BANDS OF THE SOUTH
5th Quarter is an archival based mini-series by Russell Hamilton and Blvck Vrchives creator, Renata Cherlise, highlighting the best of southern Marching Band culture. From elaborate field shows to intense fanfares, band members leave it all on the line for bragging rights. Join in as we explore this legendary phenomenon of the South.
The 5th Quarter
Russell Hamilton explores the collectivity of HBCU band programs and his experience coming of age as a Southwest Dekalb Marching Panther.
Russell Hamilton (2019)
Bands of the South
For several decades marching bands of The South have been a staple amongst the Black American Community. Proven to be a force of cultural uniqueness, this ongoing phenomenon reveals itself through time onto a mainstream platform. Towards the end of the Civil War, newfound Historically Black Colleges & Universities implemented music programs to be a centerpiece of school pride & campus tradition. Influenced by militant drills and the musicianship of early Jazz ensembles, Black marching organizations began to assemble.
The Southeastern Region is broken up into two athletic conferences, the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). The SWAC consists of Southern University (The Human Jukebox), Grambling State University, Jackson State University (Sonic Boom of the South) and Alabama A&M to name a few. The MEAC heralds the world famous Florida A&M Marching 100 (FAMU), Bethune-Cookman University and Howard University.
In the 1940s, the late Dr. William P. Foster became director of bands at FAMU with a sixteen piece ensemble. Numbers would eventually swell to the hundreds throughout the South. The development of high school marching programs attributed to the popularity. Through feeder programs, relationships between high schools and universities establish themselves early on. Depending on where you are in the South, recruiting begins as early as elementary school.
Daughters of Patricia Stephens Due with FAMU Marching 100 band director Dr. W.P. Foster in the 1970s (right) and City of Tallahassee celebrates the Marching 100 in 1989 (left)
Growing up in Atlanta, GA I was heavily influenced by the MEAC where in most cases my teachers were alumni. Once upon a time my eyes were set on Morris Brown College, Atlanta’s first HBCU, which is no longer in existence and Florida A&M University. On any given Fall evening, you’d hear echoing bass drums and tubas bellowing in the breeze – sounds from the internationally acclaimed Southwest DeKalb High School Marching Panthers (SWD). This DeKalb County band was one of FAMU’s lineage.
In 1996, they were the only band to perform at the opening ceremony for the Centennial Olympic Games as well as the 1997 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’d known them from the pep-rallies in elementary school when they’d visit & perform motivational drills – a little something to get us 2nd graders Crunk before an underwhelming week of standardized tests.
"The scale of it all was impressive, there may have been 300 members in the band that time."
In 5th grade I was introduced to the trumpet by Mr. Fowler, the then director of bands at Browns Mill Elementary School. As an alumni of SWD, he saw fit to gather a group of us to shadow members of the Marching Panther Band. One cold Friday night we got to ride out to a football game during the playoffs. The culmination of excitement, militancy and school pride was something I’d never experienced. The scale of it all was impressive, there may have been 300 members in the band that time. Everybody was decked out in navy-blue Dickies jumpsuits, air-brushed in gold! From the stands, they played a cut by Crucial Conflict sampling Parliament Funkadelic’s I’ll Stay. Horns wailed through the stadium, “HAAAAAAAAY In The Middle Of The BARN!!” – the rest was history.
In 2002, the blockbuster film Drumline surfaced sending a shockwave through the city of Atlanta. Filmed on the campus of Morris Brown College, the students of SWD Marching Band starred as extras. If you hadn’t cared about band already, you were up at Century Music, the local instrument supplier trying to scoop whatever they had left. Everybody wanted to join the band! I knew for sure I had to go to SWD. Eventually I’d grow to be a drum major in that band. It was fly, the in-thing and an alternative to traditional sports. Band members had clout and were often among the most exemplary students academically.
film stills from Drumline (2002)
Beyond showmanship, marching band institutions have provided an outlet for young people to receive college accreditation. Thousands of students have benefited from music scholarships over the past 50+ years. Many are groomed over the summer during precision band camps to keep sharp on their instruments and build endurance. Keeping a 3.0 gpa alongside a solid audition tape could guarantee you a spot in your band of choice.
“…I stopped counting when I got to about 10 or 14 doctors.” - Dr. Isaac “Doc” Greggs
When asked about band participation in a 1994 BET interview, the late Dr. Isaac Greggs, director of bands at Southern University stated, “If you check with individuals in the school, you’ll find 3/4 of them are in engineering, computer science or some phase of business – the least amount of them are studying music.” He went on to say, “I look for the kid that wants to go to school and has a desire and some personal pride within himself.” Although many students won’t pursue music as a career, the structure imparts a sense of leadership & discipline necessary for success in any field.
Half-time during an HBCU football game is arguably one of the most extravagant 10-15 minute performances you’ll ever see. I remember when BET used to air the shows during their Black College Football series. Southern marching bands have always mirrored pop-culture by performing chart topping hits, showcasing exquisite formations and choreographed dance routines. In 2018, Beyonce fashioned her headline Coachella performance after HBCU Marching Band culture featured as a Netflix original documentary entitled Homecoming (2019).
Aside from half-time, the 5th Quarter is the highlight of it all. After a football game, hundreds of people gather on the field as bands battle back & forth. Depending on the rivalry, this intense showdown could run for hours on end. Each organization pulls out the best of their playlist performing anything from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to an Earth Wind & Fire track. There was something euphoric about it, everyone smiling in awe of the musicianship – Black Joy coursing through the air.
The Bayou Classic is one of the cultures most popular Battle of the Bands held at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The annual football championship between Grambling State University Tigers and Southern University Jaguars yields a weekend full of festivities. Decades ago, Dr. Isaac Greggs and Dr. Conrad Hutchinson Jr. saw the classics as an opportunity to raise money for new band uniforms. Many claim the Thanksgiving Day weekend to be all about the performances.
Marching bands of the South undoubtedly carry a strong legacy in this country. It’s been an outlet for Black Americans to congregate and celebrate one another through music. The hard work and dedication of being a member stays with you in ways one could only imagine. I for one take great pride in my tenure and often reminisce on the joy it brought. All those hours of practice made it worth it on game night. Very few things compare to the sensation of 300 instruments playing in creative unison. Cheers to those Friday nights, legendary half-time shows and the ancestors who revealed themselves through sound during 5th Quarters.