Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Musical Family Circus

The past week has been hectic but fun. I attended three school concerts within a five-day period (plus a performance of the musical Meshuggah Nuns at the Paradise Theater in Faribault, starring my friend Myrna). So it seemed only fitting, considering all the schedule-juggling, that the district band concert last night had a circus theme.

The Northfield district band concert is a great one – every fall, all the band students in grades 5 through 12 gather on the floor of the high school gymnasium and take turns performing for a standing-room only crowd of family and friends in the bleachers. It’s noisy and crowded, but it’s worth it to see the progression of musicianship, from youngest to oldest.

Last year the concert had a Civil War theme, and this year, we went “Under the Big Top.” A seventh-grade teacher played the role of ringmaster, some students contributed their talents in clowning and unicycling, and there was even popcorn and candy for sale. The Schell’s Hobo Band from New Ulm was the guest band (man, those guys can play!) The band plans to return to Northfield in early August for the Vintage Band Festival 2013, so mark that on your calendar.

Louisa and Sebastian both performed in their respective high school bands, the Concert Band and the Symphonic Band. Here’s Louisa’s band playing “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Julius Fucik:

And here’s Sebastian’s band playing “The Grand Entry”:

The concert concluded with all of the musicians (minus the fifth graders) playing several measures of the classic circus song “Barnum and Bailey's favorite” by Iowa bandmaster Karl King.

Friday evening I attended the high school orchestra and choir concert at the middle school auditorium. There was no circus theme, but it was an impressive program of music. Sebastian performed in the ninth-grade concert orchestra. Here is his orchestra performing “Ellis Island” by Alan Lee Silva:

I was in that same middle school auditorium on Thursday evening (with many of the same parents), this time to hear the middle school orchestras and choirs perform. It was Elias’ first concert as a middle school student. His sixth-grade choir sang two pieces. Since Halloween is tomorrow, it seems appropriate to post the second piece, “Ezekiel and Dry Bones.”

That takes care of school concerts for a while. However, I will be at the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud next Monday for a concert celebrating the 125th anniversary of the St. Cloud Municipal Band.

The big top may be down, but the schedule-juggling continues.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Every Day I Write the Book

Six years ago this month, I launched into a project to learn more about the life and career of my great-grandfather, pioneer Minnesota bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs. It all started with a comment my dad made about his “music man” grandfather – and a realization on my part that I knew next to nothing about this ancestor of mine.

My intention at first was simply to help my dad with a timeline of G. Oliver’s career that he could pass on to the St. Cloud Municipal Band, which planned to mark its 120th anniversary that spring with a concert at the historic Paramount Theatre.
Me, with Dad, after the May 2007 band concert at the Paramount
I figured it would take a month or so to go through family files, confirm details about G. Oliver’s 20-plus years as a director in St. Cloud, and determine whether there was any truth to the Mr. Riggs legends, like the one that he’d played with John Philip Sousa. Before I knew it, several months had passed, and I had already learned way more than I’d anticipated – not just about all the places G. Oliver had worked as a musician and band leader, and the influential musicians he had collaborated with, but about how G. Oliver influenced the development of music education in Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

As the months and years passed, I planned G. Oliver-related research trips, gave talks and became well acquainted with the microfilm machines at the Minnesota History Center’s top-notch research library. And I conducted interviews with people who could tell me from personal experience what it had been like to play for G. Oliver Riggs. Meeting some of these former “band boys” and hearing how their lives were shaped by their band experience has been one of the most gratifying aspects of this ongoing project.
Me with Leonard Jung, a former “band boy” and U.S. Navy Band veteran, in 2008.
As I learned about G. Oliver’s career, I also gained a greater appreciation of the role bands played in forming the social fabric of communities throughout the state – big, small and in-between – and in shaping the quality of life we enjoy today. This aspect of community life gets scant attention in the telling of Minnesota’s history, however. Even in towns with well-regarded band programs and proud traditions, the musicians remain in the background – heard but not seen – marching in parades, performing summer concerts at the bandstand, but rarely receiving a mention in local, regional or state history books.

When I started writing this blog in January 2010, I sought to change that by focusing attention on this neglected aspect of Minnesota history – not only because I find it fascinating, but because I think it’s necessary to understand that history if we value the arts and want to pass that appreciation on to future generations.

I also hoped that the process of writing a regular blog would help me figure out how I could best tell the story of my great-grandfather and other musicians who have made our communities a better, richer place with their music. After nearly 170 posts, I still don’t have the perfect answer to that question, although I’ve tossed around plenty of ideas – how about an exhaustive history of community bands in Minnesota! Or a book about Midwestern bandstands? Maybe a children’s book, or a play? The possibilities have seemed exciting, but also overwhelming and confusing.

As I have continued to write and research, hoping an answer would reveal itself, the My Musical Family blog has led to developments I hadn’t anticipated; it’s become a great way to share news and family history with my relatives and connect with extended family I’d never met. And, it has led to much personal reflection about why music is important in my life, why my husband and I have tried to make it an important part of our kids’ lives, and why I feel passionately that music education should be available to all children.

It’s funny how things seem to come full circle, if you wait long enough. As I said at the beginning of this post, my original goal six years ago was to provide the St. Cloud Municipal Band with an accurate timeline of events during G. Oliver’s stint as director. The municipal band is now celebrating its 125th season and has scheduled a big concert for Nov. 5 at the Paramount Theatre.

When The St. Cloud Times ran a story in July about the band’s anniversary, my dad and I were distressed to discover that it included inaccurate details about the history of the band during G. Oliver’s career. We are again trying to correct history, and it’s extremely frustrating to learn that, despite our exhaustive efforts to gather and disseminate a factual historical account of those years – efforts that have gone way beyond a simple timeline – we apparently did not reach everyone in our intended audience.

I’m not a particularly vain person, but I think it’s fair to say that I now know more about G. Oliver and the history of the St. Cloud band during his career there than anybody. I may be an expert on a relatively obscure topic, but I am an expert! And that has made me realize that as much as I enjoy writing this blog, these entries alone aren’t enough to ensure that the accomplishments of G. Oliver and his band boys are remembered after I’m gone. I need to tell the story to a wider audience in a format that will be recognized as a permanent resource for people studying or writing about St. Cloud, or about Minnesota band history. I need to take the plunge and write a book – a book that I’m uniquely qualified to write.

A portion of my G. Oliver files, accumulated during six years of research.
Next month will mark the 142nd anniversary of G. Oliver’s birth, and my goal is to spend a good portion of the month working on a book about G. Oliver and the Band Boys of St. Cloud. I do plan to keep up with the blog, and I hope to provide some updates on my progress as I delve into this latest phase of the G. Oliver Riggs project. As always, I welcome reader suggestions and comments, and I sincerely appreciate your interest and support!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lost in the Photostream

Some days – and they tend to be cloudy Mondays – it’s a wonder I accomplish anything truly productive. Today, for reasons that are too boring to explain, I ended up at the State Historical Society of Iowa’s website and discovered that the organization has shared some of its photo collections on Flicker.

I was hoping to find an album devoted to vintage Iowa bands – no such luck. Instead, I found an album of Civil War photos, and I got lost in history for a while, scrolling through the 50 photos and reading their descriptions. A couple of them could almost belong in my great-great grandfather Jasper Riggs’ photo album – if he ever had such an album.

As a member of the 45th Illinois Infantry, Jasper served alongside Iowa soldiers in the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg – so some of the places in the photos would have looked familiar to him, and even if he didn’t know the Iowa men in the pictures, they probably would have looked like people he knew from Illinois (just as I can look through Steve’s high school yearbooks and see people who remind me – because of their ’80s hairstyles or glasses – of people from my high school class).

One photo that jumped out at me was this one of the courthouse in Vicksburg, Miss.:

• Old Courthouse Vicksburg, 1863

It looked much different when we visited it two years ago this month (I wrote several blog posts about that experience, including this one, Vicksburg in the Key). According to the accompanying description, Major Henry Clay McArthur of the 15th Iowa Infantry and 17th U.S. Army Corps said of the photo: “You can see where one of our shells tore part of one of the columns partly off in the upper part.”

Here’s how the courthouse looked to us, 147 years later:

Old Courthouse, Vicksburg, Miss., October 2010
This next photo, taken Nov. 23, 1906 by J.C. Donnell, shows members of the Iowa Monument Commission in front of the Iowa State Monument at Shiloh:

• Iowa State Monument, Shiloh

Jasper’s son, my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was present at this occasion, as a member of the Iowa 51st Regimental Band that accompanied the commission members on the monument dedication trip to Vicksburg, Andersonville, Chattanooga and Shiloh.

A close-up view of the Iowa State Memorial, Shiloh National Military Park, 2010
I like this next photo because it depicts the wives of the Grand Army of the Republic members in Grant, Iowa, about 15 years after the war ended:

Wives of Iowa veterans

The photo makes me think of my great-great grandmother, Rebecca, who married Jasper during the war, while he was on leave. I know quite a bit about his experience during the war, but next to nothing about hers. The movements and accomplishments of all the regiments are well documented, thanks to military history records. But the accomplishments of the women who stayed behind? There’s no database to search for that information.

This last photo is probably my favorite, because I love dogs and because I wasn’t expecting to see it in the collection:

Regimental Dog

This dog served as the mascot for the 23rd Iowa Infantry during the Civil War. The dog’s name isn’t given; the photo was taken around 1880 in Des Moines. What was the dog’s story? At what point did it join the war, and how did its presence boost soldiers’ morale? The photo offers no further answers; it just leaves me with questions.

My afternoon of website wanderings left me with several questions, but it also left me with something unexpected – the feeling that I had been productive, after all. Like a lonely person visiting a dog shelter, I didn’t know what I was looking for until it found me: I found a topic for my blog, and the motivation to write.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

There’s No G in NYC

I am still getting my bearings after a recent trip to New York City. I loved all the walking, all the sightseeing, and all the delicious food! And, this may surprise those of you familiar with my vacations: I left my cardboard G. Oliver Riggs at home. That’s because – as far as I can tell – my well-traveled great-grandfather never visited New York.

No G. in NYC? Why not, I wonder?

G. Oliver Riggs, on the cover of the New York-based American Musician and Art Journal
The only New York connection I’ve found is a feature article about G. Oliver that ran in the New York-based American Musician and Art Journal magazine on Dec. 13, 1913. The writer of the article conducted the interview not in New York, but in Chicago, at the studio of one of G. Oliver’s mentors, the famous bandmaster and brass instrument teacher A.F. Weldon. At the time of the interview, G. Oliver had a job directing a band in Havre, Montana.

(I tracked down the article a few years ago when my dad and I were at the Library of Congress; I’d deduced that such an article existed after finding the top half of the magazine cover, pictured above, in the family files, and a mention of the article in a newspaper clipping).

Chicago was G. Oliver’s city, the big city that was so important for him musically. It’s where he studied violin in the mid-1890s under Luigi von Kunitz (Kunitz later conducted the Toronto Symphony). It’s where G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, studied piano with Emil Liebling before G. Oliver and Islea married. And it’s where G. Oliver returned occasionally to study the cornet and band directing under Weldon during the Golden Age of Bands.

I can understand G. Oliver’s connection to Chicago, but I am surprised that he didn’t find a reason to go to New York, especially during the earlier part of his career. The city’s history of impressive wind bands dates back to the 1830s, when the Dodworth Band formed and began to dominate the music scene (Fun fact: the Dodworth Saxhorn Band, a Michigan-based recreation of the original Dodworth Band, plans to return to Northfield in August for the 2013 Vintage Band Festival).

New York continued to support well-regarded bands during and long after the Civil War – like the one directed by Patrick Gilmore.

It would have taken some time for G. Oliver to travel from the Midwest to Manhattan, but he did live during a time when Americans traveled easily and frequently by train. Distance didn’t stop him from traveling as far east as Oberlin, Ohio, to attend college in the late 1880s/early 1890s; from traveling to the South in 1906 with an Iowa regimental band; or from traveling as far west as Tacoma, Wash., in 1910 to form a professional band.

So if he never made it to New York, it could have been due to a lack of desire. Or it might be that the right opportunity never presented itself. I can understand how that could happen. Even though I’ve traveled to most of the 50 states, I’d never visited New York City until a couple of years ago, when Steve and I took the kids there on a family vacation. This time, the trip was work-related (for Steve, anyway).

Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan.
If I’m wrong, and G. Oliver did travel to New York a century ago, he might have detrained at Grand Central Station (officially known as the Grand Central Terminal). And, while there, he might have spent several minutes soaking up the atmosphere of the cavernous place, wondering about all the other people rushing by, their lives and dreams intersecting for a moment amid the grandeur of marble and the utility of train tracks.

Or maybe that was just me. Me in New York, minus the G.