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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The Christmas Violin

21 December 2014

A Very Short Story
inspired by
a postcard greeting.

The porter held the stage door open as Harold came up the loading dock steps. "Looks like you got your hands full, Mr. Petersen," he said. "You planning on staying a while?"

"No more than I need to. This is just another violin I brought for this evening's performance," said Harold. He set the two cases on the lobby floor and brushed the snow off of his overcoat. "How's the crowd tonight, Jim?"

"Some might say it's beginning to look like Christmas, but I thinks it really looks like money," the porter said with a grin as he hung up Harold's hat and coat. "Mrs. Schneider at the box office tells me nearly every seat is sold. Not too bad for a Christmas concert."

"That's great, thanks, Jim. I'll be in my dressing room." He walked down the corridor giving an occasional nod to the other musicians who had also arrived early. Just off from the stage entrance he turned at a small room and placed his two violin cases on a table. He had just begun stretching his fingers and bow arm to warm up when there was a knock at the door. It was Ernesto, his stand partner.

"There's been a change in the program," Ernesto said with a frown. "The maestro he wants to switch to the Third Noel instead of the First. And the union says they're short on pipers and drummers, so it's only going to be 10 days of Christmas now." He laughed and struck up Joy to the World on his violin. "I told him, thank goodness this band got no shortage of Lords!" They both laughed.

Ernesto lifted the cover on the second case. "I see you brought Nell's fiddle tonight. She's my favorite Christmas tradition." He pointed to the postcard tucked into the lining. "What you think she'd say if she could know it was being played by a concertmaster of a symphony orchestra?"

Harold smiled. "Oh, she'd say it was only expected for such a fine instrument. Her daddy paid Misters Sears and Roebuck $12.45 cents for that Stainer violin.  Came all the way from Chicago it did, so it must be good." He pulled the bow out and showed it to Ernesto. "Though after 50 years there's more rosin than hair on this bow. It's probably time to get it rehaired."

 Ernesto nodded. "You're not playing this for the whole show are you?" he asked.

"No, no, no. Not for the Tchaikovsky or anything serious. Just the carols. We wouldn't want to alarm the Maestro," Harold chuckled. "Now scram and let me warmup my not-so-good fiddle too." Ernesto affected a courtier's bow and backed out of the room. 

For the next few minutes Harold ran through his arpeggios and scales, first on one violin and then another. Maybe no one else could hear it but he thought the sound of Nell's fiddle was sweeter than any Stradivarius or Guarnieri. He closed his eyes and listened to the instrument vibrating so close to his ear. It was just like the sound he had first heard so many, many years ago. Dark like the nights on that Kansas farm that shimmered with the light of a million stars.

The old place was a long ride from town, and their nearest neighbors were 10 miles away, so they never had many visitors. Most folks only came in the summer as everyone was too busy in the spring and fall. And of course, winters on the prairie were damn harsh and no one ever dropped by then. That was what made her message so memorable.

To Annie with best wishes
Am I in time to play
the Xmas Carols for you
    Nell —

Aunt Nell was his mother Annie's younger sister. She had just finished nursing school in Kansas City and been offered a job at a hospital in St. Louis. Before she left for Missouri she asked if she could visit over the week of Christmas. Harold was only six then but he could still remember the excitement around the table when Daddy said yes.

That December a fierce cold wind brought waves of heavy snow that made it hard to get the farm chores done. Just a few days before Nell was to arrive on Christmas Eve, Arnie came down with a cough. Then Alexander and Elisabeth. At first he was okay but soon he and little Eva came down with a high fever too. 

The roads were so bad that it took Daddy all day to reach the station to pick up Nell. When they returned that evening Nell recognized that this was not a simple cold. It was diphtheria. She insisted that Daddy turn around and fetch Dr. Marsten from town taking a note she wrote describing the children's condition. Early the next morning the doctor arrived and gave them all injections of the new anti-toxin medicine. Over the next two days, the older ones slowly improved, but he and Eva still struggled with breathing. On the third night little Eva gave up. It broke his mama's heart though he didn't remember much except that Nell always seemed to be beside him. He could still feel her touch and smell the fragrance on her cheeks. And hear the sound of her violin.

The kids never heard music except for an occasional hymn on those rare visits to church, so on that first night when everyone was so restless, she took out her violin and began to play the soft melodies of Christmas carols, sometime even singing along. It was like a magic elixir that filled the night and made them forget that horrid discomfort. Harold had never imagined that anything could make a sound so beautiful as Nell's violin. A few days later when the worst of the fever had passed, she let him hold it and showed him how to play a few notes. 

Nell stayed a few weeks more in that difficult time and every day he would ask her to play. It seemed to help Mama and Daddy with their loss too. When she left for St. Louis she made a promise to give him lessons when she came back in the summer. For the next three summers he spent almost every minute of her visits learning how to make the instrument sing. Then in the summer of 1917 she sent word that she wasn't free to travel anymore. Late in September, Daddy came back from town with a package under his arm. It was her  violin. 

He started first with dance tunes from Sven the hired hand. Then he got regular lessons with Mrs. Sullivan at school and was soon playing in the church orchestra. At the end of high school the pastor got him a scholarship to the music conservatory in Chicago. Theater bands, radio orchestras, and for the past several years leader of a symphony orchestra. He was a long way from that Kansas farm now.   

The stage boy called through the door. "Ten minutes, Mr. Petersen." 

"Thank you, Billy." He set Nell's violin down while he checked his tie in the mirror. For the thousandth time he wished an impossible wish. She never got to hear him or the violin again. America had joined that terrible war in Europe and nurses were needed for the hospitals in France. Nell was with the first medical groups to go over, but they soon had more than just wounded casualties to care for. The Spanish Flu hit the soldiers over there beginning in August. It created a daunting challenge for the hospitals to defend against an invisible enemy. The armistice may have brought a halt to the wars of men but it was powerless to stop this plague. Nell died of influenza in January 1919.

The ladies and gentlemen of the chorus had finished climbing the tiers to take their seats at the back of the stage. Harold stood at the edge of the proscenium and waited for the noise of the orchestra to reach the top of its pre-concert crescendo. The house lights dropped and an expectant hush came over the musicians and audience.

He often wondered if on that Christmas of 1918 she was able to find another violin to play for the soldiers in her ward. Did she sing Oh Holy Night in that soft high voice? Did she relieve someone else's pain? Maybe it didn't matter if he could know. Angels never seek credit.

He strode briskly out to center stage and after a quick bow to the audience turned to the oboist for the tuning pitch. As he tested the strings, he was startled to discover that he'd left his regular violin back in the dressing room. He gave a snort and ignored Ernesto's quizzical look. There was nothing Nell's  fiddle could not play, and for the music of Christmas there could be no better instrument.  

It was the season of joy and good will. And of remembrance for gifts beyond measure.

>>> <<<

The young woman with her violin was named Nell
and that is all we can know from this postcard.
Her dress suggested a fashion style from 1914-15
so that is the date I have used to craft
a different story for her photo. I hope she'd approve.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
and my best wishes to all for a joyful New Year!

The Navy Band of the USS Minneapolis

12 December 2014

A bass drum makes an excellent billboard to advertise the name of a band. It is the first thing I look for in an old photograph and this drum made it easy to identify the US Navy Band of the USS Minneapolis. The Nineteen musicians arranged on the ship's deck are wearing the older style US Navy blue uniforms and flat caps. Seated in the center behind the drum is their bandmaster wearing a bow tie. Note the small E-flat clarinet on the right which was the typical high piccolo instrument of military bands, while on the left is a bandsman with the standard B-flat clarinet..

USS Minneapolis C-13

The USS Minneapolis belonged to a class of battleship called a protected cruiser. She was 413 ft (126 m) long with a displacement of 7,375 long tons and had a crew of 477 officers and enlisted men. Built in Philadelphia and commissioned in 1894 the Minneapolis was part of a major expansion of the US Naval fleet in the 1880s. During the Spanish-American war of 1898 the ship initially was part of the North Atlantic squadron and later moved to duty in the Caribbean. Almost immediately after the war ended in August 1898, the Minneapolis was decommissioned. Like many battleships of this era that had coal fired steam engines, the ship was periodically removed from duty until needed. Prior to World War One her last service finished in 1906.

USS Minneapolis C-13 in 1898

In 1917 when the United States entered the war, the Minneapolis returned to active duty in July and made 4 voyages across the Atlantic escorting American convoys taking troops and military supplies to Europe. After the war in 1919, the Minneapolis was reassigned to San Diego, California as flagship of the Pacific fleet. In 1921 she was decommissioned for the last time and sold for scrap. Her mast and ship's bell were saved and are now displayed near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.

The postcard of the band was part of a collection of several photos from an estate sale. This postcard shows the Chief Petty Officers of the USS Minneapolis, and I believe the bandmaster may be in this photo too.  It is difficult to tell with certainty but I think he is the man standing third from the right.

The back of the card has a penciled note which might be from the dealer, but there is a nice rubber stamp from the navy photographer of USS Minneapolis C-13 that makes it an official navy photo. In July 1920, the navy reclassified the ship as the CA-17. Since such a change would surely have required the photographer to get a new stamp, any postcards with C-13 must be from before that date.

Also in the estate sale was this photo of the USS Minneapolis band on parade. Here they wear the familiar white sailors caps, blue uniforms and white leggings. The bandmaster leads them from the front with a long drum major's baton. 

The back of the postcard has the same rubber stamp mark of the ship's photographer and a note that the parade was in San Francisco. Though that is certainly possible, the buildings seem more like Southern California so I suspect it might be in San Diego where the ship was based. Since the Minneapolis as the C-13 did not get to the Pacific until 1919, all three photos are likely from that year, though the first two could be earlier from 1917-18.

What  makes the Minneapolis band's photo most interesting is a detail that could easily be overlooked. Standing on the left is a trombonist whose complexion is not the same as the other bandsmen. The US Navy, like most of the nation, was very segregated in this era, so it is very unusual to see a man of color in a band like this. I believe he is Filipino as the Philippines were acquired in 1898 by the United States in the settlement of the Spanish-American War. From 1900 to 1935 the islands had a troubled history under U.S. civil administration. In 1901 the US Navy was ordered to add 500 Filipinos to the force, most serving as ship stewards. But a few talented musicians were accepted into the navy bands as seen in my 2013 story on a Filipino Navy Band from 1912. 

If we look at a closeup we can see the same man marching in the parade too.

A few rows back is another bandsman with darker skin. Because his instrument is tucked under his arm we can't determine what he played. Could he be Filipino as well? He might be African-American but this would be very unusual for 1919. In any case the postcards show a rare element of diversity that was not common to American society at this time.

One last bit of history on the USS Minneapolis I found particularly unsettling especially when considering the date of these photos. In a very long list of non-combat casualties compiled by the Department of the Navy, a record of the ship appears for January 1918 when the USS Minneapolis reported 21 cases of influenza while it was in the Philadelphia navy yard. It was the first occurrence on a navy ship and it quickly spread throughout the fleet claiming the lives of over 5,000 sailors before it abated in 1920. Millions of people perished from the great influenza pandemic,  far more than were killed during the war years. The actual origin of this deadly virus is still debated in medical science though the source is now believed to be China. But certainly the transmission of this illness was exacerbated by the use of military ships for transporting hundreds of thousands servicemen back and forth across the Atlantic. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where sailors are often on parade.

About a Dog

06 December 2014

There once was a dog that we'll call Beau
and one day he felt awfully low. 

It seems his gal whose name was Jane
was out of sorts and had a pain.

Her daddy he was known as Joe
and on a cornet he could blow.

A brassy noise came out the end
and poor old Beau it did offend.

He couldn't help but start to howl,
which made little Jane commence to yowl.

The noise they made was so dreadful bad
it made the photographer a trifle mad.

"Enough!" he cried. "Be silent, please."
and gave the shutter bulb a squeeze.

A gloomy photo it may be,
but what fun it is for us to see. 

>>> <<<

This unhappy family trio are unknown as the photograph has no marks on the back. The photography studio of Kenney and Brewer of Redwood Falls, Minnesota was only in operation in 1896 according to the information listed under F. H. Brewer in the Minnesota Historical Society's directory of photographers. The other photographer was Clifford C. Kenney,  born 1854, and he was active for a few more years – 1896 to 1900 in Redwood Falls and kept studios in other Minnesota towns to the southwest of Minneapolis.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
for more dog tales click the link.


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