Whitmans' Band

The Untold Story of Walt Whitman's Earliest Musical Inspiration

My interest in antebellum Brooklyn began as a genealogical pursuit. The permutations of family relationships had shrouded my paternal lineage in a bit of mystery, so no one in the family even knew that the Grangers were originally from Brooklyn. The Brooklyn directories of the 1840s and ‘50s revealed dozens of Granger names and addresses, but my inner detective was awakened when it started to seem very likely that Walt Whitman had actually written about us.

Early and Mary Granger (yes, my earliest American ancestor’s name was Early) came over from Norfolk, England in 1830. They had six children in tow and produced four more in America. They apparently embraced their new home with zeal, because within a few years of their quotidian dispatch at the old ferry landing, they had managed to launch an enterprise that became known as the Brooklyn Brass Band.

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Presentation at New York, 1853

Whitman’s ardor for the working classes was undoubtedly bound up in his affection for this band, which is evidenced by the precipitous spike in coverage it received in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during the two years of Whitman’s editorship. Unlike the merchants that made up New York’s famous Dodworth Band (also a family enterprise), Granger’s Band was a solid corps of tradesmen and laborers. The Grangers themselves were masons. They built Brooklyn’s churches, its townhouses, and even City Hall. But it was the family’s avocation that got them into the papers, and Walt Whitman was its chief chronicler.

There are few historical references to the enterprise despite the fact that it was, along with the Boston and New York bands, one of the earliest such official outfits in the country. Its comparatively short lifespan is the likely reason for its obscurity. The original group lasted only until 1853, when bandleader William Granger’s untimely death from pneumonia ended the reign of the Granger name. Renowned cornetist Robert Stewart became the titular leader until the outfit served as the 14th Regiment Band in the Civil War, with the sons of several original band members as corps musicians.

That music was a prime inspiration for Whitman’s poetry is well known. His embrace of opera is familiar territory, but this was latent in the 1840s when his musical tastes ran toward group singing, troubadours, and concert bands. Brass band music in particular is commonly acknowledged as an influence on Whitman’s work, but actual performing groups to which Whitman may have had access is only ever speculated. One recent, quite fastidious biography identifies Dodworth’s Band as a likely candidate for Whitman’s inspiration. Dodworth, who published music; Dodworth, whose educated sons engineered popular innovations for marching instruments; Dodworth, who made the history books–Dodworth, indeed! That I should feel a jolt of the rivalry that surely engaged my ancestors is reason enough to set the record straight. Historical records have so far failed to produce a single instance of Dodworth as the subject of any such attention from Whitman like the commentary from an 1847 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

Being so accustomed to the cultural tyranny of popular music today, it is intriguing to consider that the brass band of the early nineteenth century was the first instance of music played in organized public settings by common, working-class people. The magnetism of such an enterprise to a rapidly growing city must have been considerable indeed, particularly to its youth. The era’s romantic literature is rife with the allure of the military guardsman to the eligible young lady, and the young men were surely drawn to serve less by duty than by camaraderie and the promise of connubial conquest.

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Brooklyn City Guard at Fort Greene, 1843

The brass band was integral to the local guard not just as a regular accompaniment for the day’s target excursion, but as the featured attraction for the real point of the exercise, the after-party. Unlike its eventual Sousa-style incarnation a half-century later, the antebellum brass band boasted a widely diverse musical repertoire. In the early 1840s, Granger’s Band consisted of seven brass and three wind instruments, and played a broad spectrum of musical styles, from marches and waltzes to quicksteps, quadrilles, love songs and ballads. They became a popular fixture not only for guard maneuvers and military ceremonies but for balls, concerts, picnics and parties.

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Target Excursion in Broadway, 1850

According to Whitman, his group had a rocky start.

When Mr. Granger first got up his band, and for a time afterward, it had a hard struggle with many adverse circumstances.

Although the band is characterized in an 1842 edition of the Eagle as “a newly organized body under the direction of William Granger,” in fact his father may have inaugurated it as early as 1835. The elder Granger claimed as much, at any rate, in an 1880 newspaper profile of his 90th birthday. But Early Granger probably wasn’t the type to let facts get in the way of a good story. He also claimed to have been wounded at the battle of Waterloo, when in reality his regiment had been stationed about eight miles west of the battlefield and never saw any action. (I tend to want to give him the benefit of the doubt for being wounded on that day, but owing perhaps to one too many pints of porter.) There is little doubt, in any case, that Early was the prime architect of the enterprise. If the band was at least in its incubation in the latter half of the 1830s, it would have been a volatile time indeed for such an undertaking.

Broadway in New York, 1836. Scudder’s Museum, St. Paul’s, and Astor’s Park Hotel.

Whitmans Band imageNew York had by this time started to reap the rewards of Erie Canal commerce, and ambitions were running high. Brooklyn incorporated in 1834, and immediately expressed ambitions of its own with a plan to build the largest city hall in the country. Designs were rendered and foundations laid when disaster struck. Rampant speculation had resulted in New York’s first widespread financial crisis, and a full-blown economic depression was in place by 1837. Brooklyn construction came to a halt. It was during this time that the Grangers were named the first official band of the city. They weren’t the only ones with a band, and certainly not the only ones vying for official designation and public funding, so how did this happen?

Whitman again provides a clue. Included in a published report on upcoming events for the 1847 social season is a ball to be given in honor of the bandleader. Whitman comments (with a dreadful pun):

Next comes the ‘complimentary‚’ to our truly musical friend, Wm Granger. We don’t know who ‘set this ball in motion,’ but if it was Mr. G’s friends, there must have been a pretty extensive setting‚ for those friends are thick as hops in Brooklyn.

So-called “complimentaries” were typically bestowed on military heroes and distinguished public servants at the end of long careers, so it seems a rather benevolent tribute, one that undoubtedly engendered great pride within the family, but who were these friends? A published list of the ball committee reads like a directory of Brooklyn street names: Furman, Lefferts, Dikeman, Johnson. The rest are prominent public figures of the day: Sprague, Vanderhoof, Morrison, Haynes. These were no ordinary friends. And such relationships are not the result of amiability or charisma alone. Even if they were developed over the course of the band’s accomplishments, it still doesn’t explain how, by the age of twenty-four, an immigrant bricklayer is leading one the city’s first cultural institutions. Perhaps it had something to do with the old adage about what stands behind great men’s achievements.

 

It first occurred to me that William Granger’s wife, Mary Denike, may have been a person of some consequence in the narrative of the band when I went in search of the Grangers in their current residence: Green-Wood Cemetery. Green-Wood was the inspiration for Manhattan’s Central Park, and remains to this day a verdant, serene, and mystical place — not to mention a who’s who of 19th Century New York.

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Entrance to Green-Wood, 1846

In my search for Grangers I found a sprinkling of small, out-of-the-way headstones, mostly eroded of any discernible information. Not so the Denikes. Theirs is a monument. Not a terribly grand monument, a simple obelisk, really, but of considerable size and prominently located. Inasmuch as this was an indication less of distinction than of means, it begged the question of what constituted such provision. Lime and brick works, it turned out — masonry. The very trade in which the Grangers labored.

When the Denikes arrived in Brooklyn from Peekskill in 1826, Mary’s brother Thomas went to work as a mason’s apprentice under Stephen Haynes, Brooklyn’s first major developer. By 1834, Denike had established his own business, and when Haynes procured the City Hall construction contract, the mason work went to Denike who, in all likelihood, hired the Granger brothers. Thomas Denike and William Granger were by all indications great friends: Denike provides the witness signature on Granger’s naturalization papers; Granger marries Denike’s sister. Then, in 1841, Denike is elected to the City Board of Aldermen. Within a year, the first official reports of The Brooklyn Brass Band appear in print.

Connections have always been everything in New York.

Official designation had offered a legitimacy impossible to otherwise secure, but public funds were meager and the band was expected to support itself through private initiative. The Grangers needed a promoter. Isaac “Ike” Burtis was an innkeeper with aspirations to become an impresario, a Brooklyn Barnum. But he was described as more like Dickens’ Micawber and Twain’s Colonel Sellers: eternally optimistic and fatally improvident. Burtis at least knew an opportunity when he saw one, and when Brooklyn’s most popular and respectable venue came up for lease in 1843, he grabbed it. The Military Garden had for over twenty years been one of the area’s most prestigious locales for everything from fancy-dress balls to political rallies to hot-air ballooning.

Whitmans Band imageLocated where the mammoth Brooklyn Municipal Building now stands behind Borough Hall, the Military Garden was about two acres of landscaped promenade fronted by a row of compact wood-frame structures comprising a hotel, bar, and restaurant. The expansive gardens were laid out with shrubbery interspersed with flowers and variegated lamps, punctuated by numerous arbors and private boxes. Bordering the entire enterprise were gleaming white statues of celebrated figures like Washington, Napoleon, and Wellington. Original proprietors Louis and Madame DuFlon had hosted many a visiting dignitary, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, and President Andrew Jackson in 1833. Using a page from Barnum, Burtis mounted an aggressive advertising campaign, and announced in daily newspaper notices for over six months that playing “every pleasant night during the week” would be The Brooklyn Brass Band.

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Military Garden Buildings, well past their prime in the 1860s

Brooklynites were probably chagrined to see their charming and respectable venue hawked like a Broadway vendor’s wares. Still, it retained essentially the same character (Burtis apparently knew enough not to tamper with success), and advertising did seem to be the new way of things. Brooklyn in the end continued to proffer its patronage. As for the band, the steady engagement was surely a boon for publicity and revenue, but perhaps more important was its role as a crucible for the development of the band’s skills. Without the Military Garden engagement, Whitman may never have seen fit to report years later that

…now every member is among the best in his department, and not only sustains that reputation, but it is acknowledged to stand so, by the best musicians elsewhere.

A detailed report on an Albany excursion published by Whitman in 1847 offers a vivid glimpse of the band’s activities as part of era’s popular entertainment. Part of a series of ongoing exchanges of volunteer fire and guard units with sister cities, the caliber of city officials in tow suggests the importance of these events for both civic pride and political diplomacy. Judging by the amount of festivity enjoyed, they were also a source of considerable dissipation.

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The Hudson River Steam Boat, Rip Van Winkle

The journey begins with a tea at Gould’s, a small hotel on Atlantic Avenue near what is today Grand Army Plaza, after which ensues a long and muddy trek down to the ferry landing. A crowded send-off delivers a parting salute of hearty cheers, and with caps waving, music playing, and colors flying, the steamer Rip Van Winkle commences its course up the Hudson.

Storytelling, music and singing mark the journey, which culminates in an exuberant reception at Albany, a parade, and a shooting contest. Dinner, receptions, and more singing are followed by a theatrical, where the band is invited onstage at intermission. They perform a polonaise, and after the show tender several additional pieces from the balcony. “So much praise had been bestowed upon the music of our band during the day,” writes the correspondent, “that none cried, ‘hold, enough.’ but many like Oliver Twist, asked for more.”

Brooklyn itself was famously bereft of theaters in the days before the Academy of Music, especially as compared with New York. This was not entirely unintentional. The rowdy Bowery with its tawdry theatricals was close enough, and staunch Brooklynites, then as now, saw little benefit in replicating the louche amusements of New York. For lectures, plays, balls, and the like, Brooklyn was perfectly content to make due with large meeting rooms in places like Gothic Hall, on Adams near Concord, and later Montague Hall, on Court Street in City Hall square. Granger’s band was a virtual institution at these venues.

City Hall Square and Montague Hall

Only when it snowed did Brooklyn appear to pursue pleasure with abandon, and to John I. Snedeker’s went all those with warm hearts and lively spirits. A large country inn along the Jamaica Plank Road about eight miles from town, Snedeker’s was known far and wide for its unrivaled hospitality, savory meals, and steaming punch in deep tankards. In from the cold would come the couples and groups with adventurous tales of the horse-drawn sleigh rides, their bravado thawing along with their cheeks in a reception room bar with a hickory hearth fire. But what distinguished John I’s from its rivals most was its second floor ballroom, complete with high ceilings, windows all around, and a gallery for the band, occupied during many a season by Granger’s Brooklyn Brass Band.

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Snedeker’s at the Union Race Track. Detail from Currier & Ives’ “Going to the Trot.”

It is certainly tempting to succumb to the romance of a band of brothers playing songs like “Katy Darling” in places with names like DuFlon’s Military Garden and The Steamship Rip Van Winkle, but research into the period cannot help but reveal the extraordinary hardships of the time, especially for the working classes. And the Grangers did indeed suffer their share of personal tragedy.

Until the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, New York’s most notorious industrial accident was the Hague Street Calamity of 1850, where more than sixty men and boys were killed in a boiler explosion that Whitmans Band imagedemolished two buildings. James Granger, brother and band member, was among the fatalities; one of several whose remains took two days to identify. Only twenty-five years-old at the time, he left a wife and two young children. A devastating tragedy for the family to be sure, but it probably didn’t compare with the loss of bandleader William only three years later. The celebrated citizen, merchant and landowner; the eldest son, a mother’s pride and joy, struck down by a severe case of pneumonia that ran its course in a matter of days. Then, within a matter of months, his mother was also dead. William’s wife, Mary Denike, lived for another forty years and never remarried. Until the day she died, she listed herself in the Brooklyn directories as “widow, William Granger.”

William had already relinquished control of the band by the time of his death in 1853, having pursued a tavern business in about 1850. The establishment, “Cranberry Shades,” was situated at 97 Cranberry Street, just off Fulton, with the family living above. They had five children, a housekeeper, and a clerk for the tavern. Just across the street was a small print shop run by the Rome brothers, Andrew, James, and Thomas, who specialized in law books and legal publications. Sometime in the first few years of the decade, Walt Whitman began hanging around the shop, reading his copy of the New York Tribune, and formulating a little publication that would change the world.

I wonder, of course, if Whitman may have mentioned to Granger — former colleague in city affairs, fellow artist, and now the proprietor across the street — of the work that was just then percolating. Granger, after all, had set some of Whitman’s earliest verse to music, when during the Independence day celebrations of 1847, an ode by Whitman had been sung to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner as played by the Brooklyn Brass Band. Whitman also wrote warmly of Granger himself, including what would become an ominous irony:

Mr. G himself is a prince of good fellows. There are few better hearted young men—let alone musical abilities—than William Granger. Long live every member of the Brooklyn brass band—and the leader “in particular.”

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At the end of a workday in my own Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo (very near where my ancestors first lived), I sometimes hear the local high school marching band rehearsing. It compels me, on occasion, to walk toward the setting sun into Old Fulton Street near the landing. Here, as nowhere else in the vicinity, a few blocks remain as they were when even the bridges were dreams.

It is a momentary indulgence, this illusion of memory. The old Brooklyn Hotel building, for a long time the Franklin House and then, more recently, Pete’s Downtown, is now a Shake Shack. The river, it seems, changes least. Darkness falls, and I contemplate the tantalizing glimpses of Whitman’s artistic promise even in his journalism, perhaps never more so than when he wrote about music:

 

Take that, Dodworth.

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