Member to Member: Swinging on the Picket Lines

A Blueprint for a Radical Street Marching Band

Volume CIV, No. 4April, 2004

Charlie Keil

“Fewer and fewer people in this country entertain each other with verbal games, recitations, charades, singing, playing on instruments, doing anything as amateurs — people who are good at something because they enjoy it.” — Adrienne Rich.

About a hundred years ago, small brass bands played at funerals and parades, picnics and lawn fetes, not just in New Orleans, but in Buffalo and New York City.

In those days cornet players doubled on violin, cello players doubled on trombone, and string bass players doubled on tuba! The upshot is that they could play indoors or outdoors: stationary and pianissimo in the parlor, or mobile and loud in the streets.

Part of what I do these days is organize contemporary versions of these bands — which I call “12/8 path bands” — to play at celebrations and also at political demonstrations.

“12/8” because so many of the best grooves all over the planet have that triplet feel, that shuffle rhythm, that 3-against-2, that 4-against-3 — it’s what Elvin Jones does at all tempos. It’s that hemiola of individuals, couples, whole circles of dancers striding and never colliding.

“Path” because these bands are mobile and we stroll down the path, or shuffle down the street. But it’s more than that. The “path” stands for the never-ending search — spiritual striving — the quest for all that is musical and human.


To me, a 12/8 path band has only three rules:

  • Mobility. There should be no music stands, written music, amplification or anything that would prohibit movement, strolling, dancing while playing. Drums or tuba should be played with straps or supports so they can be carried around easily.
  • Inclusion. Those who are not professional musicians and may never want to be professionals could be included in the band to create an open, enthusiastic, playing for the fun of it, sound and process.
  • Funny hats. (Almost any hat worn by someone playing an instrument can seem funny, so this is not a difficult requirement.)

These three requirements create a lot of freedom to play anywhere, to move around outdoors in parks, forests, pastures, to blend with dancers and merge with events or rituals as they unfold, and to send the message that music-making (or what Chris Small calls “musicking”) creates participation, happiness, joy — maybe even ecstasy. Anyone and everyone should feel invited to join in.

Local 802 could form its own path bands. Why should a union of well-trained and qualified professionals create and support such bands? Mainly because these bands will create work, new jobs, new venues, new kinds of celebration, even new styles of music, and will revitalize music’s contribution to the rites of passage that have always been the bread-and-butter gigs: weddings, baptisms, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries, and yes, funerals.


Here’s who we would need to create the core of a 12/8 path band at 802:

  • Two very good jazz set drummers who are willing and able to divide the labor of creating great New Orleans, samba and salsa grooves together on snare drum and bass drum (or floor tom).
  • Two trumpet or cornet players for bold, bright, lead parts. (This instrumentation could also be trumpet and alto sax, a la Bird and Diz.)
  • A trombonist, baritone sax or tuba player to anchor the bottom parts.

These five pros could hold a path band together very nicely and allow others to fill in a reed section or double the bottom parts. Two cornet leads with a trumpet or soprano sax soloist would be exciting. Two or three or more trombones sound great together. A third percussionist adding cowbell, agogo, guiro, shakers — the “bag of high-end tricks” — adds a lot. A fourth percussionist could play conga or djembe or dumbek.


A path band could play locations and events that other bands can’t imagine playing.

A path band could go to schools and coach the pep band to play N’Orleans “second line,” sambas, salsas, Cuban comparsa, the festival musics of many lands.

A path band could work parades and the picket lines of other unions, boosting the spirits of the rank and file whenever and wherever needed.

A path band could do a very memorable intermission at a big wedding, leading the dancers in a conga line out of the hall and into the street and back again, or out to the 18th hole at the country club, or out onto the pier, or around the block, or out to the barbecue.

A path band could open for any other band or play at any intermission in any venue because it requires zero set up time and zero take down time, can play offstage, or next to an entrance.


Most important, to me anyway, is that path bands at 802 could say to people, “We value musicking together with amateurs, we want to bring music to people anywhere, anytime and we want to bring people to music so that they can enjoy playing and performing too.”

Probably well over 90 percent of the children who learn to play instruments in schools drop their instruments in high school, or college, or when they get a job as adults. Amateur musicking is at a low ebb in the U.S. And people who don’t play music or love live music, will often hire a D.J., or use a stereo or a boom box for their next party.

802 needs to support a few path bands to open up new playing possibilities and to keep live music alive!

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Charlie Keil, Ph.D., has written leading books and articles in the field of ethnomusicology. He is professor emertius at SUNY (Buffalo) and lives in Connecticut. His most recent book, published last year, is “Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia,” (Wesleyan University Press).