My Grandfather, Leader of the Marine Band, Part One

Editor’s Note: this is the first post in a series of posts about my Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson.

pete and sousa blog

On the occasion of the Carabao Wallow in 1932, my Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson (right) shakes hand with John Phillip Sousa, 43 years after the Marine Band Leaders’ first meeting.

On May 2, 1927, 90 years ago today, my maternal Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson received his warrant to become the US Marine Band’s 20th Leader. A native Washingtonian, and the first Leader born to parents born in the United States, my grandfather led “The President’s Own” until he retired in 1940.

Born on the Feast of St. Ignatius July 31, 1881, my grandfather was the fourth child of the ten born to Serena Arnold and James Taylor (JT) Branson, and the oldest surviving son. Referring to himself as a “country fiddler,” JT encouraged his namesake son to take up the violin at an early age.

Good naturedly calling his son “Pete” after “Pete Tumbledown,” a 19th Century comics’ character known for his clumsiness, JT wanted his son to experience a better, more refined, and peaceful life than the one he knew doing the hard, violent, and dangerous work as a mounted policeman for the District of Columbia.

On June 15, 1899, in an astonishingly prescient moment, the father and son saw a significant glimpse into the future of which they dreamed.

On that day, not quite 8, Pete, as his grandchildren affectionately came to call him, was recognized as one  of eleven schoolchildren, who won the Washington Post Amateur Authors Association’s essay contest.

25,000 people attended a ceremony on the Smithsonian grounds, where Pete received his gold medal from John Phillip Sousa, then the Leader of the US Marine Band. And, according to family lore, the future Leader of the band sat in the then current Leader’s lap.

As if that moment wasn’t enough to predestine my grandfather’s fate, as pure lagniappe, he and JT were there when Sousa premiered “The Washington Post March” written for the occasion. Next to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “The Post March” was “The March King’s” most popular march.

Nine years later, after graduating from Eastern High School in 1898, Pete joined the band as an “Apprentice Musician.” But thanks to JT’s influence, Pete’s apprenticeship began much sooner than that, and like many musicians, he learned in secular and sacred places.

Reminiscent of a latter day Harry Connick Jr., who, as a boy, played piano with legendary New Orleans’ musicians, Pete, as a child, was also good enough on the violin to play with adults.

At 9, according to the “Washington Evening Star,” on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1890, Pete performed with adult musicians at Gray’s Hall in Anacostia.

30 persons heard this performance, which the local branch of the fraternal insurance association the Catholic Knights of America sponsored. “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and “Mickey Brannigan’s Pup” were among the numbers featured in the show, which lasted until one in the morning.

A Knights member, JT created this great, heady moment and opportunity for Pete to prove himself among more experienced players while assuring he played in a safe, friendly environment. And Pete returned home likely feeling confident, grateful, and well loved and with quite a story to tell.

Pete also grew as a musician at St. Teresa of Avila Parish. JT and Serena were charter members of the parish, which was the first Catholic church in Washington established East of the Anacostia River. It was founded in 1879, five years after the Bransons were married.

Anacostia was a multiracial community then, and with African Americans contributing significant funding and labor to build the new parish, St. Teresa’s first congregants were African American and White. But White families pre-dominated parish life, which limited African Americans’ roles and say in parish affairs.

The Bransons likely accepted these divisions as the way of life. But we shouldn’t judge our ancestors too harshly because they didn’t live up to our more enlightened ideals, especially when our own racial relations are imperfect.

Nonetheless, Pete’s participation in St. Teresa’s life positively influenced him. According to the “Star,” Pete soloed on the violin many times and occasionally played clarinet: at Sunday masses, on feast day celebrations, at organ recital fundraisers and during Vespers.

Along with his older sisters Lizzie and May, Pete was also a member of the church choir, singing tenor.

His singing ability set Pete apart from other Marine Band Leaders. Audiences particularly enjoyed it when he sang the “The Marines’ Hymn,” but like a latter day Pete Seeger, my grandfather insisted on singing all the verses. And the band couldn’t keep up when Pete got deeper into the song’s more obscure verses.

Pete’s all-in approach to singing characterized the way he lived. When my grandmother Marie urged him not to be so intense, Pete said he couldn’t help it. He believed a person should “to do well what one has to do, and to do it with one’s entire self.”

JT’s encouragement, his close-knit family’s love, and his parish’s influence shaped Pete’s philosophy and more significantly formed him as a musician, and a man, who loved his Church, and possessed an ardent faith, which later informed his daughters Serena and Anna Marie’s extraordinary lives of service.

Nourished with great love, and with a strong faith in a musical future, which he saw clearly and for which he had well prepared, Pete, at 17, took his next step toward that promising life. On September 21, 1898, he enlisted as a Private in the Marine Band.

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