Band research hits the right note

The Humboldt Brass Band was founded in 1866. The University of Illinois, which serves as the home of the Sousa Archives & Center for American Music, houses a complete selection of the band's partbooks. A music professor has studied them and recently visited Humboldt.

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May 26, 2022 - 2:30 PM

Todd Cranson, left, looks through information about the Humboldt band with Bob Johnson. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

HUMBOLDT — Todd Cranson grew up in New Orleans, went to college in Illinois and now works as a music professor at the University of South Dakota.

But his ties to Humboldt — where he’d never set foot until Monday — will be forever linked, thanks to a yearlong effort to document the origins of the Humboldt Brass Band.

Cranson, en route from South Dakota to a music conference in Texas, passed through Humboldt this week to donate his dissertation about the old band to the Humboldt Historical Society.

“It had been sitting on my shelf the past seven years, just waiting to come here,” Cranson said.

HOW CRANSON came across the Humboldt band’s origins is a story in itself, and dates back to his college days as a student at the University of Illinois, which also serves as the home for the Sousa Archives  & Center For American Music.

It was there that Cranson found several handwritten partbooks for the Humboldt Brass Band, which was founded by bandleader Richard Redfield, a former Civil War bandsman, in 1866. A partbook is typically a small book whose focus is on each specific instrument, typically of the 15th and 16th centuries.

What Cranson didn’t realize — nor did Sousa Archives officials at the time  — was that the center housed perhaps the only complete selection of the band’s partbooks.

Cranson soon found himself enamored with the brass band sound coming from Humboldt in the post-Civil War era.

“I had a friend who had a quasi-community professional band (The Community Vintage Brass Band) and we recorded the Humboldt music,” he said. “That’s not all we played. We play a lot of stuff, but we recorded the Humboldt music because it was a single collection that made for a single recording.”

It was while performing the Humboldt music that Cranson realized he was onto something special, particularly as he learned about the music’s significance. He decided to turn his research into a dissertation in order to earn his doctorate.

For the next year, Cranson pored over roughly 50,000 digitized newspaper clippings, many from the Humboldt Union, as he learned about Redfield’s work as well as the partbooks.

“The actual books are very fragile,” he noted. “I wore special gloves to view the books, gently turning each page while I took photos. It took me a couple of days and hundreds of photos. Click. Click. Click.”

On a lighter note, after a year of researching Humboldt, Cranson now considers himself somewhat of an expert on all kinds of area bands.

“I can tell you about bands of Indians, bands of outlaws, and even wedding bands,” he laughed.

CRANSON authored what became a historical study of the Humboldt band in order to contribute new knowledge about the early history of the post-Civil War era.

“This is a period of time from which little research about amateur American bands and their repertoire exists,” he wrote as part of his dissertation. The goal is to make the music more accessible to performers and future researchers.

Cranson’s work included adapting the pieces for modern musicians.

“Back in those days, bands were pitched higher than they are now,” Cranson explained. “With technology coming along, they were able to eventually make bigger instruments and bands were pushed lower.

“If you gave the original music to a high school band, they could play it, but it would be a strain because it’s really high.”

Cranson is willing to offer up his adaptations to anyone wanting to perform it. 

He also donated several CDs featuring Vintage Brass Band’s Humboldt pieces, dubbed “1876: Music of the Humboldt Brass Band.” 

The music also is available via Spotify and other streaming services.

“Just search for ‘Vintage Brass Band,’” he said. “There aren’t very many of us.”

As an aside, the Vintage Brass Band developed quite a following while Cranson was living in Illinois, and was even tapped to perform at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in 2009 on what would have been the 16th president’s 200th birthday.

Alas, Cranson left the band after finishing school and moving, first to Arkansas, and now to South Dakota, where he serves as USD’s director of athletic bands.

BOB JOHNSON, a member of the Humboldt Historical Society, is eager to see Cranson’s dissertation featured prominently in one of the society’s museums.

Alongside his dissertation is another three-ring binder filled with meticulously collected articles about the Humboldt band, complete with his notes about what he’s learned.

“It’s just a remarkable gift,” Johnson said.

Johnson also hopes others learn to play the Humboldt music, noting the Iola Municipal Band, whose origins date to the same post-Civil War era, would be an ideal venue. 

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