“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.