What is the “short” story of Salvation Army music and Salvation Army musical practice at Christmas?

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by Ronald W. Holz – 

In Jean Shepherd’s classic film, A Christmas Story, the late 1940s-early ’50s downtown shopping scene is lent authenticity with the appearance and sound of a Salvation Army (SA) band. SA brass music at Christmas, along with the ubiquitous Christmas kettle, is now iconic, both visual and aural. What are some of the historical roots of this image? What is the “short” story of Salvation Army music and Salvation Army musical practice at Christmas?

Early years

Certainly when the first kettles appeared in San Francisco to help raise funds for Joseph McFee’s “Lighthouse” in December 1893, a brass band or ensemble was not involved. That is not to say the Army did not see Christmas as an opportunity for musical evangelism and, to a certain extent, fund-raising. Not until years later, however—mostly in the post-World War II era—would SA brass, SA music, and the Christmas season became so closely linked in America.

The practice of nonstop Christmas “kettle-ling,” made more productive with brass quartets playing continually from the Friday after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, was a long time in developing, and parallels the gradual commercialization of Christmas. (Wait, perhaps I am naïve—most Army corps now start no later than early November.)

As early as the end of second full year of SA band publications—Christmas 1886—the Army began providing a few carols and seasonal songs for its brass groups. Each year the repertoire grew, one to three tunes a year, until the November 1896 issue, which was exclusively dedicated to Christmas music—a total of 10 carols/songs. Not a large number, and not a lot of familiar carols, but a beginning, nonetheless.

By this time SA bands in the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, in the US, began to take advantage of the old practice of playing the “waits” at Christmas. Army leadership suggested restricting it to Boxing Day, with bands properly canvassing ahead of the venture, communicating clearly to neighborhoods how any money raised would be used.

In the November issue of the 1895 Musical Salvationist, the bi-monthly “The Bandsmen’s Page” contained an informative piece, “Christmas Playing,” that read in part:

“[Christmas playing] is one of the very best opportunities that a Band has for getting money, as most people feel inclined to be a bit liberal at the Christmas season, especially to Brass and other Bands that belong to the neighborhood; the Army comes in for a good deal of liberality where a proper organized effort has been made.”

Slow growth

All of this was on a very limited scale, and the official Salvation Army tended to downplay Christmas festivities and Christmas worship. In vocal music only two Christmas songs, both by Richard Slater, were published—one per year—in the first two volumes of the Musical Salvationist (1886—1888). There were occasional exceptions, like the eight songs and one brass quartet in the December 1895 issue.

In the American War Cry of the late 1890s there were but a few songs by May Agnew and Booth-Tucker. Christmas music was just not that important to the Army at this time. Indeed, the Salvation Army Songbook and related Tunebook of 1899-1900 contained only five Christmas-related tunes, matched to only four texts. The numbers doubled to 10 in the 1928-30 revision, and then nearly doubled again by the 1954 edition, to 19 songs/carols. The SA only gradually expanded the role of Christmas music in its worship practice.

This slow growth can be paralleled in what was printed for brass bands and choirs over the years. London released just a few “carol sheets” for bands prior to World War II. The USA Central and USA East/NHQ printed similar cards in 1930s. More extended selections, marches and carol selections for bands only began to appear in significant numbers in the late 1940s. Choral and vocal music show a similar pattern during that time period.

Soon, however, a great surge forward occurred, marked in 1953 with the USA East’s Carolers’ Favorites, arranged by Erik Leidzén (Brass and Vocal-Choral Editions), revised in 1957, and then greatly expanded in 1994. The British followed suit with their Christmas Praise Carol Book (Brass and Vocal-Choral), 1964, and the expanded New Christmas Praise in 1994. Even a duet book, when four-parts could not be supplied, saw the light of day with Brian Bowen’s (USA East) Two-Part Carols and Christmas Songs, 1989.

New tunes

When you hear a brass quartet at a Salvation Army kettle nowadays or as the band campaigns in a neighborhood or is profiled on radio or TV during some public relations function at the holidays, you are as likely to hear a pop song as you are “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” That was not always the case. In the first edition of Carolers’ Favorites, several “secular” tunes were inserted in the back pages, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “White Christmas,” all very legal and printed with official blessing and copyright clearance.

A new SA administration required the music department to remove these worldly songs in the 1957 edition. When Stephen Bulla took on the expanded version of 1994, the floodgates were allowed to open, and the repertoire expanded to include many popular songs, like Mel Torme’s “Chestnuts Roasting,” and José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” Another edition is projected for 2005 and new material will range from “Jingle Bell Rock” to selections from the Nutcracker Suite.

Did you know that the average brass quartet brings in a great deal more money—significantly more cash—at a kettle than the normal bell ringer? No wonder the Army needs good materials for its bands.

It was as the Salvation Army gradually expanded social service programs directly connected to Christmas that music began to be used more fully, both to spread the joy of the Gospel and to help raise money to carry on such charitable activities. One of earliest major efforts, to be repeated throughout the country, was the Christmas Day 1899 feeding of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. The National Staff Band and National Headquarters Orchestra provided music and the press took notice.

The model has been followed ever since. A good public relations effort is essential for a successful fundraising season, and fundraising is essential if the Army is to carry on its special holiday work; music is a vital means to that end.

Media events

By 1922 Salvation Army bands began to be heard on radio, several of them at Christmas time. In New York City alone, Christmas broadcasts became a staple—like that on WRBY (1932). Yet, it was in the enthusiasm and prosperity of post-World War II America that Army music-making climbed new heights and helped lock in that image of SA brass and vocal carolers.

A similar change began to occur in other developed nations where the Army had established music programs and more sophisticated development plans. For example, the New York Staff Band launched an annual media event, the New York Stock Exchange Carol Sing, in 1948 and at about the same time released their 78-rpm Christmas recordings. All the major SA bands would get their Christmas albums pressed as soon as they could. Shortly thereafter, SA bands were on TV, like the December 1953 Margaret Arlen Show, WCBS-TV, or the December 1955 “The Today Show” with Dave Garroway.

The long-standing Army of Stars program and recording produced by the USA Western Territory (created by Lloyd Docter and continued by Robert Docter) has probably had the longest run and most impact of any such media efforts. A listing of such events and innovations becomes legion.

But are things changing? Now, when you tune into the annual kettle-kickoff held at half-time on Thanksgiving Day at the big NFL game, you are more likely to see and hear a country music superstar, flanked by the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, than you are a group of Salvationist musicians.

But perhaps that is the exception rather than the rule. No doubt the SA brass group and the SA caroling brigade are as central to the American scene as they have been in the past. I hope so. I would not want to see a new generation of Army musicians miss that great opportunity of singing and playing this great holiday repertoire while helping the Army raise much needed funds.

More importantly, I hope they will rejoice in bringing joy to so many with pleasing sounds that tell of the new birth that is possible because Christ came to be our Savior!

Dr. Ronald W. Holz is professor of Music Literature and Instrumental Music at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky. His upcoming book is entitled Brass Bands of The Salvation Army: Their Mission and Music.

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