This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Lehr Family Orchestra

25 September 2010

This is one of the first photographs in my collection - Lehr's Family Orchestra, found in an antique shop in Union Bridge, Maryland. This was several years ago, and I had no real interest in collecting then, but this photo postcard caught my attention for its quaint good fun. And for $2, I couldn't resist buying it, so it ended up on the bulletin board of my music studio. Some years later the collecting sickness took over and I began to find other vintage photographs of musicians. This happened at the same time as my interest in genealogy and history research became  more developed. So this photo was became my first exploration into the vast archives available on the world wide web. What could I learn with the little information available in this photo? Quite a lot, actually.

The photo is from the early 1930's and the Lehr's are rehearsing at home for their traveling show. Family bands had always been a popular entertainment in the 19th century and good business for the families that had talent and numerous progeny. But by the 1920's and 30's the opportunities for success in these kinds of concerts was rapidly declining. Vaudeville had left the big city theaters and begun a decline into a cheaper tawdry entertainment we now associate with burlesque. The traveling circuit was growing smaller and the season shorter, and the competition from Hollywood and radio, meant a diminishing audience. The Great Depression did not help either.


Here the Lehr family is on stage, showing mom and dad with 8 children. This second photo came from a York, Pennsylvania source which suggested a location in Maryland or Pennsylvania. With so many different newspapers and state archives to chose from, location can really determine success in research. So this led to a discovery in the August 13, 1938 edition of the Daily News of Frederick, MD.
Amazingly, it is the same photograph and it describes the family and the program, which features the two youngest brothers - John Philip Sousa Lehr and Victor Herbert Lehr. This wonderful article gave the final clues to find the full family history.  

John A. Jr and Mabel Meisenhelder Lehr lived in North York, PA with 8 children. On the 1930 census John scratched out his occupation as machinist and listed musician/orchestra instead. He played saxophone and Mabel played the piano. This musical family band played churches and civic gathering around the Gettysburg and York County, PA, and Frederick, MD area from 1926 to 1941. The Lehr siblings are in order:

  • Hazel M. - b. 1910  - trombone
  • Standford I.M. Lehr- b.1912 - violin
  • David Samuel Lehr - 1914- clarinet
  • Catherine Mabel Lehr - 1916- saxophone
  • Theodore John Lehr - 1919 - drums
  • Virginia June Lehr - 1921- saxophone
  • John Philip Sousa Lehr - 1929 - drums and conductor
  • Victor Herbert Lehr - 1932 drums and vocal
A review of the 1938 concert appeared a few days later and described Victor Herbert as only just past his third year. A common exaggeration used by family musicians since musical bands began. In the Frederick Times of July 6, 1936 we find a photograph of young Victor at the drums. Judging by the age of the girls the first photo is clearly earlier, perhaps 1920's, and I think it shows John Philip at the drums instead of Victor.

One can only imagine the noise of the Lehr household. And such aspiration to name the youngest children after the two most popular American composers of the early 20th century. The report that John Philip Sousa Lehr won a prize at the Chicago Fair in 1933 and that Victor Herbert Lehr was taking instruction from the great band leader Frank Goldman in New York suggests the family did some traveling beyond York. Ambition for the youngest talent was also a common family band tradition.

But after 1941 the trail goes cold, and I find no clues to suggest that any member of the Lehr family orchestra ever went on to great musical fame. But I feel certain that they each found a passion for music that ultimately became the real reward.

The Gypsy Barons of Detroit

14 September 2010

Continuing the exotic theme, while these are not exactly turbans, they are still pretty flashy. Meet the Gypsy Barons from Detroit. This is a large press photograph from the Detroit News archives. It is dated with an ink stamp 5 July, 1929.

In 1922 the Detroit News expanded into commercial radio with the station WWJ , originally at 580 kHz and later in 1927 at 920 kHz. These were powerful stations that broadcast an AM signal a considerable distance across the midwest. The first radio stations started in 1920 but within a year  there were hundreds around the country. Radio was a fast growing communication medium but it really had no connection to the conventions of the theater or the concert hall. This was new technology and everything had to be invented and tried, at least once. Gypsy music was a popular style in the 1920's.

I found only one citation for the Gypsy Barons. Not surprisingly it comes from the Detroit News dated   6 March 1928. There on To-day's Radio Programs is a listing for WWJ Detroit and at 7:30 you could have heard the Gypsy Barons.

These guys (and maybe gal - the trombonist at the back looks curiously feminine) seem more swarthy than your average polka band. Several could be related. There is only the group's name written on the back of the photo, but could they be a genuine Romani band?

During the early 20th century, Detroit was considered to have America's largest concentration of Romani (i.e. Gypsy) people. Mostly from Romania and eastern Europe, they settled in Michigan and established numerous Romanian Orthodox churches. More here - History of Detroit Romanian Community

This band was playing to a local crowd and probably worked the various clubs and social events of the Romani community. This photo was likely used by the newspaper for radio promotion but as a studio portrait it captures the character of an early pop band. Note there are two horns seated on the left. The horn is not typically associated with gypsy brass bands. There are three trumpets too, not cornets as might be expected if this was a decade earlier. Despite the low fidelity of early radio, one imagines that this band could really pump out the sound.

A Regimental Band of the Bengal Infantry

05 September 2010

Music is a commodity. It gets exported and imported around the world just like any raw material. And in past times Britain probably contributed more to exporting culture than any other country before or since. As an example we have a regimental band of the British Indian Army, specifically a regiment of the Bengal Infantry, c. 1880s.

The British Empire covered a vast part of the world in the late 19th century and India was the so called "crown jewel". To protect such a large and valuable colony required a large organization of military units. This large studio format photo has a lot of fading and damage, and unfortunately no identification. But there are always clues.

On the snare drum are some letters that at first caused confusion. NGALINFAN was not a recognized word. But after some scrabble playing with additional letters, it became two words - BENGAL INFANTRY.

The bass drum also has letters that I interpret as the unit's campaigns, and the lower one is possibly AFGHANISTAN 187_. The Second Anglo- Afghan War was 1878-1880 and included several units of the Bengal Infantry. More history here: 2nd Anglo-Afghan War

The Native Indian Army units were formed around the three major provinces at that time -  Bengal, Bombay, and Madras. In 1895 the army was reorganized and those designations were eliminated. So this photograph was taken between 1878 and 1895.

Each unit undoubtedly had a band  that was trained by a British bandsman. My guess is that the one European gentleman with the bowler hat is the leader. Possibly that is his cornet in front of the bass drum. And of course that must be his son next to him. Recently I learned that overseas work in India recruited many more men from Scotland and Ireland than England.

The band has typical military instruments of the time, no doubt made in Britain. It includes one bassoon which I find a curious instrument for a band, but probably one very suited to a player familiar with traditional Indian double reed instruments. There is also a mellophone in the front. The younger boys dressed in white are likely cadets - apprentice musicians. It seems probable that some of them are sons of the regular members of the band too.

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