Band Day in May: circa 1957

The first Band Day in Williston, North Dakota was held in 1932 which was not a very good year. The Depression was settling in and making itself at home.

An invitation was sent to high schools in the small agricultural communities of western North Dakota and Eastern Montana  asking them to please show up in uniform on a Saturday in May and march the length of main street while playing Sousa’s best.

~~~~~~~~1932~~~~~~~~

  • This and the next year are the worst years of the Great Depression. For 1932, GNP falls a record 13.4 percent; unemployment rises to 23.6 percent.
  • Industrial stocks have lost 80 percent of their value since 1930.
  • 10,000 banks have failed since 1929, or 40 percent of the 1929 total.
  • GNP has also fallen 31 percent since 1929.
  • Over 13 million Americans have lost their jobs since 1929.
  • International trade has fallen by two-thirds since 1929.
    Congress passes the Federal Home Loan Bank Act and the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932.
  • Top tax rate is raised from 25 to 63 percent.
  • Popular opinion considers Hoover’s measures too little too late. Franklin Roosevelt easily defeats Hoover in the fall election. Democrats win control of Congress.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

By the 1950s, 60 or 70 bands in sparkling full-color, feathered and polished finery were marching every May,  led by majorettes ranging from 3 year old beginners to state champions.

The lead unit was always a large color guard and each band had its own flag bearers carrying the American Flag and their state flag.  With 60+ American Flags going by, there wasn’t going to be any sitting anyway so no one brought chairs.  If anyone got really tired, they could just perch on the edge of the sidewalk.

Bands with 20 or 25 instrumentalists from small schools are applauded for successfully completing a simple countermarch in front of the review stand.  The larger bands, boasting 50 or 60 members (or very occasionally, a few more) may tie up that spot for five or six minutes with detailed maneuvers that, from street level, just look like people walking back and forth in front of one another.  There was a daytime television station broadcasting in black and white so the efforts of the bands who could do complicated stuff were filmed, broadcast and preserved for those who had TV sets.

Band Director Lloyd Bjella (at left in the photo below) was a legend in his own time.  Mr. Bjella directed two and sometimes three small bands from neighboring towns, including Epping, where heEpping School Band portrait, Epping, N.D. directed the band for 33 years. Alone, these small schools  couldn’t afford a band director; but together, they hired Lloyd Bjella.  His bands were separated in the marching order to allow him to march with the first band, hop in the car that was waiting for him at the end of the parade route to be driven back to the starting point where he would join his next band as they began their parade.  There was always a noticeable crowd response to the second (and third) band, to let Mr. Bjella know that his effort was recognized.  He was one special, quiet, and irreplaceable Norman Rockwell kind of man.   He was our very own Music Man who never had anywhere near 76 trombones.

Behind the last band in the parade was a gaggle of The Cutest Little Twirlers: 3-7 year olds dressed identically, and strutting their skills.  The applause they got was matched only by that given the Bag Pipe Band from Canada which was always the highly honored Very Last Unit in the parade.

Those Bag Pipers kept every farmer, farmer’s wife and youngster rooted in place until they passed.  We loved those bag pipes. Even in memory it seems to me that hearing those bag pipers once a year was our version of flying to Paris for dinner.

After the 90 minute parade was over, the picnics began.  Many among the hundreds of families [including the farm families who had gotten up two hours earlier than normal to get the cows milked and chores done] had also brought an entire full course picnic meal, with enough food to last through the afternoon.  Their dinners were spread on a blanket in the park several blocks from the parade route.  At about 1:00 o’clock, the first of the twenty minute concerts by all those bands would begin as they played all afternoon on stages set up in each corner of the park with room for the largest bands, and cozy enough for the smallest bands’ fans to enjoy them up close.  The majorettes would perform during these mini-concerts as well.

That was the day of synchronized twirling by up to 4 majorettes (per band) who performed complicated split-second routines including 30 foot-high baton throws with splits and backbends thrown in by the cream o’ the crop.  (Cartwheels were owned by all.  Splits and backbends were left to the best.)  These park performances went on until 5 o’clock.

Those who didn’t have cows waiting at the barn door 60 miles away and who had the extra $2 or so to get into The Big Field House on the north edge of town might attend the evening concert put on by a mass band made up of several of the biggest bands present.

Band Day does not need one word’s worth of embellishment or exaggeration.  Anyone who lived those days can still taste the sounds and knows the sights by heart.

Family.  Long day.  Making music.  Personal effort. Hometown pride.  Very good times~~back in the day.




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