Prost! Round Top Brass Band Keeps German-Texas Beat
First a description: brass bands consist of mainly trumpets, cornets, trombones, various other brass instruments, and use a sousaphone or tuba for the bass rhythm that the others play around. Reeds (clarinets and saxophones) were used in some of the bands, and drums, when available were also incorporated into the mix. Around CenTex, a lot of the small communities retain their ethnic identities, some are Czech, some are German and some are multicultural due to being founded on a railroad. One of the more well-known communities that is struggling to keep its identity is Round Top in Fayette County.
Round Top has been around since the 1830s and is adjacent to the Nassau Plantation, which was the headquarters of the Adelsverein, a German immigration company from the 1840s (see accompanying story in this issue). Over the decades, the German culture soaked into the lives of the people. Until the 1950s, German was spoken around the town square but tapered off to a smattering of words still remembered by the town’s elders.
The town’s 4th of July celebration, started in 1851, is the oldest west of the Mississippi River. The Round Top Brass Band (RTBB) has been an integral part of the celebration, one of the first accounts of them performing was in 1881 at the Schützenfest, however it is pretty much a sure bet that there was a brass band made up of Round Topians playing patriotic music in 1851.
The RTBB entertained fellow Germans in nearby Walhalla (1897), Waldeck (1900), Oldenburg (1886), and La Grange (1885) throughout the years. The popularity of German brass band music ebbed and flowed over the decades with the politics of the American public. The availability of musicians after the two major wars dwindled as the lure of big city wages depleted the musician stock (factory wages not music wages).
Various Czech orchestras supplied the demand for brass music at the July 4th and other functions in Round Top. In the 1960s the RTBB made a short-lived comeback.
THE NEW RTBB
In 1971, Ronny Sacks and George Koudelka, veteran musicians, decided to resurrect the RTBB with the assistance of their former musical classmates of their alma mater, Southwest Texas State University. The original members of the new RTBB included Ronny Sacks, Larry Schmidt, and Jerry Hogue on trumpets, Jimmie Legler and Stanley Beard on baritone horn, Lynn Wessels and Cliff Collier on trombones, Herbert Cresswell on tuba, and George Koudelka driving the train on drums.
The level of musicianship and obvious love of the John Phillip Sousa marches and other classic brass-driven songs drew other musicians into their fold and enlarged the RTBB’s reputation. When nearby Flatonia had its first Czhilispiel (combo of Czech and German themes) festival, the RTBB was hired and the large tent was overflowing with fans. Texas Folklife Festival took notice and the band represented German music in Texas at the huge annual event in 1979. This exposure led to more people being enthusiastic about their unique sound that once echoed off the walls of Central Texas towns. The openness of the band has allowed them to have members that were members of the New York Philharmonic, university band professors, circus band members, military band members, and classic-trained musicians.
In 1981, the band made its first recording and followed up with several more over the years. The band recorded a CD on its 40th anniversary which is an excellent overview on what their sound is all about. It was recorded on their home turf in the Round Top Rifle Hall.
The latest version of the RTBB is composed of a large number of high school band directors who relish being able to play the music they teach. When you catch a RTBB performance be prepared to be amazed by the intensity of their performance countered by large quantities of laughter among the band between songs.
You'll have a chance to see the band at two events in October - the Heritage Fest at the Texas Czech Heritage & Cultural Center in La Grange on Oct. 19, and at OctoBierFest at Round Top Rifle Hall on Oct. 26.
BRASS BAND HISTORY
Let us learn a little more about brass bands and their background with a focus on Central Texas. The Hill Country had many brass bands (Pehl’s Old Time Brass Band, mid 1930s; Spring Branch Brass Band, 1905; Dixie Brass Band, 1935; Bluebonnet Brass Band, 1935) There were also several Negro BBs centered around the Brenham area in the 1930s.
The heyday of the community brass band (BB) in Texas was the circa hundred years from the 1850s to the mid to late 1900s. As Texas was being settled, music was an integral part of all communities, yet there was never the money nor time for working folks with musical abilities to form a full-time band. So, individuals with the talent and time would temporarily join a community band that in many cases developed into a structured group with spiffy uniforms (the Moulton and Flatonia BBs got into a rumble when one got new uniforms), community prominence (Caldwell Brass Band fired all the married men and put handsome single guys in, 1879), and rehearsals (Moravia Brass Band- Jalufka Store, 1910).
The music they performed were marches (John Philip Sousa) and excerpts from classical pieces from the old country along with waltzes and later polkas. The majority of music in Europe had been opera, marches (particularly Germany), and waltzes (polkas were not popular until the last half of the 1800s). In 1912, the Hallettsville Silver Cornet Brass Band was performing Another Rag (a raggedy rag), Sylvan Echoes Waltz, Sweet Swanee Sue March, Beautiful Home of Paradise (sacred), The King of Diamonds (overture) and Oh, You Beautiful Doll (march) among others on the bandstand in the courthouse yard.
The volume of a BB commanded attention from a crowd. The John R. Dusek Brass Band (1935) of Ammannsville played “snappy music.” The BB could also produce a more melodic sound. The High Hill Brass Band (1908) “discoursed sweet music all day long.” A brass band was perfect for parades as a lot of its repertoire were marches and citizens used any excuse for a parade. The bands were also powerful in their sound which was necessary in the pre-amplified days with large crowds in attendance.
Brass bands escorted bodies to the burying ground (La Grange Brass Band, 1886; Joe Patek Orchestra, 1987). Brass bands escorted politicians (Brenham Brass Band, 1922) and priests (Yorktown Brass Band, 1882) as they went from the train station to their event. A community bragged about its BB; the Bonham Brass Band visited the newspaper office in 1902. The editor remarked that “being serenaded by an ordinary brass band is enough to make you cry” (for joy, hopefully).
In 1902, the Schulenburg Brass Band serenaded the hunters on a nighttime Woodmen of the World sponsored “possum hunt” as they searched for the mammals between the various drinking establishments in town. Whenever passing through a small town and the bandstand has been preserved you can bet a brass band performed on it many times.
Civic pride was far stronger 50 years each side of 1900, as then each community was fairly self-contained even with the railroads and highways linking them. Volunteer fire departments were absolutely necessary in a time of mostly wooden structures. The VFD fundraisers were festive events with parades, pumper races, and many dances with music supplied by their own VFD brass band or a local brass band (Hallettsville Silver Cornet Band, 1912).
Chambers of Commerce sponsored many brass bands and used them to publicize their town. Yoakum’s promoters listed their splendid brass band (1905) as one of the reasons to move there. The Rosenberg Holy Rosary Catholic Church had its own Catholic Brass Band (1934).
The quantity of members in a BB were generally larger than the dance orchestras. The Buckholts Brass Band had 12 members in 1909. Krecmer’s 11 Piece Brass Band played the afternoon gig at New Bielau in 1934. The Migl 10 Piece Orchestra serenaded the shoppers in Hallettsville’s Trade Days in 1938. However, nothing could top the 30 members of the Seaton Brass Band that performed a concert in 1977 at the anniversary of the first shopping mall in Temple. Probably the largest parade of brass bands occurred in 1938, when Fayette County celebrated its 100th birthday with a mile-long parade and seven brass bands.
In the late 1800s, most larger communities (Brenham) had an organization that had snazzy uniforms, practiced military maneuvers, and had military-style bands. Reunions of Confederate soldiers always had brass bands to perform for the dances, The Brenham Light Artillery Brass Band performed at the reunion of Tom Green’s Brigade (1890).
Another function of a brass band was to provide music during baseball games and horse races (Evergreen Brass Band-Weser, Goliad County, 1913) and at dances afterward (Heimann Brass Band, Novohrad, Lavaca County 1925).
Church, 4th of July, Armistice, May Day, end-of-school celebrations always had a brass band (Fayetteville Brass Band-Columbus Day, 1892; Praha Brass Band-Church Picnic, 1930; Pehl’s Old Time Brass Band- Stonewall [Hill Country] Lower Grape Creek School, 1936).
As the years passed, the tastes of the younger public changed, as it is wont to do. The second and third generations of Texians wanted to dance to the more contemporary jazzy sounds of American music (Charleston, Foxtrots, Jitterbug, etc). Thusly Central Texas music gained two descriptions, Old Time and Modern Music. Church picnics grew in prominence as major fundraisers so to court both the older generation and the newer ones; churches began to offer brass bands (Old Time) in the afternoons to appease the elders, who went home early, and draw out the younger crowd at night with a Modern dance. As many orchestras developed and the dancing fever really took hold after the 1930s, the orchestras would perform brass-style music in the afternoon and the band line-up would be adjusted for the evening selections. The Baca, Lichnovsky, Emil Bartos, Migl, Henry Brosch Orchestras all had brass bands that did double duty at events.
As time passed, the need for a brass band to liven up a parade, ball game, or political function slowly eroded. The vast majority of brass bands are only old black and white photographs of proud men carrying on a tradition. There still remain a few isolated brass bands in Texas who carry on the tradition, you can find them at Wurstfest, Fredericksburg, and Tomball’s German Festivals. Brass Bands also can be found at German singing festivals, which will be covered in the near future. Of course, if you want to hear a brass band, find a high school football game on a Friday night in the fall.