Brass Bands of the American Civil War

I like to look around on YouTube from time to time. I recently typed “brass band” into the search engine, and a video called “Brass Bands of the Civil War” came up on the first page of results. I wondered how that subject could possibly work in a video. I have seen “videos” with a single photograph and music playing in the background. This one has a collage of wonderful photos and drawings while the Federal City Brass Band plays on period instruments.

At the time of the Civil War, brass bands ruled. Few bands included woodwinds. As the photographs show, the larger brasses (trombones, tenor and larger saxhorns) often had over-the-shoulder bells. Both infantry and cavalry units had bands to entertain their troops with parades, reviews, formal ceremonies, and both formal and informal concerts. Cavalry bands performed much of their work on horseback.

For a description of one important cavalry band only shortly after the Civil War, see Bruce Gleason, “The Mounted Band and Field Musicians of the U.S. 7th Cavalry during the Times of the Plains Indian Wars,” Historic Brass Society Journal 21(2009):69-91. Generally speaking, infantry bands must have had the same basic duties, but on foot.

Aside from the music of Stephen Foster, hardly any of the popular music best known today had been written yet. Sousa had not yet written his first march, and hardly any pre-Sousa marches have maintained their place in the repertoire. The selections on this video are The Bonnie Blue Flag, Columbia Gem of the Ocean, Dixie, and Battle Hymn of the Republic. These, at least, still familiar. Recordings by the Federal City Brass Band feature now-forgotten music that would have been at the “top of the charts” if such things had been tracked back then.

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