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 }

Music Long Ago and Far Away

25 March 2017

A very short fiction
teased out of an old photograph.

The cardboard box groaned as the bottom gave out. A flurry of papers spilled onto the floor. "How'd that happen!" the girl cried. "I'm sorry, Gramie." She set the box onto the bed and stared at the mess.

"Better get some tape and fix it before you use it again," said the old woman. She continued folding clothes and placing them carefully into another cardboard box. The dresser was nearly empty. "Go ask your brother where the packing tape is." She turned to see the child stoop to pick something from the scattered paper. The girl held a large faded brown photo up to the light.  

"Who these girls, Gramie?" She squinted for a closer look. "They playing in a band or somethin'?" 

Stepping over to the bed, Ruth turned the photo toward the window. "Yes, that was my band." She smiled as her granddaughter's eyes widened. "Can you find me?"

The girl frowned and then pointed. "This you?" An eyebrow raised in disbelief, "You played a trumbet?""

"A Trum-Pet, Annie" said Ruth. "No, not a trumpet really, but a cornet. Almost the same instrument, just more rounded." She handed the photo back. "I got pretty good too. Played lots of solo songs"  

"That's my sister, Aunt Nannie with the big ol' tuba. She was a year younger than me but taller, taller than all us girls, so Professor Jefferson gave her the biggest brass horn to play." Ruth pointed to the woman at the back. "That's Mama J, she was the band leader and her daughter Sadie played the little tuba."

Annie frowned again. "Girls can play brass horns? They can do that?"

"They sure can!" Ruth raised her shoulders back. "We gals could play as loud and strong as any boys' band! And we knew our tunes by heart."

Annie touched a finger to the photo. "What's this instrument? It's got another funnel thing. Is it a tuber too?"

Ruth laughed, "Tu-Ba. No, this one's no tuba. It's a double-bell euphonium. A bell is what they call the end of a trumpet or tuba where the sound come out." She held her hands up in a vee shape. "This horn had a special valve that let you play from either the top big bell or the little front bell. Florence was my best friend in school and a natural musician. Law, could she sing on that euphonium! Got married to a railroad porter and last I knew she went on to Philadelphia ." 

"I know that one. That's a claronet," said Annie. 

"Yes, clarinet, that's right." Ruth sighed, "Two nice girls that I haven't thought of for ages. I guess there's some good to come out of moving house. Let's see. May...Beth? Mable Beth... Lewis, I think. And her sister...Rose. They was orphans and didn't have no folk so they lived at the school 'till they got out. Believe they moved on up to Chicago in the 20s."

The little girl looked up. "School? Who lives at a school?"

"Well back then lots of children had to, Annie. Some didn't have a mama or daddy, or least wise no one who could take care for them. So they lived at the home, that's what we called it. Had a dormitory, a big room with lots of beds, up over the classrooms. My mama didn't have the money to keep me on the farm, so I was there for five years until I got of age." The old woman blinked away a tear as she counted the years.

"That's Marie and Gladys on trombones. Little Christy on snare drum and my cousin Elsie on bass drum. She went out to California during the hard times. Lost touch with her before the war." Too many years, way too many.

"But where was this, Gramie? Was this in Milwaukee?" asked Annie.

Ruth smiled. "No, child, this was in the Carolinas. Down south in the Low Country. Mama J took us on a boat to the Ebeneezer Church up river. We played a kind of contest for a benefit concert. Our prize was this photograph. The first time I ever saw a picture of me. Didn't get another until I came up to Milwaukee" 

Breathing in, she could almost taste the salty marsh air. "It was far away and a long time ago." She paused. "I used to think it was home."

 * * *

This large format photo of a band made up of sixteen young African-American girls and their chaperone/teacher has no marks to identify its time or place, much less the names of the musicians. At a guess their dress and the style of photo date them around 1900-1910. They look like a school group but I suspect they may be wards of an orphanage as in this era public schools did not typically have bands like this. Their instruments are all free of dents with a matching shine so I believe they were purchased as a lot. Maybe mail ordered from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Wards, or direct from the music instrument manufacturer.

Brass bands (which sometimes had clarinets) for girls were quite popular in many white communities in the Eastern and Midwest states. But this is the first evidence I've seen of young African-American women playing wind instruments. It was not unknown for black female musicians to take up band instruments, but there are few photographic records. In the 1890s a few traveling shows promoted having a Colored Female Brass Bands as a way to add an exotic element that would distinguish their show from others. This advertisement for Stetson's original big double spectacular Uncle Tome's Cabin Co. which had two bands, blood hounds, Shetland ponies, cake walkers, Eva and her golden chariot, also included Miss Nettie Hyson's colored female band.    

Carlisle PA Evening Herald
21 September 1900

In July 1902, several newspapers around the country ran a report that a female brass band has been organized by a number of young colored women of Baltimore. The idea was originated by Elizabeth Davis, of South Baltimore. 

Carlisle PA Evening Herald
12 July 1902

In my story from last week, The King of Cornets, the featured musician's real name was Ellis T. Jackson. From 1902 to 1907 he was a music teacher and bandleader in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In my research I discovered that in 1905 he formed a Female Brass Band in addition to his all-male band. It had 15 members and Prof. Ellis T. Jackson claimed it was the only colored female band in the North.

NYC New York Age
25 January 1906

Jackson's Female Brass Band developed well enough to give regular concerts at fraternal halls and church events. In 1906 it played a concert and dance at the Newport Masonic Hall and Master Ellis T. Jackson Jr., age 11, (but actually 15) was also on the program making smart speeches, telling jokes, and playing three instruments at one time.

NYC New York Age
22 February 1906

The girls' band photograph is unmarked and I have no reason to think they are Jackson's Female Band. Actually I think they may be a long ways from Pawtucket because there is a subtle clue hidden in the foliage. Behind the band, high up in the trees are the ragged wisps of Spanish Moss hanging from the branches. Having lived in Savannah, GA for a number of years, it is a familiar arboreal decoration.

For comparison here is a color image of a similar tree with Spanish moss from Hilton Head, SC. Note also that just to the left of the tuba is ghostly hint of Palmetto leaves, a native plant of the coastal south. Here it is seen below the oak tree.

Spanish Moss, Hilton Head, SC
Source: Wikimedia

What we see in their youthful faces is pride. These young ladies had an air of self-confidence that exalts in their musical accomplishment. They were a team, a family even, who shared the bond of making music. And their photograph once meant something important to the person who preserved it.
Music from long ago and far away.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every rivet counts.


La Nightingail said...

You make a fine storyteller. :) Nicely done with a great photograph cleverly divided in sections as usual.

Jofeath said...

Great imagination there! Ellis T Jackson's all female colored band would have been rather sorry when he left to go to the UK.

Boobook said...

It's a fantastic photo and your research (and story-telling) is first-class.

ScotSue said...

I enjoyed reading your different fictionalised take on your photographs, followed by your usual in depth research. I have often thought that someone with the talent could create a short story from many of the photographs we see on Sepia Saturday - and you are leading the way!

Barbara Rogers said...

Nicely done in story telling. So glad those girls were musicians, wherever and whenever they might have been. The instruments look almost brand new!

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Great storytelling. Interesting that the black girl orchestra was an audience pleaser. Do you think white
audiences enjoyed the cakewalk?


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP