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Band concert postcard from Hampton Beach, NH

In this episode of PorchLight, you will be hearing many stories about many bands: some real ones, some fictional ones, some legendary ones. Incredibly, Alexander’s Ragtime Band somehow managed to be both fictional and legendary. You probably know the song. It’s actually been very well known since it was first published in 1912.

The opening chorus: “C’mon and hear, C’mon and hear Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It’s the best band in the land.

Here’s your invitation. In 1912, the way you would hear a band playing would most likely be live in the moment. For this band, one can imagine a large white wooden gazebo on the town green. A holiday celebration perhaps.

Then in that last line, there’s the boast. It’s the best band in the land. So in 1912, what would that mean? Local pride, while believing this band to be the equal of any I’ve ever heard. And it likely wouldn’t be costing you any money to hear them.

Let me explain here why this 110 year old song continues to have meaning. Irving Berlin was never asked about this to my knowledge, though there would have been plenty of opportunity to do so, since the guy lived to be 101.

So here’s what I believe: By 1912, Ragtime was well established in American popular song. Like jazz and blues, it had first originated with African-Americans and Creoles from New Orleans. So Alexander is referred to as the leader of the band and twice elsewhere in a song as a man. I wonder if Irving Berlin had imagined Alexander to be an person of color. An American who happened to have the best band in the land, honey lamb.

Imagine such an ensemble playing in a public gazebo in the Jim Crow United States of 1912. Improbable, sure, but also possibly revolutionary. I prefer to believe that was Irving Berlin’s intention all along. The song reveals so much and yet may be keeping a few secrets from us. Let the band play for however long it might take not be more than a myth. Yea, just play. Along the way, you just never know who might listen.

Oh, this is the Boswell Sisters. In 1912, they were all in single digits, just two years from growing up in New Orleans.

Song, Artist, Album

Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boswell Sisters, Collection

Johnny Strikes Up The Band, Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy

Dangerous World, Sally’s Dream, (Demo)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s

Sultans Of Swing, Dire Straits, Dire Straits

So You Want To Be A Rock n Roll Star, Byrds, Greatest

Travelin’ Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicles

Touring, Ramones, Deluxe Edition

Ballad Of Lowell George, Tom Roznowski, This Place In Time

Feats Don’t Fail me Now, Little Feat, Waiting For Columbus

Uncle John’s Band, Grateful Dead, Workingman’s Dead 

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s