hey called it the Great Depression. In 1936 the people of Searcy had “suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The community needed to win a few. At this point a bright light started to shine in their midst. It was provided by a group of kids that called Searcy their home.
They were brought together by a dapper little man who came to Searcy for that purpose. His name was Roy Melvin. He was a musician par excellence and he was a good influence on the kids. He dressed impeccably and had the decided mannerisms of a gentleman. Part of his career had been spent as a circus musician.
I well remember his interview with my mother and me. He was going to organize a boys band. Was I interested in joining it? It was like giving a boy a warm puppy and asking him if he would like to keep it.
Soon after that the Searcy Boys Band started rehearsal after some individual attention from Melvin. We were sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, interested parents and business people. Our first instruction and rehearsals took place at the First Baptist Church Classroom Building. We had no connection with any school at that time.
Galloway College for Women had fallen victim to the 1930s economy. Nevertheless the college left behind a legacy of good taste throughout the community. Part of that legacy was love of music. Thus the audience for our band was primed. Enthusiasm caught on fire. We had the full support and backing of our neighbors and community leaders. We were winners and we started to act like it.
As the months unfolded our first uniforms appeared. They were tailor-made by Bo Coward. They consisted of red flannel jackets, white slacks, large white belts and white yacht caps. Total cost for a complete uniform was approximately $7.50. It would appear that there was little, if any, markup on the merchandise. The second and permanent uniform appeared that fall in time for the Centennial parade. It was black gabardine with red piping on the trousers, citation cord and matching cap. Total cost was $37.50, which was paid by each member plus donations.
Part of our instruction was shared by Sgt. Winfield Dewberry of the Arkansas National Guard. He taught us the Infantry Drill, how to keep our ranks and files straight and to respond to verbal commands. Then Dewberry transferred those commands to the only female in the group at that time. Gertrude Criner was our drum major. She issued the military commands through a shrill whistle and the tip of her drum major’s baton. She handled her responsibilities well, coordinating us through a sometimes confused vehicular traffic.
We were a tight unit. We looked good and we sounded good. We took pride in our band as a unit and in the efforts of each other. We were learning something important about bonding with each other. Then we started playing a lot of gigs out of town. We were in demand. The word was out. We were good. After a very cold parade in Searcy for the Arkansas Centennial, we played at the Memphis Cotton Carnival.
I remember we played at Morris School and also two or more years at Judsonia on the 4th of July. We played for a Wilbur Mills Campaign for Congress, starting at Lonoke and ending the day at DeValls Bluff.
We had freedom of movement in these gigs because we were still not a part of a school system. In other words we were not involving public funds or taxpayer dollars.
Roy Melvin had a unique ability. He could improvise on a band or concert level, just as a jazz musician does on a jazz level. Toward the end of a parade when the kids were getting tired, the music becoming ragged and the marching sloppy, Mr. Melvin would call up a march, then turn his coronet over the heads of the band and the sounds that came out were brilliant, stimulating and commanding. Heads would come up, steps would quicken, ranks would straighten and we would finish the parade with the same strength that we started.
Under the tutelage of Melvin we began to equate music with history. This is something that I still do. I remember an anecdote he shared with a group of us huddled around him on a bus trip. It concerned a real hero, the march king John Phillip Sousa. I have heard the story verified many times since then. He was returning from England to New York and the voyage had been miserable. The North Atlantic was cold and foggy. He had not slept well. He was tired and wanted to go home. Three musical themes haunted him. They wouldn’t let go of his mind. When he would drop off to sleep he would awaken to the incessant, repetitive themes. Early on the last day he got dressed and went up on deck. They were entering New York Harbor. He walked to the bow of the ship. Then suddenly the fog parted like a curtain and dead ahead rose the Statue of Liberty. Suddenly he was not tired any more. It went off like a rocket in his mind. The adrenaline was pumping and he grew impatient. He had to pack his clothes, get through Customs and downtown to his hotel. Once inside his hotel room he wrote his lead sheet for a new march. He incorporated the three themes. When he was finally satisfied with his work, he realized the march must have a name. Across the top of the sheet he scribbled “The Stars and Stripes Forever – By John Phillip Sousa.”
In the second year of our band, our drum major developed medical problems that made her vigorous routine unwise. She resigned and was replaced by Wallace Baker. He took the responsibilities easily and quickly. In 1938 Mr. Melvin left us, hopefully for bigger and better things. He has never been forgotten. He was replaced by Joe Miller, a very capable leader and instructor who had the qualifications to satisfy the State Board of Education. We then became a part of the Searcy Public School System.
One of the major changes that took place in our band was the addition of girls who became players as well as a lineup of twirling majorettes. They were a welcome addition to the unit. They were pretty and bright and their presence brought a stimulus to male players. They were an adjunct to the excitement at football games. Then we entered band competition with other schools. We entered contents in Hot Springs and clinics in Little Rock. We brought home many trophies as winners. The band was maturing and growing. It beckoned to kids with ability and talent. Generally speaking, our academic records were good. We became a status symbol.
In 1941 circumstances dictated that I leave Searcy. I returned in the summer and under the patient nurturing of Miss Irene Forrest, I graduated the same year that my class did. All I missed was the ceremony and the band.
The band was an exciting adventure for kids standing upon the threshold of life. It was absolute proof of what can be accomplished when people work together. Musicians celebrate life like few others. There is rapport among them unlike anything in the world. It transcends political, religious, ethnic and racial differences. They seem to speak an international language that is heard and enjoyed by everyone but understood in its depth only by other musicians.
The surviving members of our band who live in Searcy were consulted in an attempt to recreate a roster of the organization from 1936 to 1941. Participants were not all there at the same time. Many are deceased. Four wars and 64 years have gone by since the inception of the band but to those of us involved, the music is unforgettable.
(The author was a member of the White County Historical Society. He died October 30, 2001, at Little Rock before this was published. He was 79. His friend and fellow historian Dale Van Patten, a charter member of the band, also contributed to this article.)