On the Corner

“Hooray for The Salvation Army Band”

by Bob Docter –

In 1968, Bill Cosby wrote and recorded a song (set to the tune of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix) concerning a young man ready to let “the devil win” in several different circumstances only to be interrupted each time by the arrival of The Salvation Army band. Here are some selected passages:

I was drinking hard
I broke away again
And it looked like
The devil was gonna win.

And just as I was taking
My drink into drunkenness
Guess who broke the bottle
And said, clean up that mess.

Hooray for The Salvation Army band
Playing that music, going around
Doing the best they can.

I guess one day
I’ll be able to stick right with ‘em
But for this whole time
I’m trying to get away from ‘em.

Hooray for The Salvation Army band
Playing that music, going around
Doing the best they can.

(Bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves
We shall come rejoicing
Bringing in the sheaves.)

Oh, help me
Somebody please
Stop this silly man.

Oh, take my hand
Oh, my little chickadee
I will abstain from all
Intake of alcoholic beverages.

On a cool Thanksgiving Sunday evening we formed in the driveway by the hall. It was dark. The whole group—must have been close to 50, knew our destination, where to stand in the formation and what street march we would be using—usually something out of the 900 book. There were between 35 and 40 musicians with two flag bearers, two banner carriers and close to a dozen timbrelists. An old soldier carried a lantern at the back of the group, and the corps officer—maybe Bob Tobin or George Church—maybe Bill Pickup, marched between the flags.

The whole bunch seemed to like each other. As we assembled everyone was talking. Harry Sparks jabbering with a joke, Cy Nottle explaining something to his son, Tom, Wilf Mountain sharing a laugh with Russ Crowell, Dick Wiseman speaking quietly to Randy Stillwell, Russ Smalley laughing with Eric Skarness and Goff Cruzberg. I was probably checking a Scripture verse in the dark while struggling to hold my horn.There were no whistles or shouts. Bandmaster Ron Smart looked at his watch and nodded to Albert Sheerman, the snare drummer who gave his drum a couple of loud whacks, and Glen Lycan socked the bass drum into a traditional beat.

Everything immediately fell into place as we left the driveway and turned west on Hollywood Blvd. The march was the only time the group ever seemed organized. I usually marched at the left rear corner, but no one had any specific direction. It seemed as if no one needed it.

The roll off kicked us into tempo as we moved up the far right lane—by the old Florentine Gardens nightclub, past the porno theater, and waiting for the light at Gower. If we ever had a parade permit I wasn’t aware of it. At Vine, we waited in formation for the light to turn red and then filed across the boulevard.

I was the sergeant-major, which meant that I got to hold the microphone. Ralph Powell, who had driven down with the PA system, handed me the mike and away we went even before the half circle in front of the gutter was completely formed.

I had never established a policy of asking for people’s participation prior to arrival at the corner. They all knew they had better be ready.

Nine times out of 10 my first song was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”—then a prayer. I’d work those powerful lyrics of that first verse, seemingly written especially for an open-air service. I never used more than one verse of any song.

I saw my goal as relating to listeners—people passing by. “Oh, oh—someone’s in trouble,” I’d shout—pointing at an ambulance, siren screaming, as it flew by. I’d weave a short message stimulated by something from the events around me. We had a testimony or two, a vocal solo, often from Laurel Hamner, and a band piece. I would hope someone would have an argument with me. It was fun, but I learned very early never to let loose of the mike.

I miss the street and the corner.

In many ways, the experience I had in our corps’ open-air service at Hollywood and Vine shaped and honed some important parts of my personality. The give and take of the crowd demanded quick thinking, a willingness to be vulnerable and with a broad focus on the goal with extreme flexibility in how to get there. My adolescent feelings of embarrassment disappeared. It gave me opportunities to continue to confront my feelings, to enjoy my tension, to ad lib a relationship with people on the fly. It gave me confidence in myself, in my corps, in my surroundings, and in people in general.

The band was always the essential element. It attracted the attention. It made people pause—even for a moment or two. It furnished the individuals I could ask to go speak to a listener. I never felt alone. There were always others, and with them, I felt the company of Christ.

Listen to a recording of “Hooray for The Salvation Army Band” by Bill Cosby at

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