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Monday, October 13, 2014

Band Aid for American Culture: Brass Bands, Marching Bands, Women's Bands, Jazz Bands...

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Three years ago I published a blog in this space about the Archives Center’s Hazen Collection of Brass Band Photographs and Ephemera and its wealth of photographs of American brass bands.    Below is another example, which was not published at that time, showing the U.S. Indian School Band of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

U.S. Indian School Band of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on trip to Long Branch, New Jersey, 1906.  Photographic postcard.
From the Hazen Collection of Band Photographs and Ephemera, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
The plethora of bands in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America can be suggested by visual evidence in a number of our other collections as well.  The Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, one of the Archives Center’s original core photographic collections, contains many examples of both American and European marching bands, including military and non-military ensembles.  The murky quality of these images in our online database, SIRIS, is pretty atrocious, thanks to the fact that they represent a transition from videodisc technology to digital.  They were scanned at a very low resolution from analog videodisc images on a television monitor, and the videodisc images themselves were two generations removed from the original glass plate negatives and interpositives (used for making duplicate negatives).  So I’m illustrating one of these photographs in a small size!  Needless to say, we hope to upgrade these scans, and currently are doing so as needed.

White Oak band, White Oak Cotton Mills, Greensboro, North Carolina, ca. 1900-1910.
Silver gelatin stereoscopic interpositive for stereographs published by H.C. White Co., photographer unidentified.
Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, NMAH Archives Center. 
A small but fascinating collection of papers and photographs relates to the career of Helen May Butler, a woman bandmaster who directed an all-female traveling military band from 1898-1913.  The Helen May Butler Collection contains photographs such as these:
Helen May Butler's Military Band, ca. 1900.  Silver gelatin photographic print, photographer unidentified.
Helen May Butler Collection, NMAH Archives Center.
American music is certainly one of the strengths of the Archives Center collections.  We have other collections related to all-women bands, especially in the categories of jazz and other popular music.  The Virgil Whyte “All-Girl” Band Collection contains photographs, papers, and interviews related to an all-female (except the director!) jazz band from Racine, Wisconsin, which toured during World War II to provide entertainment for servicemen at U.S.O. venues.

Virgil Whyte's Musical Sweethearts, ca. 1943.  Silver gelatin photographic print by unidentified photographer.
Virgil Whyte "All Girl" Band Collection, NMAH Archives Center.
A companion archive is that of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a racially and ethnically mixed swing band, whose members were women. They toured the American South and Midwest, and toured overseas with the USO in 1945.
Members of International Sweethearts of Rhythm in performance at Club Plantation, Culver City, California, May 1944.  Silver gelatin print, photographer unidentified.  International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection, NMAH Archives Center.
Of course, as far as professional jazz bands were concerned, all-male groups were the norm.  The Duke Ellington collection contains hundreds of photographs of his orchestra, and the Scurlock Studio Records include photographs of the African American dance bands and jazz orchestras (including "all girl" bands) which once made U Street, N.W. in Washington renowned as the “Black Broadway.”  

Johnson's Capital Rhythm Girls : acetate film photonegative, 1938.  Addison N. Scurlock, photographer.
From the Scurlock Studio Records, NMAH Archives Center. 

Club Prudhom orchestra, in band box : acetate film photonegative, ca. 1930s.  Addison N. Scurlock, photographer.
The negative is taped for cropping.  From the Scurlock Studio Records, NMAH.  Archives Center.
Music has been an important aspect of the National Museum of American History's collections, exhibitions, and public programs for decades.  The Museum actively collects and displays musical instruments and sponsors concerts.  The Archives Center works closely with music curators to collect original music manuscripts, published sheet music, ephemera, photographs, and other archival materials related to our American musical heritage.  Search SIRIS to discover additional examples of the wide variety of music-related documents we collect. 

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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