In the late 19th and early 20th centuries town bands were tremendously popular. Those were the days before the phonograph, radio, and even I-Pod. Bands provided the citizens of the town with popular, light entertainment and band music was considered appropriate to almost any event. At first the city bands were usually affiliated with the military, but as the popularity of band music grew, more civilian ensembles came into being. Often these bands had military-style uniforms. Their dynamic music provided the listener with energy and patriotism.
Kansas towns joined the national craze for brass bands. Through the years, regimental bands stationed at Forts Leavenworth, Riley, and Hays provided music for concerts, dances, and other events both at the forts and in surrounding communities. In May 1855 Leavenworth newspapers reported that a performance had been given for the townspeople by a band from the fort. In 1876 the 5th Infantry Band out of Fort Leavenworth participated in commencement activities at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and the 5th Cavalry Band traveled from Fort Hays to Topeka to perform at the Fourth of July celebration.
Meanwhile, Kansas communities also showed their support for nonmilitary bands. The first-known civilian band in Kansas began in 1854 with the arrival at Lawrence of four Vermont musicians. By 1883 a publication listed almost 40 bands in various towns and cities around the state.
Some communities were more successful than others at maintaining the band enthusiasm. Salina, with a population of 15,000 in 1919, had six bands--more than any other Kansas town. However, it was difficult for a very small town to sustain a band, since finding and keeping enough capable musicians was always a problem. Band members usually volunteered their time, attending one or two practice sessions a week as well as numerous performances. Life in the smaller towns, especially, demanded that individuals perform a variety of roles in addition to that of musician. The leader of the first cornet band in Hutchinson, for example, had to schedule his band time around his other duties as postmaster, mayor, hardware dealer, and county treasurer.
Financing the band also could present difficulties. Uniforms, instruments, and occasional travel all cost money. Bands collected dues from members and sometimes sponsored fund-raising events. Local merchants often could be relied upon to contribute support, as they benefited from a progressive community image.
Kansas town bands followed the national trends in terms of membership, instrumentation, and repertoire. An average band might number 12 to 14 players in the mid-1880s, with 20 or more members being more common after the turn of the century. Brass instruments plated with nickel or silver were very popular, giving rise to the many groups known as "silver cornet" bands. The band typically might comprise two or three drummers, one tuba, four trumpets, two trombones, four clarinets, and two flutes.
The group's repertoire relied heavily on music that the audience found fun and familiar--popular songs, marches and patriotic pieces. The community band was called upon to play at all sorts of events, including summer concerts, fairs, Fourth of July celebrations, picnics, and political rallies. Bands also enjoyed frequent promotional jaunts to neighboring towns and sometimes traveled to other cities or states for musical competitions. The town band was a focus of community identity and pride, and newspapers of the era consistently applauded their local group as "a first-rate musical organization."
Both to contemporaries and in our own hindsight, the local band tends to reinforce an idyllic picture of small town life. The town band appears to be a democratic gathering, where citizens of all ages and walks of life could come together in the interests of culture and civic betterment. In fact, the membership of such bands tended to be all-white and all-male, mirroring the general pattern of social influence and power within many communities. In very small towns, where choice of personnel was limited, a band might include an African American or female member. Larger communities often supported the usual white band, plus one or more all-black bands, such as Jackson's Dispatch Band in Topeka or the Southwestern Cornet Band in Wichita.
Despite their musical or social limitations, town bands sustained their monopoly on light entertainment for some time. Yet all too soon they fell victim to social and technological change. In the 1920s new forms of entertainment revolutionized the way America played. Phonographs, motion pictures, radio, and affordable automobiles increased both the sophistication and the mobility of local audiences. Soon band music was to be heard only at parades and school sporting events. By the end of the 20th century, town bands had largely died out in Kansas, as they had throughout the nation. The flash and drama of a marching band can still stir a sense of pride and patriotism, reminding us of the glory days of the small-town band in America.
Entry: Community Bands
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2009
Date Modified: July 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.