Heard Melodies Are Sweet By Joe Lewis 2015

Jun 6, 2016 | Writing


I am deeply indebted to William Dukes Lewis elegant and comprehensive analysis of the Black Marching Band tradition, “Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands,” especially its chronology and I have built upon his thesis. Also, I appreciate his taking the time to speak with me during my conceptual meanderings while trying to find my footing. Both Dale Cockrell’s chapter, “Nineteenth-century popular music,” and Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje’s piece, “African American music 1900,” in the Cambridge History of American Music, were also very helpful in staking out the territory in which this fascinating and underrepresented phenomenon calls home.

Heard Melodies Are Sweet By Joe Lewis

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats
Long before we are privy to the impact of race and representation, cultural critique, history or philosophy, the atmospheric pulsations within the womb foreshadow the potential ecstasy of life and its rhythms.  We are emotionally connected to the first vibrations we feel, two hearts beating in symbiotic syncopation.  Slowly, the outside world sneaks into our amniotic arcade while the multiple time signatures of a mother’s gait connect us to a universal cadence and performance – the body as a Marching Band.  Prenatal experiences hardwire us into a collective rhythmic consciousness that, more often than not, fades upon our arrival.

*   *   *   *   *

The power of the “drum’s” complexity, density, and mystical language, is deeply rooted in the African American psyche. Its supernatural powers were cleverly addressed in 1960’s satirical film “Putney Swope,” a story about a Black man who inadvertently becomes the CEO/HNIC of a formerly white Madison Avenue type advertising firm.  After what could be only described as a “you better do things my way, Swope, or else” phone call from the “white Mayor,” Swope, seated at the head of the boardroom table tells an assembled group of black executives that anyone who wants to talk with him is going to have to do it face to face; no more telephones are allowed.

This scene begins at 39:15 minutes:

Mr. O’Dinga
“The dude’s right; we don’t need phones. I can get a message to California quicker than you can make a phone call.”

Unidentified voice #2

Mr. O’Dinga
“The Drum.”

Unidentified voice #3
“Say What?”

Mr. O’Dinga
“The Drum.”

“What’s that?”

Mr. O’Dinga

Swope takes a couple seconds, looks right at Mr. O’DInga and says,
“Out O’Dinga, you’re finished.”

Almost immediately the back door swings open. Enter the Arab.

The Arab
Speaking directly to Swope
“I heard you fired Mr. O’Dinga!”

“How did you find out?”

The Arab
“The Drum.”

Swope buries his head in his hands.

*  *  *  *  *

Contemporary Black marching bands have their roots in military musical performance and are essentially distant cousins of small fife and drum ensembles imported to the Americas along with other cultural customs by the colonists during the seventeenth century.  The snare drum, in particular, had a pivotal role in daily colonial life, synchronizing day-to-day activities by transmitting orders and warnings within civilian and military encampments. Other instruments like the bagpipe, fife, etc., were, whenever possible, added as melodic enhancements.  “Field music,” as it was called, also rallied troop morale both on and off the battlefield, and was used during the Colonial and American Revolutionary War eras.  African slaves were used as drummers and soldiers during the Yamasees War, a significant conflict involving the South Carolina colonial militia from 1715-1717 against a Native American coalition.  In 1738, the Virginia legislature passed a statute that required all free Mulattoes, Blacks, and Native Americans to serve in the military.  Since they were not allowed to bear arms due to ongoing worries about uprisings and revolts, their service was limited to the fife and drum corps or “pioneer” status.  “Pioneers” drove teams of oxen, dug entrenchments and fortifications, and gave basic manual labor support to the troops. They were issued the implements of their trades: aprons, spades, pickaxes, saws, hatchets, etc., but not guns. Furthermore, any slave who killed an enemy combatant during an invasion, an enemy who could have been French, Spanish, or Native American, would be granted his freedom, and his master would be recompensed.  From these small kernels rose the Black marching band tradition we know today, their size and function growing significantly during the next couple of centuries.

Though a full accounting of Black participation in the development of the American marching band tradition is cloaked within historical invisibility, in certain areas of the US marching bands seemed to have been the great social equalizer during the pre-Civil War period. Membership in one of these organizations occasionally allowed equal access to the public sphere, access that ran counter to the ingrained social architecture prevalent at the time. For example, children’s bands and women’s bands performed openly and shared community space with their male counterparts; even groups totally comprised of Native Americans played publicly.

Many Black musicians got their musical training during the War of 1812. This is underscored by the numerous all-Black bands that appeared shortly after the war in northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans in the South.  One of the first professional bands that prospered from 1820-1840 was all-Black and played for white audiences. It was led by Frank Johnson (1792-1844), born a freeman in Philadelphia and considered one of the greatest band leaders of all time. He is also remembered as the lead personage of the first school of Black composers, a loosely knit group of instrumentalists and bandsmen hailing from Northern urban centers who published their compositions from the early to mid-nineteenth century.  Johnson’s band performed at the Penn School of Medicine commencement, concertized at the Philadelphia Museum, and, in 1837, was the first American musical ensemble to perform in Europe, to critical acclaim.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for his band’s forays outside the cloistered Philadelphia environment where they were often met with considerable hostility, angry mobs, and arrest, mirroring in precise detail the growing schism within the United States which eventually led to the thunderous deluge of the Civil War.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), a conservative estimate places approximately five hundred bands with nine thousand players in the Union Army. These bands were tasked with multiple duties besides ceremonial functions, and perhaps most importantly, to promote “esprit de corps.”  But it is in the post-Civil War era that the advent of the Black marching band tradition takes shape in both the social and community development activities. The “Reconstruction” period was a time of great municipal need, usually unmet by both the northern and southern white populaces. Black community leaders created benevolent societies and organizations to address their civic and intellectual objectives, and due to an abundance of military trained musicians and cheap instruments, formed bands to raise money to support their goals.   They truly understood and appreciated the power of musical performance as means to invigorate the masses by redirecting societal angst through the lens of spectacle, which could, if only momentarily, defuse the harsh reality of their position within the heavily stratified layers of the American collective.

Additionally, a supportive Reconstructionist climate in parts of the South helped former Black regimental military musicians reestablish themselves in civilian life.  An unusually dynamic culture of Black benevolent societies made New Orleans, in particular, a destination for many.  Musicians went there to join a thriving, culturally diverse, and growing number of bands and performers.  Their combined creative activity provided a solid framework for the advent of jazz,  and eventually, the subsequent seepage of the most notable characteristic we associate with Black music of that day, syncopation, into their white counterparts’ repertoire, even eventually  including finding its way to the baton of the well-known band leader, John Philip Sousa (1854-1932).   By 1889, considered by many the midpoint of the so-called Golden Age of Brass Bands (1880-1910), there were approximately ten thousand military style bands within the US, according to Harper’s Weekly.  By the end of the nineteenth century, marching bands were a mainstay of American society. It was a rarity to find a city, town, or village without one. Marching bands formed the center of American musical life, and for many, provided their first exposure to Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Liszt, etc., especially in the Black community. They supplied the musical infrastructure and performance sustenance for almost every kind of public celebration or recognition, including political rallies, picnics, funerals, other types of social gatherings, and parades.

Concurrently, from the 1830’s through the early twentieth century, “minstrel performance” gains widespread popularity in America and provides practical vocational opportunities for many Black performers to hone their musical acumen.  W.C. Handy (1873-1958), “Father of the Blues,” muses in his autobiography about the use of the marching band and parade spectacle as an advertising device  to “bait the public’s interest” for the evening’s minstrel performance in 1896. “The parade was headed by four-horse drawn carriages and managers ‘doffing their hats,’ followed by ‘walking gents,’ a collection of singers, acrobats, etc.; and then a drum major (and band) but not a solitary figure providing a beat for the band ‘but a performer out of the books, an artist with a baton,’ ‘a conjurer’ whose baton twirling and juggling – ‘often stole the show.'”  Simultaneously, and often inspired by minstrelsy, there were also a large cadre of non-professional, self-taught musicians and bands in rural areas, whose primary creative influence was rooted in the Black church and its vocal performance traditions: spirituals, jubilees and songs from secular life.  All served as a fertile ground for composition, performance tactics, and improvisation as well.  From this point forward there is clear evidence of a widening cultural divide between the mechanical orthodoxy of the European military band tradition versus the compositional strategies, performance exuberance, and self-determination of their Black counterparts.

The end of the Civil War marked the close of a two hundred and forty-four-year period when it was a crime to teach slaves anything but the most fundamental domestic skills.  Thus, a significant development in the chronology of Black marching band development was Congress’s passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 which established land grant institutions to educate Southern citizens, including Blacks, in useful professions. Even though the law allowed “separate but equal” institutions, Congress was unable to secure cooperation from most Southern states, except for Mississippi and Kentucky, to create institutions of higher education for Blacks. In response, they passed a second Land-Grant Act in 1890, written specifically to create and support Black institutions in the South and the bordering states.

Seventeen “separate but equal” Black land-grant colleges were established during this period.  Their primary mission was to educate Black citizens in the fields of Agriculture and the mechanical and industrial arts.  These institutions are commonly referred to as “The 1890 Institutions,” forming the backbone of what has come to be known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCU.  Today there are over one hundred historically Black Colleges and Universities, including four-year public and private schools, community colleges, as well as medical and law schools, serving a diverse community though still primarily focused on educating the Black community. HBCU’s became the driving force behind the continued presence and creative evolution of the Black marching band tradition in America. Moreover, from this point forward, two band traditions emerge those closely aligned with colleges and universities, and those supported by benevolent or community organizations.

Although, the primary focus of these early institutions of higher education was the formation a Black Agra-technical class, their curricula also reflected the educational values of the schools’ mostly Northern religious or non-sectarian administrative leadership – the desire to produce well-rounded citizens. Generally speaking, these institutions supported first-rate musical study and also established professional chorales and various musical groups for philanthropic and recruitment purposes. “The Tuskegee Normal School Brass Band,” established in 1894, is said to be the oldest of all HBCU marching bands. Other institutions with bands from this era include Alabama State University, Florida A&M University, and Kentucky State University. These bands are still actively performing, amid formidable competitive rivalries.

Black marching bands did not develop in an ethnocentric vacuum. By the mid-nineteenth century, university bands in white institutions were firmly rooted in academic life.  Besides a focus on agricultural and industrial instruction, the first Morrill Act of 1862 also required colleges to offer military curriculum to their students. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, nearly all institutions of higher education had uniformed bands affiliated with the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, that performed at service events and ceremonial occasions.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, bands began their close present-day association with sporting events and football in particular; their performance at either the start of a game or during half-time becomes commonplace. The playing field offered a perfectly contained environment for this visual and aural spectacle, with excellent viewing opportunities to boot.

An important outcome of this performance expansion was the deconstruction of historically embedded military marching formations as band movement templates.  In 1905, Albert Austin Harding, director of the University of Illinois marching band, is the first to break from military block marching formations and create words and intricate designs on the playing field.  During this same period, the Victrola, introduced in 1906, began its meteoric rise to household prominence which coincided with a slow but steady waning of public appreciation and interest in the non-athletic marching band experience, perhaps a consequence of music becoming available within the home.

The First World War (1914-1918) revitalized interest in military bands. When the US entered the conflict in 1917, many Black musicians signed up for service, and in some cases joined or led military orchestras in Black units, the most prominent of which resided in the 369th Infantry and was known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”  They were the first all-Black regiment to fight with the American Expeditionary Force during the World War I. Prior to this, if any Blacks wanted to enlist and fight in the war, they had been limited to joining the French or Canadian armed forces.  Their moniker “Hellfighters” was bestowed upon them by the Germany Army, due to their brave, selfless battlefield prowess, band members included. The regimental band was led by Lieutenant James Reese Europe (1881-1919), reputedly one of the most talented bandleaders in New York at the time, who had previously organized the famous Temp Club and Clef Club ensembles. In 1912, the Clef Club Orchestra, though not a jazz band in the traditional sense, was the first “proto-jazz” band to play at Carnegie Hall, twelve years before Whiteman and Gershwin, and twenty-six years before Benny Goodman’s famous jazz recital in the Hall.

The “Harlem Hellfighters” won critical acclaim for their spirited, atypical military performances and the introduction of jazz and the “Foxtrot” to French audiences when they played the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Upon their return home in 1919, the regiment marched up Fifth Avenue and received rave reviews in the press for their performance repertoire infused with a new kind of syncopated melodic cadence which challenged the dominance of the formal European marching model.  After the war, HBCU’s were eager to recruit many of these returning military trained instrumentalists, as well as other seasoned performance professionals, to lead their fledgling music programs.  Captain Frank Drye, a former member of the “Harlem Hellfighters” was recruited by Tuskegee, and during his tenure from 1918-1930, became the most identifiable and successful figure in Black collegiate band directing of his day; many of his students went on to establish themselves in the field and to have productive careers.

And so the end of the Great War solidifies the foundation upon which rests the great contribution and musical legacy of HBCU’s development and nurturing of African American musicians as a whole. It was an intellectual environment that valued and supported musical education by providing a safe “place” for its exploration. Perhaps more importantly, it advocated for, and distributed, Black musical culture through performance in national and international arenas, demonstrating aesthetic and conceptual parity in an American society that by and large characterized people of color in an unflattering light. The performance expertise established in these musical programs was undeniable, and in many cases, subversive tinkering with contrasting musical forms within the multiple traditions of African American vernacular song, the minstrel, liturgical and secular compositions, and European classical conventions provided audiences with extraordinary concert experiences that were firmly validated by the press.  Finally, HBCU faculty also trained legions of educators and practitioners who in turn carried these traditions forward, in the process mentoring numerous well known performers in jazz and other musical idioms, most notably, Nat Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Nance, and Milt Hinton, and more recently, Roberta Flack, Bernice Johnson, Reagon, and Tia Fuller.

Even though their focus was more specifically wrapped around uplifting civic interests, marching bands associated with benevolent societies also benefited from the aforementioned commitment, exuberance, and large quantity of trained players returning home from war.  These early societies shared material resources with their communities, buried the dead, took care of the sick, and emphasized the importance of social values, self-reliance, and moral character, as opposed to academic pomp or martial observance.  Today’s urban marching band organizations still emphasize moral character building as a cornerstone of their mission and philosophy. Typically viewed from a ground level perspective and less encumbered by strict marching drill formalism, these bands can be stylistically more fluid than their university counterparts. And, more approachable than a halftime event, their music and performance, although a descendant of the windup military tradition, minstrel, and liturgical lineages, has added room for improvisation. Both groups are authentic and unique American performance art forms, but, if for no other reason than their closer proximity to the viewing audience, non-academic practitioners tend to be more engaged with the public, a musical performance truly by and for the people.

Symbiotically connected, the popularity of the marching band movement and these two other distinct Black traditions were disrupted by a few major paradigm shifts after the First World War: the availability of vinyl records, broadcast radio, motion pictures, and the democratization of the automobile.  Each communication improvement brought with it a new way of interacting with entertainment; never before had music been so readily available to the public.  Likewise, the rising popularity of jazz music, the emergence of new popular dances: the Charleston, Foxtrot, and Lindy Hop, coupled with a fading interest in European idioms like polka, waltz, etc., and the beginning of the Great Depression as well, almost entirely erased the marching band as a ubiquitous cultural presence in the broader society, relegating the form to predominately academic environments.

Post World War II revelry saw a brief resurgence of interest in outdoor marching band presentation, but it too was short-lived.  However, the creative development and growth of the genre in Black institutions was not stymied by a lack of widespread interest; quite the contrary.   In 1946, William P. Foster (1919-2010), became director of the Florida A&M University band and began a meticulous study and reconstruction of collegiate marching practices and routines.  Academic pageantry, one of the two strands of Black public musical intervention, had become lackluster and static.  Ironically, its earlier demonstrations that brought palpable zip and dash to the traditional martial European musical spectacle had succumbed to conservative academic stasis.  The second strand, civic and/or benevolent organizations, still supported a handful of national holiday parades like Veteran’s Day, The Rose Bowl, and Thanksgiving, etc., but their more provocative localist revelries, like the New Orleans “Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club” weekly parades, persisted with a soulful mix of collective improvisation.

Foster eschewed the soberer ‘old world’ European military cadence’s focus on carriage and precision marching that had reestablished itself for a postindustrial attitude. He established a new and powerful performance vocabulary by increasing the band’s physical presence, adding more members to the brass and percussion sections, choreographing fluid designs with high-stepping movements, sometimes as fast as 240/360 steps per minute, and matching them to rapid orchestral tempos.  These “interlocking systems,” hybrid vigor and structural formalism, integrated  hundreds of years of ‘new world’ Black cultural aesthetics with the cumulonimbus vapors of the African Diaspora, right down to the “slide step,” the “shout,” a form of liturgical dance, and the so-called “second line.” Informed by what Robert Farris Thompson called “the Flash of the Spirit,” Foster’s reconfiguration of the marching band concept had a transformative effect on collegiate performance pageantry, and to this day, has revolutionized the field.

So now, more than ever, once you hear that “Boom Boom dah Boom,” there is no escaping it.  You just have to get up and move.  It’s a constant initiation by immersion.  And if you don’t feel it, gets [sic] out of the way.  It’s a coming through!

How do I know this? The drum….


“The African and the Pequot in Colonial America.”

“Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi”

“Black Loyalists”

Cockrell, Dale, “Nineteenth-century popular music,” Cambridge History of American Music, pgs. 158-187, 1998.

Cogdell Djedje, Jacqueline, “African American music 1900,” Cambridge History of American Music, pgs. 103-134, 1998.

“FAMU’s World Famous Marching 100.”

Gates, Henry Louis, “Who Were the Harlem Hellfighters?” Originally posted on The Root

Handy, W.C. “Father of the Blues: An Autobiography,” (Da Capo Paperback) 1969.

“Jim Europe’s 369 Infantry “Hellfighters” Band.”

Lewis, William Dukes “A Brief History of African American Marching Bands.”

Excerpted from:. Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands. Thesis (M.A., Folklore) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003.

Thompson, Robert Farris, “Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy,” Random House, 1984.