Making music: ‘Oh, won’t we have a jolly time’

The Fullers Band

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

  The Fullers Band seemed to have performed frequently during the few years of its existence, playing at Sunday school picnics, church suppers, parades, Memorial Day observances, and at its own fundraising events.

For eons, an integral part of human existence has been making music. Until relatively recent times, it was necessary to be physically present to perform or listen to music. Early references to music-making in Guilderland are few.

An 1835 poster announcing a Fourth of July celebration listed a procession to St. James Lutheran Church (located where Fairview Cemetery is today) concluding in a ceremony where the hymn “Ode on Science” was sung. 

A collection of letters written by the Chesebro brothers in the 1840s included mention of Methodist camp meetings in Frenchs Hollow, events that very likely included hymn singing as part of the worship services. It is also likely that congregational singing was part of both Reformed and Lutheran services, and at some point formal choirs began to be established.

When George Chesebro was invited to a New Year’s Party in 1846, he hauled a sleigh load of friends to Frenchs Hollow. In describing his letter, the late Guilderland historian Arthur Gregg imagined that, as they glided over the snow, Chesebro and his friends were singing the early 19th-Century song, “Cousin Jedidiah” chorusing, “Oh, won’t we have a jolly time. Oh, won’t we have a jolly time. Jerusha, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea.”


Singing schools

George Chesebro was a member of a singing school. An institution dating back to New England colonial days, a singing school was not an actual school, but rather an informal singing group for anyone who wanted to join, begun by a person who had some musical ability.

Not only were there new songs to be learned and the pleasure that comes from community singing, but a big incentive for younger people was the opportunity to mingle with the opposite sex. Stephen Lainhart, a single young man from Settles Hill in the 1860s, was also a singing-school enthusiast, noting in his diary at one point that he attended singing school twice weekly and once noted dropping by the Glasshouse (Guilderland hamlet) singing school.

With The Enterprise beginning publication in 1884, notices of the formation of a singing school occasionally appeared. “Mr. Osborn will reopen his singing school at (Knowersville) Witherwax hall,” proposing to meet each Thursday evening.

Two years later, Prof. Geo. J. Hallenbeck led a singing school in the Guilderland hamlet and in 1890 announced they were preparing for a concert. Rev. G.I. Sweet organized a singing school at State Road Methodist Church at Parkers Corners every Friday evening, which perhaps answered the prayers of “the young people of this place (who) are in want of a good singing school teacher for the coming winter.”

The notices for singing schools faded by the mid1890s.


Church choirs

Providing an outlet for those who loved to sing were church choirs. Serious preparation was taken for concerts and services particularly at Easter, their performances often mentioned in the next week’s Enterprise.

Easter 1898 found the singing of the Altamont Reformed Church’s choir “deserves commendation of the manner in which they performed their part, showing their ability to execute ably different music.” At the same time, Guilderland Center’s St. Mark’s Lutheran choir’s singing on Easter morning 1899 “was of a high order” with “solos rendered in a most pleasing manner.”

Those who attended the Easter service at the Guilderland Methodist Church were pleased by the “excellent” singing.

The public was sometimes invited to a special concert of religious music offered by a local church choir such as the sacred cantata of song “King Triumphant” offered by the McKownville Methodist Church choir in 1898.

Church choirs were included in a variety of secular events. Fourth of July celebrations often found a choir involved.

Teachers’ Institutes, week-long meetings requiring area teachers’ attendance at sessions to improve their instructional techniques, were held in various churches where one feature would be entertainment by that church’s choir.

Guilderland’s Memorial Day was the occasion for a major ceremony at Prospect Hill Cemetery, a secular event with strong religious overtones. The growing prohibition movement brought frequent visits to local churches by ministers or other speakers seeking to promote temperance and included participation by the church’s choir.


Community music

Beginning in the 1880s, community musical activities were becoming an important part of American life. In Guilderland, this was especially evident with an outburst of musical activity in Altamont.

Villagers lived within easy walking distance of churches and meeting rooms, allowing them to form musical groups, rehearse, or attend performances — all with little effort.

Having talent, organizational skills, and the ability to stir up enthusiasm and participation, Mrs. Jesse Crounse and Montford Sand were each very involved in initiating village musical activities. This does not mean that music wasn’t going on in other parts of town but efforts there to form musical groups weren’t as successful.

Extremely popular during the last quarter of the 19th and early 20th centuries were community bands. They played at a variety of public events, usually for a modest fee to cover their expenses, to be paid by the sponsoring organization.

Knowersville’s band organized about 1885, followed within a year or two by the Fullers Cornet Band. Unfortunately, Guilderland Center’s attempt to organize its own band failed for lack of participation.

Within a year of its formation, Knowersville band members offered “grand entertainments,” first in one, then the other of the village’s hotels.

At the time, band members were described by the editor of the Enterprise as “some of our most promising young men,” who had been “organized scarcely a year, a credit to the village” and “in every way entitled to our support.”

Attendees at their fall concert would enjoy an oyster supper followed by full band choruses, and cornet and clarinet solos. Admission to this special evening was 40 cents.

The band announced that it was prepared “to furnish music for picnics, excursions, festivals, etc.”

For the next several years, the Knowersville band was in demand for both Republican and Democratic rallies, annual Lutheran reunions, excursions, church and temperance fundraising events, the Altamont Fair, Memorial Day, and Fourth of July observances, and the town’s big annual Sunday school picnics.

Historian Gregg described one of these Sunday school picnics when excited Altamont children sat perched on hay wagons with the band in the lead. The children sat and played on three-seated lumber wagons as they headed toward the picnic grove where they met children from other Sunday schools.

Young men from Fullers and the surrounding area also organized a band in the late 1880s that also played at a variety of town events for a few years. One of the band’s evening events was held at Wormer’s Hall in Guilderland Center. The admission of 25 cents brought entertainment from the band as well as farces, clogs, song and dance, male quartets, and comic sketches.

After 1891, the Fullers band seemed to have disbanded.

Around this time, drum corps were organized in Guilderland Center, Dunnsville, the hamlet of Guilderland, and Altamont. For a few years, one or another participated with either the Knowersville Band or Fullers Band at Sunday school picnics or Memorial Day ceremonies.

After 1898, there was a lapse of several years when the Knowersville/Altamont Band’s name disappeared from the Enterprise’s pages until 1908 brought about a revival of the village’s band, remaining active until 1918 when it was no longer mentioned.

The band’s performances must have been a rousing success, both in Guilderland and nearby communities where they performed at events as varied as the Altamont baseball team’s season opener, political rallies for either party, marching in parades, the cornerstone laying of Noah Lodge’s new Masonic Temple, at benefit events for churches and temperance organizations, Sunday school picnics, a Hose Company entertainment and for their field day and picnic.


Village orchestra

The year 1885 saw the formation of an orchestra in Altamont, which began with 10 members. A Fourth of July concert brought 600 people to the Reformed Church to listen to the choir, a vocal quartet, and the Knowersville orchestra.

That same month, when the temperance group Triumph Lodge took a cruise on the Steamer “Lotta,” the orchestra supplied the music. During the next few years, performances were few until in 1889 an announcement appeared that the orchestra, which had been reorganized with an additional violinist, was holding frequent rehearsals.

In 1890 and 1891, the Library Association’s dramatic performances of “Placer Gold” and “Laura the Pauper” included the orchestra providing the music. The last mention of the original orchestra appeared in 1897.

Revived in 1911, the new orchestra’s first public performance was at the Voorheesville Odd Fellows Fair where “the numbers were played with spirit.” Most of their performances between 1911 and 1917 were playing for dances, often outside of Guilderland.


Musical Association

An ambitious undertaking was the formation of Altamont’s Musical Association in 1895. Within a year, the association combined with the Altamont Orchestra for a concert at the Reformed church, although shortly after they faced disbanding because of “indifference.”

After a period of inactivity, 1898 brought new projects beginning with a rehearsal of the “Peasant Wedding March.” During the winter months, the Musical Association brought in outside, more professional talent to perform, among them the Capital City Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Club.

The association was complemented by The Enterprise “for the amount of variety and general excellence of the entertainment we are enjoying this winter which are furnished at an exceedingly low price.” A year later, the group put on an elaborate comic opera, though it was made clear that half of “Princess Bonnie” was in dialogue.

The year 1900 brought “Merry Milkmaids” followed by “Pauline” in 1901. By 1902, the group no longer seemed to be mentioned.

In 1900, Altamont’s newly formed Mandolin and Guitar Club made its debut at the musical association’s costume production “The Merry Milkmaids.” After the performance, it was judged “they did exceptionally well.” The group played at church bazaars and gave occasional concerts for the next few years.


Music at home

While formal musical groups were not as much a feature of life in other Guilderland communities during these years, music had become a popular pastime at home with the popularity of affordable upright pianos and small pump organs. Schenectady and Albany music stores advertised instruments for sale in The Enterprise while local columns often reported the names of proud new owners of pianos and organs in various parts of town.

However, a music revolution had begun with the invention of the phonograph. Already in 1890, Wm. Keenholts was working as an agent for Edison’s phonograph.

Back in the village for a visit, he gave demonstrations of “the marvel of the age” in Altamont, Guilderland Center, and the hamlet of Guilderland. This was probably the first time most local folks had ever heard the sound of a full orchestra or an opera singer.

This represented the beginning of American’s opportunity to hear professionally rendered music of their own choosing at their own convenience. Soon local columns listed the names of lucky new owners of phonographs.

While the coming of radio also brought a choice of endless professional musical performances, amateurs  continued to perform in churches and schools and local musical groups. Today’s listeners are no longer limited to listening to live music, but have an endless choice our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.