A History of the Charleston High School Band Part 1

"Notes da Capo" by John L. Puffenbarger

Spring 2004

The Europeans who migrated to West Virginia brought with them a rich musical background. Some families had an organ or piano, banjo, guitar, fiddle, auto-harp, or . harmonica. These pioneers left a rich musical heritage for future generations to build upon. During the late 18005, town bands began to spring up throughout the state. For example, the first Berkeley County band formed after West Virginia became a state was organized in Martinsburg on December 18, 1883.

Following the First World War, school bands were organized in many public schools. According to Stan B. Cohan and Richard A. Andre, authors of Roar lions, Roar - a Pictorial History, the first Charleston High School Band was organized in 1916 with 15 members and J. Henry Francis as director. After the war, the band continued under the directorship of Francis, aiding the school in many ways, but primarily playing for athletic events and school assemblies. The first uniforms were given to the band by the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.

By 1931, the band had increased to 73 members and was an Integral part of school activities. It was not a marching band as we know it today. The steps were not lively, and most of the music tended toward the classics rather than rousing marches. Francis brought America's most famous band director, John Philip Sousa, to Charleston High School to direct the CHS band as well as his own 65-piece Marine Corps Band.

Ned Guthrie, a well known Charleston musician and member of the CHS band in 1925, remembered Sousa coming to the school. "John Philip Sousa was to people then like Louis Armstrong was to my generation," he said. "When John Philip Sousa walked out on that stage, he was a diminutive person; I didn't realize he was that small. He got on the podium and the only thing he said was, 'Good afternoon, gentlemen,' and he raised that stick up and he came down. I was sitting there just in awe, and I missed that downbeat. It took us about eight bars for everybody to get assembled, but with Sousa you didn't stop. And I have never missed another downbeat since then."

In the 19205 and 305, the high school music groups performed many concerts and light opera productions, such as Gilbert and Sullivan, for the school and general public, In 1940, Robert "Bob" Williams became the director of the 40:-piece CHS band. His Mountain Lion Band would become acknowledged as the best in the state and one of the finest in the nation. His stepped-up cadence, from 120 to 180 steps per minute, made the halftime show at football games as exciting as the game itself. New, colorful uniforms were purchased, intense practice sessions were augmented, and a program for developing music students in grade and junior high schools guaranteed a steady flow of new talent for CHS. Williams and his band were responsible for a number of innovations that established his band as a model in the state. He formed a majorette corps, used extensive "black light" exhibitions on the football field, and introduced white gloves and spats to accentuate hand and foot movements, among other accomplishments.

The marching band was an all male organization for many years. An all girl marching unit was formed in the 1940s, but it was not until the 1960s that the two bands were combined. When Charleston High was divided, creating the new Stonewall Jackson High School, only a momentary setback occurred for the Mountain Lion Band. Williams spent time at Stonewall Jackson High to help the music program get started. When he returned full-time to CHS, his band went on to even higher achievements.

Jim Beane. a member of the CHS band during World War n, recalled, "I remember during the war we were full of patriotic spirit, and Bob Williams came up with many complicated march routines, spelling out NAVY and such as that on the field. We even had little red, white, and blue lights in our hats that made quite an impression in a darkened stadium. You might wonder how we saw our music in the dark - well, the answer is: we didn't. Mr. Williams made us learn all the music by heart.

"We wanted the CHS band to be the best no less than the football players wanted to win. In the old days, band practice didn't count as school time, and we would spend our lunch hour practicing after wolfing down a sandwich, then after school at Laidley Field until 6:00pm. You had to be dedicated, and we were."

(Part 2 of this article will be published in the Fall 2004 issue. Material from Roar lions, Roarwas used by permission of author Richard A. Andre.)