From Town Band to School Bands: A Brief History


NOTES DA CAPO – By John L. Puffenbarger, WVMEA Historian

Winter 2007


The town band in America was an integral part of society, especially from 1890-1924. Many different types of town bands operated during this period, including town supported bands, business supported bands, boy bands, family bands, fraternal bands, church bands, and other variations of the same. Both trained and sometimes untrained leaders led these bands. Trained musicians were often brought in from outside the town citizenry.


Men and boys were the primary participants and were taught to play by various methods - self-taught, private instruction, and in the local town rehearsals. New and used instruments were obtained from various music businesses and from individuals. The average size of the bands around 1900 was ten to fifteen players, with an instrumentation of mostly brass instruments, two or three percussionists, and an occasional clarinetist and/or saxophonist.


Town bands were organized in most communities throughout the country. Rupert Hughes, eminent musicologist and writer on music, stated, "by 1897 Sousa marches had been sold to 18,000 bands." It appears to be impossible to prove that the statement is true; how­ever, the Carl Fisher Publishing Company grew so fast in 1900 that it had to expand its building.


Around 1942, the town band began to decline, and the young school band movement, which had begun during the 1920s, filled the void. It is believed that the town band declined because of the technological developments of the twentieth century and a changing so­ciety and lifestyle. The music industry saw this development as a new source of business and vigorously promoted school bands. Who were the music pioneers who began the school band movement in West Virginia? Here are a few examples.


The Ravenswood Band was organized in 1927 by D.M. Whetstone, a leading figure in the development of school bands. By 1929, there were 40 members in the group. Lawrence Cappilenti contributed much to the growth of the band in the 1950s. The 120 member band, under the direction of Jim Porter, attended the Y.F.W. National Convention in Detroit in August, 1968.


Harold Leighty organized the first Magnolia High School Band in New Martinsville in 1926. In 1935, he transferred to St. Albans and organized a beginning band there. (He started Charlie Gorby on trumpet that year.) He organized the Nitro High School Band during WWII.


Mr. Christianson (first name unknown) organized the first band program at Martinsburg High School. Roderick Linger directed the band from 1939 to 1955, when the band grew to be a highly acclaimed organization.


The Elkins High School Band was formed during the 1928-29 school year. Phillip "Prof' Davies served as the Randolph County music supervisor and music director at Elkins High School. The band did not have uniforms, but the following year sported orange and black capes, and "overseas" style caps were purchased by each of the 18 band students.


The first Buckhannon-Upshur High School Band was established in 1923 when II boys at the school developed an interest in having a band. Seward Reese became the director of the group, and Bartlett L. Lyons, who was also director at West Virginia Wesleyan Col­lege, was hired in 1925 as the second director of the band. The B-U band began to grow under his direction, and around 1930 had about 40 members.


School bands were not the only musical groups developed during the first half of the twentieth century as choirs and orchestras also began to flourish during this time. For instance, the first organized Shepherd College Choir sang before the college assembly on No­vember 4, 1936. Professor Carl 1. Farnsworth was instrumental in organizing the choir. Professor Asa Bush, who created the music program at the college, taught a class in vocal music without compensation to promote the new program.


What about the music program in your school? Who were the music pioneers who started the choir, orchestra, or band programs? If there is no history of these groups in your department, take time to do some research. Interview some parents in your community who may have participated in one or more of the organizations. After you have gathered some facts, take time to write an historical docu­ment about music education in your community, and send a copy to me so that I can place it in the WVMEA archives. Your efforts will enrich the musical heritage of your school.


(Note: The first four paragraphs of this article were taken from the Master's Thesis, The Rise and Decline of the Town Band, 1890­1942, by Mel Saunders, WVBA Secretary. Used by permission.)