizon and the sounds sent him back to a faraway place. He could feel the excitement, the apprehension coming to a boil. All the men lined up, rifles at the ready, waiting for the bugle call. Across the cornfields another grey line of men feeling the same. 'Was this my moment?' we all thought.

No, not for him. But the terror and shock of what came next still woke him up at night in a cold sweat. People didn't know the story. Shouldn't know. He wish he didn't know now. After all those years the horror still seemed fresh. The pain in his leg a constant reminder. Just another stupid consequence of war, a moment's inattention and the wagon wheels rolled over his leg. Spared a bullet only to go and hurt himself.

Seemed pointless now. War made no sense to those who did the work. We did it because we had to. We did it for duty, for our comrades, for …. reasons that were just like the other side too. It was nonsense to think otherwise. We shouldn't do it again. Ever.

He twisted on the sill. Mr. Harrington had spotted him in the window, and with a nod cued the boys into Laura Lee, just as he'd asked them play. This was his memorial. That pretty tune, the sound of a flute lofting over his hospital cot, and that poor young boy from Virginia in the next bed, softly singing along. The next morning he was gone. So many gone, lost like summer rain evaporating in the air. We were all the same. Each with a mother, a daughter, a sister – far away, waiting and hoping. 

The boy burst into the room. “I'm .. I'm sorry I took so long. Mrs. Beedy was talking to Mrs. Brandt and they ...” He cut the boy off with a wave.

“No matter. Give me the plates.” He put one into the camera and flipped the drape over his head to block the glare and hide the tear. This might do. He snapped the shutter lever.

Laura Lee
music and lyrics 
by Stephen Collins Foster

Why has thy merry face
Gone from my side,
Leaving each cherished place
Cheerless and void?
Why has the happy dream,
Blended with thee,
Passed like a flitting beam,
Sweet Laura Lee?
Far from all pleasure torn,
Sad and alone,  
How doth my spirit mourn
While thou art gone!
How like a desert isle
Earth seems to me,
Robbed of thy sunny smile,
Sweet Laura Lee!
How like a desert isle
Earth seems to me,
Robbed of thy sunny smile,
Sweet Laura Lee!

When will thy winning voice
Breathe on mine ear?
When will my heart rejoice,
Finding thee near?
When will we roam the plain
Joyous and free,
Never to part again,
Sweet Laura Lee?

This story is entirely made up, though the names were borrowed from those of
a photographer and a bandmaster who lived in Post, Iowa in 1900.
The postcard has a caption but it is too obscured to identify the actual place or date.
Special thanks to  rexlibris99 for providing a perfect music video to fit my story.

This is my contribution to Memorial Day
and Sepia Saturday
where you can find more crowds of stories and photos.

The Band at Scarborough Spa

18 May 2012

Men once considered a hat to be such a necessary fashion accessory, that they would sooner leave the house without their trousers than without a hat. A hat style defined a man's uniform, his class, and even his profession. And at the top of this haberdashery pyramid was the top hat. It was the mark of a gentleman, a professional man, an artist.

So it is with the gentlemen of this band, two dozen musicians arrayed in fine suits and all wearing top hats. I believe they are members of one of the musical ensembles of Scarborough Spa in North Yorkshire, England from around 1895. This fine large format photo (make sure to click the image to enlarge it) was never mounted and has no identification but it was in the same lot as two other photos of the Scarborough Spa Orchestra from the 1920's. The musicians are standing on the stone steps of some kind of promenade. The sign on the stone wall behind them reads:  Smoking is not permitted on the Colonnade or in the Grand Hall.

The distinction between bands and orchestras was often blurry in the 19th century. Bands might include some strings, especially lower strings such as the cello and double bass in this group. The same musicians who played in the afternoon band concert might also play in the evening program of the orchestra.

Two bits of trivia here. Note the bandleader standing front row center. That is not a cane he is holding but a conductor's baton. Conductors and leaders of this era used a very heavy stick, perhaps better suited to marches and quick steps.

The other interesting note is that a horn player, mid-row right, has an instrument with only two valves, instead of three which was the common number for all brass instruments in the 19th century, (whereas four or five valves are now part of modern horns). This rare horn was used mainly in Britain from the mid 1830s to 1880s, it used the valves only to change keys while the player still used an old fashioned right hand technique to change the notes. It was fine for popular music tunes, but by the end of the 19th century, composers made such demands on brass players that most horn players had switched to three valved horns. A second horn player stands beside him but his instrument is unfortunately hidden except for the mouthpiece. 
I have another photo postcard of a similar top hat band which I posted back in 2009. They called themselves the Imperial Orchestra, Military Section from West Riding, Yorkshire. They are the same number and nearly same instrumentation. They date from a little later, around 1910 perhaps.

Many of these men might have received their training in one of the many British army regimental bands, and then returned to civilian life as professional musicians playing in theater orchestras and festival bands like this. Much of the work was seasonal and taken up in the schedule of the increasingly popular holiday spots like Scarborough Spa. 

Scarborough Spa Complex

The Scarborough Spa is a seaside community that developed into a destination for health-minded tourists in the 17th century when a natural spring was discovered that had supposedly medicinal powers. To better understand what it was like in earlier times we need a guide.

A search of vintage books in Google Books produced this title:

A Picturesque Survey of the United Kingdom and its Institutions
translated by Henry Frith

published in 1887.

"The principal occupation of the 30,000 inhabitants of Scarborough consists in letting lodgings and in amusing the 200,000 visitors who come there every year. Like ants they lay up an ample provision for the winter; so living is very dear there, as it in all other fashionable watering places. In the months of August and September season is in full swing - the hotel keepers are intractable, rooms are at a premium, and everything is very expensive.

"The best hotels, the museum, the aquarium, and the promenades are upon the South Cliff, where we also find the Spa Saloon, for Scarborough possesses two somewhat what celebrated springs of ferruginous waters. The South Cliff is connected with the town and railway station by a wide avenue and a bridge, which crosses the Ramsdale Valley 80 feet below. It contains some very beautiful shady walks and tastefully laid out gardens. The favorite promenade is the esplanade. Between this and a terrace overlooking the bay is the saloon – a vast stone building, containing a concert room, a theatre, a lecture room, and a restaurant – in a word, the casino, which is incumbent on every watering place which has any self respect. The interior decoration in the Renaissance style is very elegant embossed gilding alternating with brighter colours. The principal hall is capable of containing 1,500 persons. A terrace supported by small cast iron columns runs round three sides of the saloon, thus forming, according to circumstances, a balcony to the first floor, and a covered promenade to the ground floor. Besides concerts of vocal music, which are given in the hall, the casino orchestra plays twice a day on the terrace, which is thronged night and day by a well dressed crowd.

The aquarium, which is claimed to be the most beautiful in the world, is enclosed in the ravine that cuts the cliff into two parts, which are united by the cliff bridge that passes over this establishment, whose Moorish architecture is not particularly attractive. Within the building are twenty six tanks, containing a number of specimens of sea and river fishes, alligators, tortoises, and the inevitable seals, whose evolutions so greatly amuse children of all ages. There are also grottoes arranged with chairs and tables, wherein one can read the papers, or chat while listening to the harmonious strains of the orchestra, which constitutes the great attraction of the aquarium.

"We descend to the beach by an ingenious tramway which saves bathers the trouble of walking up and down the steep cliffs. This is an immense boon to invalids, and there are a great number of bathing places in England and France which would do well to imitate Scarborough in this respect – Biarritz for example.

"Sandy, soft, and firm, the beach is covered with bathing machines. According to English custom, ladies bathe on one side and the gentlemen on the other. Children play on the sand, construct redoubts, and fortifications, on which they plant the British flag. A considerable number of equestrians, some mounted on hired hacks, others upon the modest donkey, plunge through the sands in every sense of the word. In this respect Scarborough does not set an example worthy of imitation, the presence of these riders a source of danger to the children, and an annoyance to the promenaders."

Scarborough continues to be a popular resort with much musical and theatrical entertainment but according to the Wikipedia entry, the Scarborough Spa waters were declared unfit for human consumption and sealed off in the 1930s.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link for more vintage top hats and fancy dress.

A Mother's Pride

11 May 2012

A young musician is always a delight, and it is a special treat to meet this mother and son violin duo. Some antique photos invite you into a home and introduce you to a family. This image greets you as an honored guest and grants you a view of a mother's pride in her child's accomplishments.
Despite the lack of postmark or other writing, this postcard conveniently provides a caption that takes us into a story beyond the drawing room. Her Majesty the Queen Elisabeth and the Crown Prince of the royal family of Belgium, are performing a small concert for us. Prince Leopold, dressed in a sailor suit, looks a bit reluctant to demonstrate his violin under the watchful eyes of his mother. While musical skill has always been prized by a royal household, it is unusual to see it displayed here by a Queen and her Crown Prince. What is their story? 

Her majesty is Queen Elisabeth Gabriele Valérie Marie, Duchess of Bavaria, (1876 – 1965), the queen consort of King Albert I of the Belgians. A member of the House of Wittelsbach, her father, Duke Karl-Theodor of Bavaria, who was also a renowned ophthalmologist, instilled in his children a love of the arts. Duchess Elisabeth married Prince Albert of Belgium in 1900, at a time when he was second in line after his father, Prince Philippe of Belgium, Count of Flanders, to succeed King Leopold  II.  The genealogy of a royal family can read like a complicated road map, and it is quite easy to get lost and discover you are in another country. But it is not their lineage that I want you to meet, but the people themselves.

A second postcard gives us a more intimate view of this Belgian family. The caption reads:

La Reine donnant une leçon au Duc de Brabant,
à ses côtès, le Roi.

The Queen giving a lesson to the Duke of Brabant,
at his side, the King.

King Albert I (1875 - 1934) sits reading a magazine, as his wife instructs his son on proper violin technique. Did his father-in-law make his spectacles? The date is around 1910, or shortly after Albert had assumed the Belgian throne after the death of his uncle, King Leopold II in December 1909, as Albert's father, Leopold's brother, had died in 1905. Albert, a devout Catholic, was a very different person from Leopold II. Admired as a supporter of working class people, he also instituted reforms of the inhumane treatment of the native people of the Belgian Congo. But his greatest challenge was to come in 1914 with the invasion of the German army and the start of World War I.

King Albert I
In 1914 King Albert refused to allow the Germans to advance on France through his country. When they attacked anyway, he assumed personal command of the Belgian army and managed to delay the invasion long enough for the British and French forces to take a stand at the Battle of the Marne. He subsequently withdrew the remaining Belgian forces to behind the river Yser where the prolonged trench warfare would begin. His wife served as a field hospital nurse and even young Leopold was made a private in the army at age 14, but was later sent to Eton in 1915.

After the war, Albert helped to bring the various Belgian political forces together and institute universal suffrage. He participated in the Paris Peace Conference. advocating for war reparations for his devastated country and yet opposing the harsh terms forced onto Germany, as he feared it would lead to another war.

An avid outdoors man, He died from a mountaineering fall during a solo rock climb in 1934.

_ _ _

Crown Prince Leopold and
Princess Astrid of Sweden, 1926

Crown Prince Leopold, (1901 - 1983), the Duke of Brabant whose full name was Léopold Philippe Charles Albert Meinrad Hubertus Marie Miguel, continued his education after England, by enrolling at St. Anthony Seminary in Santa Barbara, California. In 1926 he married Princess Astrid of Sweden. and they would have three children. Leopold became King Leopold III after his father's tragic death in 1934, but the winds of fate continued to follow this family. While driving around Lake Lucerne in August 1935, Leopold lost control of his car causing it to plunge into the lake, killing Queen  Astrid and their unborn 4th child.

One of the strangest ironies of history came in 1939 when King Leopold III faced the same difficult confrontation as his father - a German invasion. This time, Belgium attempted to maintain neutrality, but in May 1940, German forces once again attacked this small country. While the Belgian defense would soon fail, it was long enough to allow the British Expeditionary Force to evacuate from Dunkirk.

Yet King Leopold as commander of the Belgian army, refused to leave his country and was at odds with his government ministers. The German offensive proved too crushing, and on 27 May, 1940 he was forced to surrender the army, a decision considered contrary to the Belgian constitution. Leopold refused to cooperate with Hitler and form a new government, and was deported to Germany in 1944. In 1942 Leopold married Lilian Baels in a secret religious ceremony, while under house arrest. This marriage and his position on the surrender forestalled his return to Belgium after the German defeat until 1950. It was marked by a violent general strike that led Leopold to abdicate in 1951 and allow his 20 year old son, Baudouin to succeed him as Belgium's monarch.

King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium
with their children c.1910
Source: The Internet

But this is Mother's Day weekend and Queen Elisabeth is the real interest for today. Clearly a devoted mother, as shown here with Albert and her children Leopold, Charles, and Marie José. she was also a devoted enthusiast of the arts, and in particular - music.

She developed a friendship with the celebrated Belgian violin soloist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 - 1931) who had a desire to create a music competition for young musicians. He died before he was able to achieved this, but in 1937 Queen Elisabeth established a solo competition in his memory, but which now commemorates her name and patronage, called the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition.

_ _ _

H.M. Queen Elisabeth

In that first year David Oistrakh took first prize for violin and the following year, Emil Gilels won for piano. The war and various other circumstances postponed the competition's revival until 1951, but it is now one of the premier events for young soloists and has prizes for violin, piano, voice, and composition. This year the Queen Elisabeth Competition will be a violin contest which begins this weekend.

A life of privilege  probably did not require Elisabeth to make a peanut butter sandwich for her children or to drive them to school. But I think she serves as an exemplar model of both a mother and a Queen.

But the history worth discovering in these two postcards is perhaps her most important life contribution. During the German occupation of Belgium in WWII, Queen Elisabeth aided in the rescue of hundreds of Jewish children from deportation by the Nazis. For this she was presented the title Righteous Among the Nations by the government of Israel. That is a story of  a true mother and a great queen.

This is my Mother's Day gift for all mothers everywhere,
but with special love to my own mother
who gave me a love of music too.
And it is also my contribution to Sepia Saturday,
where you might find more stories from a royal kitchen.

The Well-Dressed Trombonist

05 May 2012

The trombone was a popular instrument in the 1900s to judge by the many photographs that I have found. While cornet players are still rank tops for numbers of individual musician photos, trombonists run a good second on portraits, I think. But for fancy uniforms they can't be beat.

This player from Wisconsin, dates from mid 1920s to 1930s. His uniform dress has the kind of mixed up style that was part of this post-WW1 period, which takes jodhpurs and a Sam Browne belt  (both accessories that come by way of British India) and combines them with a tall shako and the embroidered bandsman coat from an older era. The tasseled gaiters are also similar to jodpur boots, sort of a shoe with Puttee, which suggests more British influence or more likely Hollywood. The photographer was Rupert Zierer of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Born in Germany in 1878, he ran a photography studio there from around 1900 to the 1930s.

Compare his uniform with this Harrisburg, PA trombonist, whose story I posted back in 2010.

One might think they were in the same band, but I think it was a case of the bands buying the uniforms from the same supplier.

This trombonist is dressed in the apparel of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal society. A member of the K.o.C. Council 152, he has a splendid uniform that includes plumed hat, sash, black gloves and a ceremonial sword. The photo postcard was from Penn Park Studio in York, Pennsylvania.The idea of a trombonist with a sword is bit unsettling, they are already using both hands. Perhaps it was fixed on as a bayonet.

This next photograph is a cabinet card from an earlier period, the mid-1890s, and shows a trombonist in what I believe is a US Army regimental band uniform but I have not found a confirmation yet. The eagle on the helmet is usually the official emblem but sometimes there were bands that imitated the military styles. And many regiments had independent styles that were not consistent with the ordinary soldier's uniform.

The musician has a piston valve trombone instead of a slide trombone. It was the more common form of trombone in 19th century bands, valves being easier to play in tune than the infinitely adjustable slide, and more practical in close quarters. Many a musician has lost an eye to a 7th position stretch from a clumsy slide trombone player. 

The photographer was J.J. Stephenson of Ypsilaniti, Michigan, and his studio back-stamp is worth including. Note the box camera on top the artist's palette.   

This last trombonist also holds a valve trombone and is likely a member of a US Army regimental band too. He has the same eagle emblem on his plumed helmet and the three rows of buttons on his coat.

The photographer was the New York Gallery of J. H. Peters & Co. of 25 Third St., San Francisco, California.  And this dates from the 1880's to 1890's.

With just a little imagination, one can see these musicians leading their bands in a hearty march, plumes shaking in the breeze as they stride along the boulevard.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link to find more enthusiasts of old photos.


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