Strike Up the Band
Evening is settling over downtown Farmington, the first good day after a week of rain. Meetinghouse Park, across from the brick county courthouse, is coming to life: Chairs sprout from the lawn surrounding the old, octagonal gazebo, blankets are spread on the ground. The audience grows to sixty or so; some stand in clusters or perch on the edge of the war memorial in the center of the park, others stay in their cars. Across the street sits the local bagpiper, a mere observer this evening. Strolling through the park is one of the town eccentrics, a predictor of Farmington as the New Jerusalem.Summer people carry cameras and wear bright clothes and look as though they've discovered a lost culture.
Now lights burst on in the gazebo and folding metal chairs are opened with a creak, then placed with a thud on the wooden floor. Up the steps between two volunteers come the music stands, in a big wooden box marked "Old Crow Indian Band."
It is a Monday in early June, and time for the weekly performance of the Old Crow Indian Band. (The name, chosen long ago, involves a bottle of whiskey and a rivalry with a high-school band called the Cowboys.) Every Monday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day the band plays in the park under the casual direction of Mr. Stanley Harnden, who has been leading the Old Crowers for thirty-five years now.
Stanley - a wiry, deeply tanned logger and orchardist who may be the most perfect embodiment of upcountry Maine I have ever seen - asks if anyone needs water from the stock he has brought. I take one, gratefully: we will play for an hour and a half, almost non-stop, and every piece of music has lots of notes, and many of us are not used to such a load. Stanley begins each piece with the simplest of instructions: "Two measures then go" or "one measure in four." No one knows what the playlist is, or what the logic of his choices is - we finish one song and then after a brief pause he calls out another, each selection appearing to be the result of inspiration. When we finish a song - sometimes ending together, sometimes not quite - horns toot from the cars around the park, mixed with applause from people on the lawn. The tooting horns were a surprise the first time I played with the Old Crows, and I wondered about the history of this tradition, but no one seemed to know.
Tonight we in the low brass are killing the rest of the band, as the three sousaphones and four trombones dominate. The elderly piccolo player with cotton earplugs in the first row of the band has no chance before our assault. There are twenty-six players this night, which is about average. Our ages range from mid-teens to late eighties. We are well-mixed by gender, too: about ten women, sixteen men. Some of us have the official Old Crow brown vest, others are in civilian clothes. Between songs, jokes sprout among us. ("Wheah's the Canadian border?" one Old Crower asks, in reference to the title of a piece we are about to play. "In bed with mothah," he answers himself.) One night a tremendous thunderstorm lets loose just as we are launching into that old marching band chestnut, "The Thunderer."
Monday nights are popular with families. Toddlers careen through the park, trailed by their parents, and take turns slowly mounting the steps into the gazebo, then stare wide-eyed at all the noise, and retreat happily after a song, as though it were a Herculean challenge they'd been given, and met.
The band faces east, the setting sun dipping below the roof of the gazebo and warming our necks. As the evening fades, Stanley bends over and peers up from beneath the roof of the gazebo at the courthouse clock across the street to see how many more tunes we can sneak in. It is strangely pleasing to see him resort to this paradigm of small town life, the courthouse clock, to find the time.
I am tempted to say that Monday nights with the Old Crow Indian Band hark back to a simpler time, to Maine's past, but that would be wrong or, rather, not completely right. This is no simpler time we inhabit in the gazebo; it is the 2007 of Franklin County. We don't play to invoke the past, we play because it is a nice thing to do on a gentle Monday evening, in the summer, in Farmington, Maine.