Springfield’s Boy Scout Band

John Rutherford

The Springfield Boy Scout Band’s history of goodwill tours, community engagements, and honors began in 1920. Springfield’s Boy Scout organization struggled at the time. Community support for the group came initially from Springfield’s Rotary Club, whose membership made its first civic project the funding of Springfield’s Boy Scouts. The leaders of Springfield’s council of Boy Scouts had a unique vision. This vision was the establishment of a band comprised of their youthful members. The two organizations contacted a music instructor named R. Ritchie Robertson, who possessed extraordinary organizational skills. Combined, the Rotary Club, Robertson, and the Springfield Boy Scout Council enrolled fifty boys as organizing members of Springfield’s own Boy Scout Band, which would thrive for thirty years.1

Robert Ritchie Robertson, born in Burntisland, Scotland, was deeply dedicated to the development and continuation of Springfield’s Boy Scout Band. His knowledge of musical instruments as well as his ability to teach student musicians was critical to the band’s early success. His musical talents developed from an early age in Scotland. His father, David, directed choirs in the community and encouraged young Robert to become engaged in music. Robert learned to play the flute, concertina, piano, and violin between the ages of 6 and 12. Young Robert became conductor of the town band at age 18.

On August 25, 1900, Robertson departed for America, and this may be the first time his Americanized name “R. Ritchie Robertson” appeared on a U.S. government record. In 1902 he moved to Paola, Kansas, and while there earned the alliterative nickname, the “Star Spangled Scotsman” due to his interest in American patriotic music. He was named music supervisor for the Paola, Kansas, schools in 1912. Robertson accepted a similar position with the Springfield Public Schools in 1916. Among Robertson’s first observations of Springfield were the choices of music played in the city; it was “saturated” with ragtime. He wanted to change the city’s musical focus to classical, patriotic, and other varieties of popular music. In 1920, in his capacity as supervisor of music in the Springfield schools, Ritchie was offered the opportunity to create a Boy Scout Band.2

With the support of Springfield’s Rotary Club and the local Boy Scout Council providing sheet music and the more expensive instruments, the Boy Scout Band was organized in November 1920 to involve young people in programs outside Springfield’s school curriculum. Over time, other local civic organizations joined in providing funds to make the Boy Scout Band self-supporting. Boy Scout leaders arranged fifty boys, aged 12-14, as the first members of the Boy Scout Band in November 1920. On February 22, 1921, the band played its first concert for a Rotary Club luncheon at the Colonial Hotel.3

Eventually, boys ranging from ages 12-18, participated in the band with the stipulation that they be registered members of the Boy Scouts. The boys played a varying repertoire of popular and classic music in an artistic manner. Will James of Martin Brothers Piano Company pointed out the Boy Scout Band did not play jazz numbers, only “clean, high-class music.”4

In late summer of 1921, Robertson announced the first expansion of band members and called for the first “Beginners Band” to meet on September 15th. Seventy-five new boys showed up that day ready for practice. As membership in the band grew, the need for a mid-level group was recognized as a way for the band members to advance, especially for those who needed slightly more time to polish their skills with their instruments before participating in public concerts. The result was a Monday night band for beginners, a Wednesday night band for intermediate musicians, and the Thursday night band was for the advanced band members.5

In 1923, the Boy Scout Band began to earn regional recognition. On June 19, 140 members of the Boy Scout Band “created a furor” when they performed a concert at the International Rotary convention in St. Louis, serenading a distinguished Rotarian in attendance, President Warren G. Harding. The following day, the band members marched in a parade in St. Louis. While marching along Ninth Street during the Rotary International Convention Parade on June 20th, the 125 Springfield Boy Scout Band members lost their march discipline. Bystanders along the street and onlookers from the Frisco Building so enjoyed the band and their music that they showered the band with coins and dollar bills. The Boy Scouts, seeing the money landing at their feet and nearby on the street, stopped playing and broke ranks to collect the money. The wild scramble for cash halted the parade for about five minutes, until Robertson and other scout leaders were able to restore order. As the band started forward again, more parade attendees showered the boys with additional money. The dismayed Robertson shook his baton and roared out, “Forward, MARCH!” Though the temptation to pick up more cash was great, the boys reportedly followed their band leader’s direction.6

Over the first three years, likely the Boy Scout Band’s most memorable moment was later that summer. On August 20, 112 selected members of the Boy Scout Band and a large group of citizens boarded a special train destined for the Missouri State Fair. The train had banners as decorations, and passengers wore badges advertising Springfield and the Boy Scout Band. On August 22, the Boy Scout Band demonstrated the quality of their musicianship during a band competition with a dozen other bands at the Missouri State Fair. Springfield’s Boy Scout musicians won first prize and were honored with a cash award of $150.7

After the Fair ended, the Missouri State Fair Board members fondly recalled Springfield’s Boy Scout Band as the key attraction at the 1923 state fair. The Board members contacted Robertson, who then received an additional honor. On September 29, 1923, the Missouri State Fair Board sent a letter to inform the Springfield band of their intent to present a silver loving cup to the boys at a local celebration in Springfield. By the end of 1923, the Boy Scout Band emerged as a source of pride for the Springfield community and the state.8

In February 1924, the band greeted the world-famous bandmaster John Philip Sousa and the “best band in the land”. On February 5, a frosty and very snowy day, the “March King” and his band arrived by train in Springfield for an afternoon matinee and evening concert. Earlier that morning, Robertson and the Boy Scout Band had marched through heavy snow and waited three hours for Sousa’s late-arriving train at the Frisco Railroad’s passenger station. Then, to the sound of drums, the Boy Scout Band escorted Sousa and his band to their quarters at the Colonial Hotel. After unfreezing the valves in their instruments at the hotel, Robertson’s Boy Scouts played a short piece, Sousa’s own “Our Director,” and then cheered Sousa. Later, the boys made their way to the afternoon matinee concert at the Shrine Mosque, where they had been invited to attend as guests of Sousa’s band. Future composer of The Music Man musical, Meredith Willson accompanied Sousa’s Band as a solo flutist. The band members likely were just as impressed as Sousa with the Boy Scout Band’s determination to march through snow and endure cold temperatures, just to greet Sousa and the other band members that day.9

In 1924, Springfield’s Boy Scout Band began summer “Goodwill Tours.” These goodwill tours consisted of three-to-five-day trips sponsored by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. These trips included up to forty-car caravans and were very popular into the early 1930s, particularly in rural towns where entertainment was rare. Typically, the band would drive to a small town and circle the square, then meet with town officials before beginning a short concert. The band visited up to nine towns daily. By 1930, the “Goodwill Tours” resulted in performances in 160 Missouri towns.10

During 1928, the Boy Scout Band reached its peak enrollment at 440 members. During this period, Robertson composed his “Bluebonnet March,” which some consider to be his best composition. The music that the band composed was named for the Frisco Railway’s coach; which the Boy Scout Band traveled for performances in Kansas City, Sedalia, St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis, and Dallas circa 1927-1928. On November 21, 1928, when John Philip Sousa’s Band performed at Springfield’s Shrine Mosque, Robertson was invited to be guest conductor of Sousa’s Band. There, Robertson, and Sousa’s band debuted Robertson’s “Bluebonnet March.” Later, Sousa was guest conductor for the Boy Scout Band, the boys played two of Sousa’s compositions, “Solid Men to the Front” and “Semper Fidelis.” At the concert, Sousa also presented a silver cup to Robertson for his musical achievements and his building of the Boy Scout Band.11

The Boy Scout Band’s illustrious reputation continued through the 1930s. Even during difficult economic times of the Great Depression, the community’s support of the Band continued. For example, the band was slated to perform at the Texas Centennial in Dallas, but was short of their fundraising goals. Frisco railroaders came forward with a last-minute cash contribution of $240 in 1936, ensuring the full amount of the band’s $900 roundtrip travel expenses. On June 16, the Boy Scout Band, designated as the official Missouri band for the Texas Centennial, paraded through the Centennial’s 200-acre Fair Park Complex in Dallas. They passed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the second president to view them in person.

Robertson was in his twenty-third year as music supervisor of the Springfield Public Schools at the time of his death in 1939. His son, James P. Robertson, replaced him as Boy Scout Band director and supervisor of music in the Springfield Public School system.12

In the early 1940s the Boy Scout Band adapted to the changing times. The United States’ entry into World War II resulted in the band’s shift from musical focus to mostly patriotic scores. The band’s sterling reputation was honored in February 1944 with a distinguished service citation from the Music War Council of America.13

Although many were unaware of it at the time, 1949 was the Boy Scout Band’s final year. Until his retirement in 1948, Springfield Boy Scout leader Allen C. Foster resisted all pressure to dissolve Springfield’s Boy Scout Band. Unfortunately, Foster’s replacement, Melvin Tudor, a native of St. Louis, did not recognize the Boy Scout Band’s widespread outstanding reputation throughout the nation, nor the band’s appearances in Ozarks communities as Springfield’s finest representatives. Tudor, therefore, was not supportive of the Boy Scout Band as a separate function of the Boy Scouts, and so he sought its dissolution. In part, James P. Robertson resigned as music supervisor for the Springfield Public Schools as well as the Boy Scout Band at the end of the 1949 school year. With James Robertson’s departure for a position at the former University of Wichita, Springfield’s Boy Scout Band disbanded and the Robertson era of influence on Springfield’s music scene ended. At the conclusion of its distinguished life, approximately 3,500 musicians had played in the Boy Scout Band. The Boy Scout Band established a reputation for high quality music, disciplined musicians and set a standard for school bands nationwide to model.14

Sources

  1. Organization of Boy Scout Band nearly completed, Springfield, Mo., Republican, 19 Oct 1920, p.1.
  2. Lori Denise Scott, R. Ritchie Robertson…pp.7,9-11,15,17,23; (150 Boy Scout Band members get together, Springfield, Mo., Daily News, 11 February 1972, p.27; How they measure up, Springfield, Mo., Daily News, July 24, `1928, p.2; Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band, Part 1, Springfield! Magazine, March 1981, p.19; 1871 & 1891 Burntisland, Fifeshire, Scotland Census records; Passenger list dated August 25, 1900, for the steamship “City of Rome” with destination being New York City, pp.1-2.
  3. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 1 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, March 1981, p.20; Star Spangled Scot’s legacy lives on, Leader & Press, December 27, 1971, p.13; Mike O’Brien, “Music director’s program gave kids a sense of belonging,” Springfield, Mo., News-Leader, 3 May 1999, p.9 A.
  4. “Get the story of the Springfield Mo. Boy Scout Band, the largest Boy Scout Band in the World” in Just ask Springfield Mo.  [Springfield, Mo.: Inland Printing Co., 1927], pp.5-6.  Pamphlet located in Library Center Information File “Boy Scout Band, Springfield, Mo.”; Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 1 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, March 1981, p.20. Boy Scout Band is making big hit at Sedalia this week, Springfield, Mo., Leader, 20 August 1924, p.1; Scout Band is well received at state fair, Springfield, Mo., Leader, August 19, 1924, p.1; Good Old Days column, Springfield, Mo., News & Leader, 15 January 1978, p.26 A.
  5. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 1 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, March 1981, p.20.
  6. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 2 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, April 1981, p.24; Boy Scout Band to play for president, Leader, 13 June 1923, p.7; “Morale of Boy Scout Band disrupted by coin shower,” St. Louis, Mo., Star, 21 June 1923, p.1.
  7. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 2 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, April 1981, p.24; Boys to Sedalia after Springfield concert, Republican, 19 August 1923, p.8; Good Old Days column, 19 August 1973, pp.3,22 C); Next meeting of lodge may be held here, Springfield, Mo., Leader, August 24, 1923, p.1.
  8. Loving cup to be given band by state fair, Leader, 30 September 1923, p.1 A.
  9. The title “Our Director” is provided in Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 2 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, April 1981, p.24, but the title is likely “Directorate”.
  10. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 2 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, April 1981, p.24.
  11. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 3 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, May 1981, p.42; Sousa considered “Semper Fidelis” his finest composition. Sousa, Semper Fidelis – “The President’s Own” Marine Corps Band (2011), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgABUZ4i9co , accessed September 21, 2021.
  12. (“’66’ celebration attracts many from this city,” Springfield, Mo., Leader, March 16, 1931, p.14; “Crowd cheers highway finish,” Good Old Days column, Springfield, Mo., News & Leader, March 22, 1981, p.2 C; Don Burns letter, 6 January 1991, to Michael Glenn in “Burns, Don” Library Center Information File at the Springfield-Greene County Library; “Springfield’s Scout Band going to Chicago’s Fair, Springfield, Mo., Leader, 24 October 1932, p.1; “Scout Band Train Takes 103 Youths to Chicago’s Fair,” Springfield, Mo., Daily News, August 7, 1933, p.1; “Boy Scout Band to Dallas fair,” Springfield, Mo., Leader & Press, June 10, 1936, p.14; Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 4 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, June 1981, pp.36-37.
  13. “O’Reilly gets rousing salute in winter-swept dedication,” Springfield, Mo., News & Leader, November 9, 1941, p.1 A; Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Springfield! Magazine, June 1981, Part 4 of 4, p.37.
  14. Don Burns, “Springfield’s Amazing Boy Scout Band,” Part 4 [of 4], Springfield! Magazine, June 1981, p.37; “The Star-Spangled Scotsman,” Springfield, Mo., News & Leader, 24 February 1974, p.1 C; City’s music circle handed a double jolt,” Springfield, Mo. Leader & Press, 26 April 1949, p.1; “SHS musicians cop 16 firsts at state meet,” Springfield, Mo., News & Leader, 1 May 1949, p.1 D.; “Scout dinner becomes a tribute to Foster,” Springfield, Mo., Leader & Press, 21 January 1948, p.9