My home during those formative years (with the exception of when I was 8 and 9 and lived in California to see my father off to war) was Mason City, Iowa, a town famous for two musical events: the birthplace of Meredith Willson, of Music Man fame, and the airport where Buddy Holly took off on the Day the Music Died.
My mother went to school with Willson, and I attended the Surf Ballroom many times while in high school and college, but I was really aware of the music heritage of the city from the summer Band Concerts.
They were held in East park where there was a fairly large shell on Sunday evenings about eight o’clock. The program was pretty formulaic: beginning with the National Anthem, followed by one or more overtures, featuring popular songs, show tunes, or light classical pieces. Somewhere in the program would be one or more featured vocalists. The concerts always ended with a patriotic march of one sort or another.
It turns out the patriotic atmosphere was not accidental. From the earliest times in our country’s history, concerts stirred the populace to pride and occasionally patriotic fervor to support whatever war was impending or present, or to commemorate those who have gone before. In fact the precedent for municipal bands came from military bands, a fact not lost on anyone who lived for very long near our Nation’s Capital.
When we were stationed in the DC area, especially the tour I had at the Naval Medical Command, on the fringe of the Mall, we had many family visitors, who found so many of the free events, such as band concerts, to be an attraction for young and old alike.
As I was growing up, I assumed that every community of size, especially in the Midwest, had a community band. After all, most had a band stand of one size or another right in the heart of town. It turns out that Iowa was special. In 1921 a band composer named Karl King was influential in passing the IowaBand Law, which allowed communities to levy taxes to support musical groups to entertain the populace.
When I left Mason City for college, Dental School, and a career in the Navy I found military bands in abundance. Not just in DC, but also at Change of Command celebrations. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Marine wife, attending a Change of Command, who said, “Just when you’re about to throw the SOB out of the house, they dress up and have another parade!”
But, grand as those ceremonies were, I still have fond memories of meeting classmates under loose supervision after dark, in the summer, listening, holding hands, and building summer relationships.
As I was researching for this post I was able to contact a high school friend named Jim Fitzgerald (no relation, as the small “g” would indicate), who actually played in some of those concerts. He eventually parleyed that into a career, starting with a stint playing with the Clyde McCoy travelling band before developing a more traditional career as a school teacher.
Jim reminded me that his father had been the band master at what was then called a Junior High School, and the actual Band Concert Master was the high school band master, Carleton Stewart. He always had the Mason City bands competitive for the state contests, and was likely the inspiration behind Willson’s Professor Harold Hill.
Along that line I have always contended that my mother, who worked for a while as a librarian at the Mason City Public Library, may have inspired the character, Marion the Librarian. Meredith Willson was a year ahead of her in high school.
BTW, that free concert in LA was a DJ affair and probably had no patriotic music. Kind of sad.
Watching the US Open last weekend, I was reminded of how famous people come into our lives. I’ll share that with you in my next Post. I hope you will join me.