Strike Up the Band

“The Delta Band Festival and Winter Carnival were always a big event, with 110 bands participating one year. Thousands of people attended this annual event, which was held in early December. I took pictures at both the morning and night parades, standing on a ladder at the end of Howard Street or running up and down the street. We usually went down by the Red Cross where Mama worked so the children would have chairs to sit in. After the morning parade Russell would have to rush the film over to Cleveland to put it on a Greyhound bus so that it would get to Memphis in time for the next morning’s paper.”

Sara’s second favorite day of the year was the second Friday after Thanksgiving (her favorite? Christmas, of course). Her old buddy, Roy Martin, had enshrined that traditionally rainless December day as the time for Delta Band Festival and Winter Carnival, a beloved Greenwood tradition that celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. During her heyday with the Commercial Appeal, Band Festival had grown into a monster of an event, pulling in what seemed like thousands of yellow school busses from Pass Christian to Iuka. They would be lined up all around the old high school on Cotton Street, discharging spiffily outfitted flutists and tuba players and drummers and majorettes and baton twirlers. Somehow, every year, out of this chaos and confusion, two parades, morning and evening, full of high school students and elaborate floats and that man among men, Santa Claus, lined up and marched and played and heralded the real arrival of the season. And Sara was, as usual, smack in the middle of the action, lining up photos and jotting down names and soaking it all in. Which meant Cathy and I got to soak it all in as well. Schools were out that day and Greenwood kids were the luckiest in Mississippi. It was like a giant house party and we were turned loose for the whole day downtown. The morning parade stepped off from the old high school campus and wound its way south on Howard Street. That was fine, but it was just a dim warmup for the real show, the night parade.

When I helped the Chamber of Commerce’s Young Leadership class put together the 75th anniversary book last year, I tried to explain to them the atmosphere of those December nights in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was hard to convey just what this tradition meant for our generation. The anticipation began in mid-November as city crews strung the colored lights on the wires lacing back and forth across Howard Street and Carrollton Avenue. Garlands and candy canes and reindeer went up on the lightposts. Thanksgiving came and went, a necessary hurdle to jump before the real holiday kickoff began, promptly at 5pm on that second Friday. We would be huddled in mounds of sweaters and coats and mittens and hats, little excited lumps in lawn chairs in front of the Red Cross building at the south end of Howard Street. That was the ultimate location, as the bands and floats had to slow down to make the turn from Carrollton onto Howard. It seemed to always be bitterly cold, although I doubt it was ever much lower than the mid-40s.

As the skies over Greenwood darkened, it was as if the whole city and thousands of visitors were lined up on every sidewalk and hanging out of every downtown upstairs window, every breath held.  Right at 5 o’clock, not a second before or a second after, the Greenwood Utilities whistle split the night and the Christmas lights seemed to explode in a blaze of color. Back across the tracks on Johnson Street, the Greenwood High School drum major’s baton dropped and sent the Bulldog Band marching off into the first notes of “Jingle Bells,” their cadence setting the pace for 60 or 70 or 100 bands to follow. Float after float after float made that tight turn onto Howard Street, sporting miles of wadded crepe paper and bundled-up Brownies or waving pageant queens or papier mache fireplaces. And the grand finale, the culmination of all this revelry, was the arrival of Santa Claus, on his own float with prancing reindeer, very definitely the real Santa, not one of these imposters that sad towns without Band Festivals had to hire as substitutes.

When it finally ended, we would make our way slowly back across the river to North Greenwood, watching the fireworks light up the dark skies and silhouette the bravest band members, those who had scaled the steel girders of the Keesler Bridge like young squirrels. Through the years I have met so many people who, when they find out I’m from Greenwood, pause just a bit, laugh, and say, “You know, one of the most fun things I ever did was come to Greenwood in [name the year] and march in the Christmas parade. And I climbed the bridge!” That night had remained seared in their minds, a night when, just for awhile, they experienced the magic that those of us lucky enough to grow up in Greenwood take for granted.

Sara was there for the very first Band Festival parade, way back in 1935. And she went to every one until her health made it tricky to navigate the crowds. She didn’t like it when they changed the route to bring the bands across the bridge to North Greenwood and down Grand Boulevard to Park Avenue. That was heresy. But she would call me, in those years when we were living in Jackson or Tupelo or Scotland, on those early December nights, and whistfully say, “I can hear the parade. They’re playing Winter Wonderland.” It always made me homesick in the worst sort of way.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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6 Responses to Strike Up the Band

  1. Nancy Webb Phillips says:

    Again this leaves me with wonderful memories. I marched in that parade 7 years, and was proud to be associated with the GJHS, GHS, and MDJC bands. My parents were also a part of it because of my association with the band. They worked in concession stands for the band, and my dad also worked in the Civitan Pronto Pup stand many years. When I was in high school, I belonged to a group called the Greenwood Youth Association for Handicapped Children. One of the projects we had each year was to build a float for the children to ride on every Christmas parade. We used to meet at the National Guard Armory and “puff” the sides of the float with crepe paper. I never really got to see the float in the parade because I was in the parade playing my flute or piccolo, but I saw pictures of it with the smiling children sitting on it. A few years ago the Purple Pansy chapter of the Red Hat Society, of which I belong, built a float, and we rode on it. What an experience! I have witnessed the parade from many perspectives now and have to say that it is the most uplifting experience one can have! It is really hard to explain, though, what the parade was like in the 60’s and early 70’s for us. We were so very lucky to have grown up in Greenwood and been a part of it.

    • sec040121 says:

      That Friday was definitely the best day of the year, even more than Christmas, because the children and teenagers basically took over downtown. And I don’t remember any incidents or problems. I hope it’s as much fun for the band members and spectators now.

  2. Jennifer Adams says:

    loved this

    • sec040121 says:

      Thanks, Jen. Your grandmother, who couldn’t have kept time and marched if her life had depended on it, was like a little kid on Band Festival day. And if I was really lucky your mother would walk me across Howard Street to Shipley’s Donuts for hot chocolate. Those were the best nights.

  3. H Ju says:

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories! I also grew up in Greenwood in the 60’s and 70’s and remember band festival day with fondness! It’s very sobering to watching the 77th edition of this annual event with adult eyes and not remember how grand it was in it’s hey day! Thanks for your posting and providing such wonderful perspective to the great history of the Roy Martin Delta Band Festival and Christmas Parade. Here’s my blog link to the most recent parade. http://delta-boy.blogspot.com/2012/11/delta-band-festival-day-greenwood.html

    • sec040121 says:

      Thanks so much for your comments! While it will never be the over-the-top lallapalooza of a parade that it was in our youth, it’s still lots of fun and means so much to Greenwood. My mother turned back into a child every year on Band Festival Day, and she thought Roy Martin hung the moon. Another good reason to live in Greenwood!

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