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 I believe he was a member of this town band. His placement in the photo suggests a small sense of inclusion, perhaps even acceptance of this black man in an era when African-Americans were not afforded an equal place in American 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 traveled in history.  Juneteenth is a real holiday that deserves to be celebrated by all Americans. And despite today's over-produced performances of the Star Spangled Banner, in 1900 it was not the accepted national anthem performed in most small towns.  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.

* * * *

** **
Since the LOC audio play may not work in some browsers,
here is the same recording posted on YouTube.

* * *

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

Helen May Butler and her All-American Girls

18 January 2013

In the 1900s, owning shares in a South African ostrich farm should have paid a very nice dividend to judge by this feathered ensemble of ladies, all musicians with Helen May Butler and her Ladies Brass Band. Despite the name this 24 piece concert band had an additional woodwind section of flutes, clarinets, and saxophones. Helen May Butler (1867-1957), the band's directress as she was sometimes called, stands in front holding her baton and dressed in a fabulous white uniform. She is surrounded by her girls - young ladies from all across America, each wearing a white blouse and uniform skirt that resembles the attire of Georgia Rymer, whom I introduced last week. But unlike her cap, these young ladies have tri-corner hats with splendid ostrich plumes. If you shake your monitor screen you might produce the same effect you would see when the band performed on stage.

The image is a reproduction photo from a Smithsonian Museum postcard which I acquired because it is hard to find many photos of Ms. Butler and her band. The card gives no date or place, but their popular tours began in 1901 and continued until 1912, when Helen May retired  to Cincinnati with her two children and 2nd husband.

This postcard of a lady with a tenor saxophone, shows a member of the Butler Ladies Band and if I am not mistaken, she is standing to the right of Helen May in the band photo. Unfortunately there is no identification on the card.

Her pose is not unlike the postcard of the trombonist Georgia Rymer, which was a gift I received from Helen Costigan, the grand daughter of Helen May Butler. Not long after that gift, she sent me a second envelope with several more postcards of her grandmother's girls, and I would like to present them for your favor today.

These young musicians performed with the Butler Ladies Band at festivals, expositions, world fairs, chautauquas, and vaudeville shows from California to New York to South Carolina and Colorado. This women's band was acclaimed the equal of any men's ensemble, and in its time, became the most renowned musical group of women musicians in America.

Today we see only a band of elaborately costumed young women, but in this era when music was a very masculine occupation, this was THE premier band of professional female musicians anywhere. They may have been a novelty to some people, a distraction or even irritation to others, but in that first decade of 1900 they were part of a cultural revolution that would introduce the American public to the very best talent and artistry that women could achieve. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 22, 1901
According to a display ad for New York City's Orpheum TheaterHelen May Butler's Ladies' Military Band headlined the vaudeville stage for the first time in December 1901. First organized in 1898 by Helen May as the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band in Providence, Rhode Island, the emphasis on military was to avoid any association with tawdry burlesque troupes and to compete directly with the hundreds of professional bands, all ensembles of men of course, which were often named as Marine Band or Regimental Band.

The Billboard, Oct. 25, 1902

Around 1901 Helen May Butler met John Leslie Spahn who became her business manager and then her husband. Together they had two children. His letters to magazines suggest Spahn was a glib talker. Perhaps too smooth, as their marriage did not last the decade.

At the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, he changed the name of the band to promote her as the foremost female band leader. As the band's agent he was responsible for making the bookings around the complex entertainment circuits. In April 1902 there was this report in Billboard magazine.

J. Leslie Spahn has just closed contracts for 118 one-night stands over the Texas Independent Opera House Circuit. At the end of that time Helen May Butler and her Ladles Military Band will have put in 304 consecutive day's work. Mr. Spahn is now considering an offer for 200 days on the Lyceum Circuit at the close of the Texas season. The band has played The Billboard March over 1000 times. 

This lady trombonist likely memorized The Billboard March as did the saxophonist and had her photo taken in the same studio. Most brass bands typically had two and usually three tenor trombones. Though there's no certainty, she may be the middle trombonist, 2nd from right on the 3rd row of the band photo.

One thing I am certain is that she is not Georgia Rymer, who is a bit shorter, measured by using the length of a trombone for reference.

As the band became more successful, Helen May Butler arranged to endorse Conn Band Instruments and in return had her band equipped by Conn with silver instruments. At the time,  C.G. Conn of Elkhart, Indiana was the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments and a major influence in promoting bands in American culture.

The Billboard, March 16, 1906

Artists of the entertainment world of 1900 were constantly on the move, traveling from theater to theater on the vast 19th century network of trains and ships. They and their agents kept appraised of the latest showbiz news through the pages of entertainment weeklies like The Billboard, The New York Clipper, and The New York Dramatic Mirror. The advertisements targeted the theater owners and agents rather than the public. This 1906 ad for Helen May Butler's Military Band ran in the The Billboard and it's interesting that it includes a very pro-union statement that the band would "not contract with parties that have a Union Strike or any thing unfair to the Musical Unions."  Like Georgia Rymer's union card, this is more evidence that Helen May and her girls were union members of the American Federation of Musicians. You don't have to read many pages of these magazines to recognize that the working life of performers in vaudeville and traveling shows was very difficult. In between reports of successful shows and profitable ventures, there were stories of failed theatrical companies and disreputable managers which produced miserable conditions and wages for the countless people drawn to a career on the stage.

This young cornet player looks to be hardly more than age 12 or 13. Her postcard has a novel soft focus halo, but you can just about see the HMB badge on her cap. Her skirt is shorter to show off white stockings and shoes and she wears a cadet-style jacket.

Many of the girls probably responded to ads like this one from the August 11, 1906, edition of the New York Clipper:
Lady Musicians
Good readers. Salaries reasonable, and R.R. fares paid after joining. Kickers and cranks stay away. 
Claysons. wire.


New York Dramatic Mirror, Sept 1901
The New York Dramatic Mirror published a list of the members of the Butler's Ladies' Military Band in September 1901. Helen May was always listed as proprietor as well as musical director. In the early years, many of the band's musicians were girls from Providence, Rhode Island where Helen May lived in 1900. Several girls have the same last name and were undoubtedly sisters. As the band became better known, female musicians from across the country applied to join the band. I found names of girls from Colorado, Kansas, New York, and Minnesota who were praised in their hometown papers for winning a spot in the band.

Though she was most familiar with New England, growing up in Providence and studying music in Boston, for some reason in the mid-1900s, perhaps because of J. Leslie Spahn, Helen May made her home in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska just south of Lincoln, Georgia Rymer's home. During the winter off-season, Helen  May took work there teaching music lessons and conducting church and theater orchestras, but to succeed in the super competitive world of music meant a band leader had to stay on the road and tour.

In 1904, Helen May Butler was reported to have plans to add a saxophone quartet to her band. Though the saxophone, in it's various sizes - soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, had been around since the 1850s, it was not then a common instrument in the established American bands. However it was fast becoming a popular instrument with women and already several small ensembles included women saxophonists. No doubt Helen May decided to capitalize on this novelty factor and add female sax players to augment the usual band instrumentalists.

This lady has a tenor saxophone and clearly posed at the same studio as the cornet player. One magazine report mentioned that there were two uniforms for the ladies, one for street and one for stage, and another report described the uniform colors as purple and white.


The Billboard, April 18, 1908

By 1908 the Ladies Band was competing not only with bands but all manner of vaudeville acts, including Prof. Welch's Whippets, Capt. Mattery's Airships, Schepp's Dog and Pony Circus, and Mlle. Loubet's Loop of Death _ THE BEST OF ALL THRILLERS_ The only "Loop" act in which the lady is not strapped in the car.

This photo is my favorite of the collection I received from Helen Costigan. It is a very skillful portrait of a flutist and shows the HMB band uniform in better detail. She has that same modern military cap, affixed with a strategic hat pin, and a beautifully embroidered blouse under her jacket. Her instruments, a flute and piccolo, are both in African blackwood, the traditional material for this oldest of the woodwinds, and which is now used only for clarinets and oboes.

She looks older than the other band girls, not in her teens but perhaps in her twenties. All the girls were unmarried and carefully chaperoned. They were strongly discouraged from interacting with the public, especially the boys and men. This report was in the Iola, Kansas Daily Register, June 4, 1906:

The ladies in the band are not permitted to flirt or carry on conversation with strangers. The first violation of this rule means a $5 fine and the second one dismissal. This hardhearted rule has called forth a good deal of lamentation from the ever gallant southern newspapers in towns in that section which the band has visited. All save three of the ladies who were with the band in its initial year eight seasons ago have since married. All of them married their old sweethearts back home and for this the strict rules that hedge the organization may be thankful.


Minnesota Journal, Sept. 1905
The original band was small with between 16 and 20 musicians, mostly brass with maybe two drummers. Later the band expanded to 24 adding two or three clarinets to the brass sound. But success brings competition and the band needed to demonstrate its superior talent, so the personnel went to 40 and even 60 musicians when performing for a large audience.

In 1904, Helen May took her band to Missouri to play at a musical extravaganza that was part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also called the St. Louis World's Fair. The concerts they played there established Helen May Butler as a great bandleader and demonstrated that women were very much the artistic equal of men.  This promotional piece from the Minnesota Journal in 1905 shows Helen May Butler preparing for the downbeat and mentions three soloists in her 40 piece band, Florence Hamilton, trombone; Petite Vashti, horn; and Ora Sneary,  who played several brass instruments.


This flutist had her photo taken in Minnesota at the studio of Charles H. Collins of St. Paul. Her instrument is also made of African blackwood, but she is not wearing the same uniform as the other women. With fringe on the sleeves and skirt it might be a costume of another band, perhaps from one of the many wild west shows.

But this young lady took a business-like approach with Helen May Butler and added her name and address on the back -  
Emma Thome,
214 Dakota St.,
St. Paul, Minn.

Unfortunately I was unable to locate her in the 1900 or 1910 censuses. But the 1914 St. Paul city directory listed a hotel owner named Frank Thome with daughter Viola Thome, occupation - musician. In 1915 she was at the same address, though not on Dakota St., and now working as a clerk. But this time it was Viola E. Thome. What flutist with the name Viola wouldn't prefer to use a middle name when writing to a band director?

This last postcard has a woman posed with two different woodwind instruments, an alto saxophone and a flute, this time in silver. Doubling on several instruments is a common skill for woodwind musicians as once the finger work skill is mastered, learning another woodwind is relatively easy. It also means a versatile doubler is paid more under union rules.

This lady also added her name on the back:
Jeanne A. Graybill
Saxophone Soloist
1317 Napolean Ave.
New Orleans, La.


Jeanne was the daughter of Dr. Jacob B. Graybill, a physician in private practice. In the 1910 census at age 19, she was living with only her father and no mother, and listed no work. By 1920 she had a job as bookkeeper for an export company and was still single. And sadly, by 1930 her father now deceased, she was still unmarried and without occupation.

Too many mysteries, and too little time to solve them all.

These seven musicians were just a fraction of the hundreds of young women who played in Helen May Butler's bands. They were all pioneers in music, but more importantly they helped transform a culture to accept women as equals in art, business, and society.

The pressures of a failed marriage, two small children to raise, and the fatigue of constantly being on the road, caused Helen May Butler to retire from show business in 1912 and break up her band. She probably also recognized that the great age of band music was now in decline and about to be disrupted by the looming conflict in Europe. Recovered from divorce with J. Leslie Spahn, she married a Scotsman named James H. Young, and they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to run a hotel. It was also the city of The Billboard magazine which ran this small classified ad in the May 17, 1917 edition.

LADIES BAND UNIFORMS — Like new, 8 blue,
   8 red; either set a bargain at $100.00 cash.
   HELEN MAY BUTLER,  Burlington Hotel, Cinclnnati, O.

Helen Costigan's first gift helped solve a challenging photo mystery for me, but her second gift was the key to a much larger door of cultural history. One that I am immensely thrilled to have opened and in some small part preserve the neglected musical history of Helen May Butler and her Ladies Brass Bands.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is just standing around gawping at something.

There is much much more to this story,
as Helen Costigan's gift included even more photos!
So my faithful and too kind readers can expect
at least two more sequels in the near future.

For more about
Helen May Butler
and her Ladies Band
start with the Prequel to this story:
A Young Lady from Nebraska

The next sequel
to Helen May Butler is:
Cornets and Apples

A Young Lady from Nebraska

11 January 2013

We all have those special treasures. A grandfather's pocket knife. An old teacher's note of praise. A child's handmade paperweight. They are the cherished gifts whose value can never be measured.

This is a story about such a gift, a postcard photo of a young lady standing with her trombone. Her name is Georgia Rymer and she is a character in a mystery story.

Georgia posed for a photographer's camera sometime around 1910. She is dressed in a white blouse and a long skirt with a broad stripe on the hem. Perched atop her head, no doubt fastened with a hat pin, is a band cap, which for its time has a rather modern style. Georgia is from Bethany, Nebraska which was once a village on the northeast side of Lincoln, Nebraska's state capital.

(And for my Sepia Saturday readers, a place about as far from the ocean as one can get in America.)


Georgia's story is one of mistaken identity, because a few years ago I purchased this photo of a young woman holding a horn and for some long time believed that her name was  Georgia Rymer. You might remember her photo from the post called Three Kansas City Vaudeville Musicians. Her real name is unfortunately still unknown but since I now know she is not Georgia, I have named her Florida.

Florida's photo is unusual because she is playing the horn at a time when few women played such an instrument. And when I purchased her photograph, which is a proper studio photo and not a postcard, it came with some extra ephemera that is not typical of photo sales. It included a musician's union card from 1910 and a musicians union rules book from 1907.

The name written on the card was Georgia Rymer.

But Florida's photo had no inscription, no mark to identify her as Georgia, and the photographer's studio was in Kansas City, Missouri. The dealer had no clues except that he thought it was a lot picked up in Pennsylvania. Was this young woman a union musician from Lincoln, Nebraska of 1910? Her dress certainly looked professional, even theatrical, but there was a bit more ankle showing than one would expect from 1910. How could I answer this question? This started a challenging search for the musical clues and forgotten genealogy that might solve this riddle.

In order to connect the name to the photograph, I had to learn more about the Rymer family, about Lincoln, and about those first years of the new century. I built a detailed family history. I learned that Georgia was born in Nebraska in 1887, the daughter of James and Ella Rymer. She had three sisters, Alice, Nellie, and Hattie and two brothers, Charles the oldest, and Atlee.  Her father was a gardener at the state asylum, one brother a policeman, the other a farm laborer. In 1910 Georgia was 23 years old and the census listed her as an office clerk at a newspaper. She had a full but unremarkable family but I found nothing in her background that might connect her to a musical instrument much less the career of a professional musician.

The card is from the 3rd quarter of 1910 and certifies that Miss Georgia Rymer is a member of the M.P.U. (Musicians Protective Union) of Lincoln, Local No. 463 American Federation of Musicians. 
It's signed by G.F. Thornburg, Secretary at 406 So. 17th.

The small booklet entitled Constitution and By-Laws of Local 463, American Federation of Musicians is complete and reads pretty much like the union rules I became intimately familiar with when I was once a musicians union officer. The only difference is that this book dates from 1907, and the A.F.M. had only been organized in 1896.

With over 34 pages, this booklet would come with a musician's first membership and then be squirreled away in a desk drawer to be forgotten. Robert's rules can be pretty dull stuff.

But having the name of a young woman on a 1910 union card makes this unique ephemera. In this era the trade union movement was just getting started, and the role of the musicians union in the entertainment industry was still being negotiated. There were only a few locals and most were in the big cities. In some ways the entertainment world was bigger in this decade than ours today, with countless musicians providing live music for restaurants, casinos, riverboats, passenger liners, concert halls, vaudeville theaters, and many other venues that have long ago disappeared from our cultural life. And for nearly all of this music making, women musicians were prohibited or played only a very minor role.

In 1910, American women were still excluded from the political and financial world. They had none of the protections of civil rights that contemporary women have today. In the music industry, women would not break into the major symphony orchestras until the 1960s. It was an era of discrimination and segregation for not only race but also gender.

How did Miss Georgia Rymer get a musicians union card in 1910?

The answer would be in the three letters on her hat. HMB.

But I'm getting ahead of myself and have not untangled the knot for you yet. After many hours searching in vain on the internet, I came across a very good clue. Someone on a genealogy forum had posted an offer under the Rymer family sub-group. This person had a photo of Georgia Rymer. Was anyone interested? The posting was a few years old, and the writer left no address or contact except for an outdated email address. So the hunt took me to a new trail and a new name to uncover.

By amazing chance, I made contact with the writer, Helen Costigan. No one had ever asked her about the photo, so she sent me a scan. It was then that I recognized that the photo of the horn player and the name on the union card  photo were not connected. I had a photo, or a union card, of the wrong woman.

This is where the treasured gift comes in. Without my asking, Helen generously sent me this postcard of Georgia Rymer with an explanation of how she came to have this photo.

On the back of her card, Georgia had written a note. 
Dear Friend;
Are you needing any trombones this season? I am not doing any thing at present, and would go with you this season for same as I wrote in letter. Please let me know at once. Georgia. Rymer
    Georgia Rymer

Helen May Butler (1867 - 1957)

Georgia's friend was the most celebrated woman in American band music in 1910, Helen May Butler, and Helen Young Costigan was her grand-daughter.

Born in New Hampshire in 1867 and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Helen May Butler  developed an early  musical gift and went on to study music in Boston, where she became a noted performer on violin and cornet. In 1891 she tried conducting and organized the Talma Ladies Orchestra. By 1898 it had become the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band. Over the next 15 years she would produce several professional bands that would give concerts all across America. All with women musicians.

The quality of her bands was considered exceptional and she was favorably compared to the great bandleaders Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa. Her band played for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and 1904.  The band's motto was: "Music for the American people, by American composers, played by American girls."

Though she was from New England,  in 1910 her home was in Beatrice, Nebraska, a small town of 9,300 and only 40 miles south of Lincoln.  Surely any American girl who played the trombone and lived so close would know all about Helen May Butler. Georgia wears a uniform with an HMB cap badge, but could I find any other proof that she really played in Helen May Butler's Ladies Band?

Just this month I found another piece of the puzzle.

At the turn into the 20th century, one of the greatest cultural phenomena in America was the popular Chautauqua movement.  These week-long events were usually held in rural communities and combined lectures, sermons, and music into a non-denominational quasi-educational festival. They were not carnivals or fairs, but a kind of stage performance not unlike the TED conferences that are now part of our 21st century culture. Just like the motto of the TED talks, it was a way to disseminate "ideas worth spreading." By 1900 there were enough of these Chautauquas to make a circuit for the many itinerant speakers and touring groups. One musical group that was regularly engaged was Helen May Butler's Ladies Band. 

Here she is with her band at the Chautauqua in Sabetha, Kansas in 1909. Arranged outside of an immense tent, the girls in the band wear uniforms identical to Georgia's. Only a few have their instruments out, but the girl standing at left has a trombone case. Helen May Butler stands on the right wearing an impressive black feathered hat.

On the back of the card there are two names penciled:

Mr. Peter McQueen

Miss Georgia Rymer
The internet has very few citations for Helen May Butler, but one of them is at the Library of  the University of Iowa. In their Special Collections are the Marion Ballou Fisk Papers which has a page with 3 more pictures of Helen May Butler and her band from this very day in Sabetha, KS. Since the UI Library wants to charge $100 per image to reproduce them on a website, you will have to go there to see the girls with their instruments. It's free to look.

The photos help identify some of the other people in my photo. The man with the cornet on right is not identified, but the woman on his left is Marion Ballou Fisk, a performing lecturer and cartoonist. And the man in the bush hat is Reverend Dr. Peter McQueen, a Protestant missionary who went to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, and then joined the Chautauqua circuit to give a travelogue of his adventures using a lantern slide show.

Why would a lecturer from Boston send a postcard of a ladies band to a young woman in Nebraska? Is that Georgia standing at the back of the band? It's hard to say with certainty as the likeness is not exact in this grainy souvenir postcard. But one thing seems clear, Georgia must have been, even if only for a month of two, a professional union musician in Helen May Butler's Ladies Band.

This could have been just another trivial mystery. It is no great error if a faded photo of a young lady and her French horn is inadvertently given an incorrect name from an old union card. But the generous gift from Helen Costigan enabled me to find the true story of the real Georgia Rymer, a 23 year old aspiring musician who hoped to rejoin the most famous women's musical ensemble in America. Her experience is just a paragraph in an extraordinary history that has surprisingly very little documentation. It was the struggle of women musicians in America to gain equality on the musical stage. It was not easy then and would continue to be difficult for women musicians for many more decades, but Georgia and Florida were both part of that labor struggle along with the bandleader Helen May Butler.

Constructing someone's biography involves far more details than I need to relate here, but I feel the need for a brief coda. In 1913 Georgia married Joseph Weinberg, a clothing merchant and then insurance agent. He died of apoplexy in 1922. His obituary said only "survived by a wife and a brother." In December 1930, Mrs. Georgia Weinberg appeared in newspaper reports when she made bail for her policeman brother Charles Rymer, accused of shooting a young man at a gas station. That fragment allowed me to research her married name but as far as I can determine after 1910 she never again played trombone with any Lincoln community bands. She had no children and died in Lincoln on January 4, 1982 at age 94.

Sadly, Helen Costigan died in January 2011 and I wish I could have presented her with Georgia's story. But her generosity did not end with the gift of this young lady's postcard to her grandmother. For more of the story of Helen May Butler, you will have to wait until next weekend for Part 2.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might find more sand and seaside than ever found in Nebraska.

Bandsmen of the Black Watch

04 January 2013

If there was any band that truly deserved to have their sepia tone photo colorized, it was this one, the Pipe Band of the Black Watch. These 15 pipers, 12 drummers, and one drum major are members of the Black Watch , a Scottish Regiment of the British Army. The postcard publisher lavished extra attention to painting their white tunics and brightly colored tartans, even adding just the right amount of gold gilt to the drums. 

Like all Scottish apparel, the distinctive plaid pattern of the tartan is an important element of a piper's livery. The name Black Watch comes from the kilt and cloak's dark green and black weave worn by the soldiers whose duty was to "watch" or guard the Scottish Highlands.

But pipers were given the honor of also wearing the more familiar red plaid of the Royal Stewart Tartan which is the pattern reserved for the British Royal colors.

This Black Watch Piper from the same postcard series wears the Royal Stewart sash and kilt while his jacket and bagpipes are in the Black Watch.  He also sports a tall  feather bonnet made of ostrich feathers, which resembles a British Foot Guards bearskin hat, but is more lightweight. Attached on one side is the Black Watch regimental plume, the Red Hackle, supposedly of vulture feathers, which marks an heroic military action in 1795 and is an award worn only by the Black Watch. As it happens, the official Red Hackle Day is celebrated on January 5th which makes this photo an appropriate choice to start the new year.


This card is captioned Kettledrummer, “Black Watch” but the bandsman's instrument is actually a field drum or side drum. Drummers were used by armies for thousands of years, even into World War One, to play the signals used to direct troop movement on the battlefield. The Scots added the bagpipes as a way of getting these important orders heard over the din of battle. The drum heads are held together with rope and tensioned with the white leather tabs on the side. Typically there was also a snare of wires that vibrate on the lower head and could be released if desired.

The Pipe Major of the Black Watch was the band leader and responsible for  directing the music and keeping the musicians in order. This postcard of the Pipe Major dates from around the same period but was published in a Valentine's Series postcards whereas the others are marked P & W.M. , Ltd. All of the cards were never posted, but I have found identical cards that are postmarked 1904-05, so these bandsmen were photographed pre-WW1.

The pipe major wears the same uniform and feather bonnet with red hackle as the previous piper with only a slight difference in colorizing. His sporran, the traditional Scottish men's purse, is made of horsehair and has a distinctive design with five black tassels that was unique to the Black Watch. His bagpipes are held with the three drones draped over his arm and the chanter in his hand. Adjusting the drone's single reeds to be in tune with the chanter's double reed is a very challenging skill, and one that often requires the assistance of a third hand. No doubt this was an important duty of the pipe major to have all his pipers agree on pitch.

Besides a pipe band, there was also a Brass Band of the Black Watch. Here the 52 musicians are dressed in just the green and black tartan with white tunics and green field caps. The caption says brass band, but there are some clarinets lying on the carpet next to some horns, and a string bass player hiding behind a cornet player on the right. According to the official Black Watch museum, the unit's band was discontinued in the 1990s. 

The last card is marked Drummer, Black Watch but this imposing bandsman plays the big bass drum. You may have noted the medals on the other uniforms, which I was unable to identify, but this soldier's campaign medal colors were very carefully painted. The red/blue/yellow/blue/red are the insignia for the Queen's South Africa Medal for service in the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. The number 42 on the drum refers to the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot which was one of the Scottish regiments that merged to form the Black Watch. It's quite possible that this drum may have even kept the beat since the Napoleonic Wars.

Just to right of the Black Watch brass band is a sign on the wall. It says:

Regalia Open
Sundays 10 to 4
Weekdays 11 to 3


It is the sign on the Royal Palace at Edinburgh Castle informing the public when they may see the Scottish Crown Jewels. The great castle in Edinburgh has been around since medieval times and in the 19th century was used as a prison and army garrison. The Black Watch was officially established in 1881 and when these postcards were published the castle management was being transferred from the War Office to the Office of Works which handles the Royal household's many residences and castles. This included watching over the Honours of Scotland, also known as the Scottish regalia which came in three parts - the Crown, the Sceptre, and the Sword of State. Having a band play music for the public who came to see these symbols of Scotland and Britain was the beginning of a tourist entertainment that continues in Edinburgh today.

The Royal Palace at Edinburgh Castle

The heritage of military band music is observed every year with performances on the castle's esplanade of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The term Tattoo comes from the Dutch phrase "Doe den tap toe" used as a tavern call of "Last orders".  It translates as "close the (beer) tap". The British army encountered this lamentable concept in the 1740s during the War of the Austrian Succession  and adopted a practice of having drummers or pipes & drums play a special late evening signal advising tavern owners to close their taps and send the soldiers back to their barracks. Later it became another name for an evening entertainment by military musicians. The first Edinburgh Military Tattoo was in 1950, and it has since become the most popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh.

In order to demonstrate the collective noise of a pipe band, here is a terrific YouTube video taken this past year during Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee. This excerpt comes from the middle of the show and includes some precision marching. Extra points if you can count them all. If you look closely in the center of the diamond formation you will spot one bass drummer who wears a white hat, presumably not made from a polar bear but of white ostrich feathers. He seems to be the chief drummer in charge of changing the beat. Watch at around 2:12 and 2:40.

(This is part 2 of 3, and I recommend parts 1 and 3 if you would like the full Scottish experience.)

The many traditions of the Scottish pipe bands are now part of the musical culture of many nations that were once part of the British Empire - Canada, Australia, Pakistan, and even America where pipe bands are now frequently played at the funerals of police and fire department officers. Unfortunately the hymn tune Amazing Grace gets over-used and loses some of its ceremonial power I think, because there are other fine tunes for the bagpipes. 

One was performed on this remarkable video that I discovered. The occasion was also a funeral and one that truly deserved a pipe band - the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, in March of 2002. Be patient until the pipers pass and I know that you will be as moved as I was. There can be no better musical tribute.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the skirl of bagpipes are sounding this week. 


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