Here we are, once again, on the second Friday after Thanksgiving. If you grew up in Greenwood, any time from the 1930s on, that means something to you. For Sara, it was the second-best day of the year, eclipsed only by Christmas. It meant lights and music and fireworks and Santa and all the joy of a Delta childhood wrapped up in one big technicolor bundle. It was Band Festival. It was “The Parade.”
As mentioned before on this blog, this was Mr. Roy Martin’s 1935 brainchild, and what a wonder it was in its time. Mr. Martin, that kind soul, transplanted to Greenwood from Arkansas, found his heart breaking for his GHS students, trapped in the worst of the Depression and low on hope. The Greenwood schools were so strapped for cash that they could barely outfit a football team and patch up the old band uniforms, and luxuries like annuals and senior plays were just forgotten. So many students had dropped out in search of scarce jobs that the class composite from those years are down to just a handful of young faces, peering out into a very uncertain future.
Roy Martin found a way to reward his persevering trumpeters, drummers and majorettes. He claimed the second Friday after Thanksgiving as the date, invited a few surrounding towns to send their bands, and persuaded the City of Greenwood to string some lights along Carrollton Avenue and Howard Street. And instead of just christening this a “Greenwood Christmas Parade,” he declared it to be the “Delta Band Festival and Winter Carnival.” It sounded much bigger than it was, that cold fall day in 1935. But it gave Mr. Martin’s students a reason to practice and dream and march their boots off, and it sparked something deep within the beaten-down soul of Greenwood.
That first parade was a rousing success. A few more bands came in 1936, and the city added a few lights over the next few years, and Santa’s float grew bigger and more glorious with each passing year. WWII took some of the original participants away but it brought hundreds of Greenwood Army Air Field cadets and officers to line the sidewalks of downtown. And by the time Sara had her hands on a camera in the mid-1950s, Roy’s little celebration had grown into Mississippi’s premier Christmas parade, one of the largest in the Southeast. At its peak, more than 8000 high school band students poured off the yellow buses in the pre-dawn hours, rolling in from Yazoo City and Jackson Murrah and Pontotoc and Hernando and every little burg that could pull together a band to march. Ole Miss’ “Pride of the South” showed up. As did MSU’s “Famous Maroon Band.” With a morning parade and an evening parade, the streets were packed with teenagers in their crisp uniforms all day long, and the sound of drums and tubas and clarinets drifted from the campus of the old Greenwood High School from early morning until the end of the evening’s fireworks.
Sara had a guaranteed spot in the Tri-State section of the Commercial Appeal for a Band Festival story every year, and she was like a little girl in her anticipation of the big day. She would be on the high school lawn with her YashicaMat when the first buses came around the corner, and she photographed as many of the young musicians as she could corner. Cathy and I were given pocket money and sent off to the Red Cross building to watch the morning parade, then turned loose for the afternoon to entertain ourselves and hang out with friends. School on Band Festival Day? That just didn’t happen, and we felt like the luckiest kids in Mississippi with our extra holiday and our very special town.
There will be a Delta Band Festival Parade today at 4pm. It will delight the children who hear the music and watch the floats and wait for Santa’s triumphant entrance. It will be special for them, and that’s a gift. But the gift that Roy Martin gave to my generation, to the Baby Boomers and our parents and our own children, was a mixed blessing. We experienced something, every second Friday after Thanksgiving, that was so magical and wondrous and enduring, that nothing will ever match it. Not today’s Greenwood parade, not Macy’s, not the most elaborate parade anywhere in America, will ever equal what we had on those memorable days of the 1950s and 1960s. You spoiled us, Mr. Martin. Thank you.