From Military to Pep: The Evolution of the Cornhusker Marching Band
Luke Partsch, History 250: The Historian Craft, Fall 2022
Sound out! Sound out! Sound out loud and clear!
Let the team all know the band is here.
Sons of old Nebraska, if someone should ask ya,
We’re the Scarlet and the Cream!
Fanfares peel the air, cadences accelerate, footsteps shake the ground, and lines of red streak onto the field. The Pride of All Nebraska is ready to play. The Cornhusker Marching Band (CMB) comes from the first generation of collegiate marching bands and like many, has military ROTC roots. Despite this origin, today’s CMB would appear unrecognizable from the original Cadet Band that once marched for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. In appearances, music, and drill, the band has adapted over the past century and a half. It has always been Nebraska’s band, but its place in the University’s culture has changed along with the identity of the University as a whole. Although the military tradition of the band is still deeply ingrained, the Cornhusker Marching Band’s shift away from the military allowed it to become a core part of the University’s culture.
The Cadet Band began in 1879 as a military drill band. It borrowed heavily from this tradition, and it is thanks to the military department at UNL that this ensemble first started. Within the first few years of its creation, however, the Cadet Band grew from its original, strictly military purpose and became increasingly involved in the University and community. Widespread community exposure during this early phase of the band ultimately culminated in an award from the world-renowned composer John Philip Sousa. To observe how the band became so influential in the culture of the University, it is necessary to compare it to the evolution of what would become the main purpose of the band: athletics.
In the early days of the University, there was little that could compare to the modern athletic program. With no football and with baseball in its early stages, any sense of school identity did not spread into the broader public. In fact, many taxpayers were concerned about the financial troubles of the University, giving the institution a fairly negative connotation. A Hesperian Student editor claimed in 1883 that “there always has been a lack of genuine college spirit in this institution, and an association of this kind [football] will tend to increase such a feeling. If a foot ball team. . . could be formed, we might, in the years to come, have enough college enthusiasm to designate ours as a real college.” Ultimately it would be none other than Roscoe Pound, a former Nebraska drum major turned Harvard Law graduate, who would help organize a proper varsity football team in 1890, simultaneously taking charge of creating a sense of school spirit to accompany them. At this point, the band was the only group that could lay any claim to being any type of spirit organization, having played for baseball games in previous years. When the first Nebraska football team, the “Old Gold Knights,” played its first game on Thanksgiving Day, 1890, the Cadet Band played right along with them.
Throughout these early years, the Cadet Band was incredibly active and visible in the University. The ensemble put on multiple concerts a year, marched in parades, and performed at school events. Beyond that, it also took an incredibly involved role in the broader community. Skating rinks, hotels, and even political rallies requested that the band show up to provide music. These events would of course be compensated, but individual band members were often paid in cash. At this time, it was said that the band members were among the richest students on campus, primarily because of gigs such as these. The large amount of exposure that the Cadet Band enjoyed tied it in with the entire community, making it a valuable asset.
A massive shift hit the band with the introduction of Lieutenant John J. Pershing as the new military instructor in 1891. Pershing, who decades later would create the U. S. Army Band, saw for-profit public performances as inappropriate for a military band and forbade the Cadet Band from continuing that tradition, thus removing them from the public with the exception of athletics. Pershing’s biggest changes, however, would actually help mold the band into a precursor of a proper collegiate football band. His introduction to the University marked the beginnings of the idea of playing and marching simultaneously, rather than just marching with a cadence to a location. He also instilled a much more regimented drill style, giving the band a crisper, much more unified step. The yearbook Sombrero characterized this transition by stating, “Lieutenant Pershing is the strictest of disciplinarians, as proved by the final subjection of the band to discipline. The members had been notorious for their walk. . . . No two of them had ever been seen by human eyes to keep step. . . . All has been changed.” The military discipline instilled in the band would elevate it to a higher standard.
The University was plagued with issues of funding in its early years. The tension stemming from this would extend to every corner of the campus, and it is plainly visible in the band’s situation. As a part of the military department, all of the band’s initial funding went through them; the commandants would often have to take the initiative to petition the Board of Regents for more resources. During one particular month in 1884, band finances accounted for $105.27 of the total $131.67 budget for the military department.
With both the department and the Regents being cautious about finances, it is no wonder that issues of funding the band would soon arise. In 1928, the football team travelled to West Point Military Academy in New York. When the military refused to finance the band to accompany the team, the community got involved. Students made an effort to raise money for the band, and many Lincoln residents also contributed to the cause. Even a Kansas City businessman gave a donation, evidencing how well-known the band was at the time. In a Daily Nebraskan article that encourages students and fraternities to support the band, an editor calls to the value of such a trip by saying, “the support of the student body. . . should follow them [the team] east. Here is Nebraska’s chance to show the east that we not only have a strong gridiron machine but also a strong student body that is backing their team to the limit.” The effort was successful, and the band joined the team on their journey to West Point. Instances such as this, where the community was insistent about the importance of the band, show just how intertwined the ensemble was becoming with the culture surrounding the University.
Another contentious issue was that of uniforms. Having been provided uniforms through the ROTC program, the first fifty years of the band was defined by gray military garb. When the band traveled with the team to West Point, a New York writer said they looked like “Western Union messengers.” A shock hit Lincoln when the Kansas marching band came to Memorial Stadium in 1935 and put on a terrific show. When the Cadet Band marched on afterwards, it was clear which side was superior. Even though the football team won, there was a sour taste in Nebraskans’ mouths. As a Daily Nebraskan editor put it, “After listening to Kansas’ band whoop it up in a way that thrilled every spectator, Husker students experienced a rather odd feeling as the Nebraska band, playing the same old dirges and ditties, marched forth sounding like it was on the way to a funeral and not a very important funeral at that.”
The military was finally pressured into purchasing new uniforms the very next year. Though the athletic department paid the initial cost, the ROTC program would reimburse them. This complete change in appearance from gray fatigues to scarlet and cream attire was a clear breach of military tradition, but for the moment it would be acceptable. After all, the new colors were necessary for the band if it was to continue and grow in its role as a pep organization. Until this time, the military had held a tight grip on the band and controlled how things were done. The change in uniforms was the first major instance of that grip loosening.
When Don Lentz arrived the following year, 1938, to direct the band, he immediately pushed for more changes, especially regarding the halftime shows. He wanted to incorporate more elaborate drill and newer songs, saying, “I wanted to stress the music and the pageantry more than what was presently being done, but Col. Oury was adamantly opposed to anything that was not strictly military. It was still a military band and he wanted it run that way.” When Lentz brought the matter before the Chancellor, Col. Oury, the head of the military department, backed down. Finally, the band was free of ROTC oversight. The military department still provided funds, and the band was still under their jurisdiction in name, but in all reality, the marching band was now independent to make its own decisions.
Lentz put this newfound freedom to good use. Many college bands around the country had begun breaking off from the military a decade earlier. Lentz followed their examples but expanded upon the trends of those other bands. He built upon the old ideas from the Pershing era regarding continuous motion in block drill while playing, but tailored this to newer, non-military music and drill. The famous director Victor Grabel summed up the general trend of the time by writing, “the chief function of a band is the rendition of music,” insinuating that excessively elaborate drill was unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Bands were worried that too much emphasis on marching would be to the detriment of music, but Lentz pushed the Cornhusker band to embrace both aspects of performance.
The issue of funding remained for another decade or two. In the late 1940s, the CMB still did not have a proper budget. In an interview, Lentz said, “I tried to get one [a budget] set up, but the Director of the School of Music, would have nothing to do with anything that smacked of athletics, so we had to rely completely on the Athletic Department.” The military was still providing some funds for instruments and uniforms, which eventually ended in 1954. This final removal of the band from the military was thus due to financial matters, but the rift had grown over time due to this mixture of factors, each of which helped the band grow in their own identity. The change in uniform, the modernization of the drill and music, and the shifting of funding to athletics all separated the band from the military department, but all also helped mold them into the modern Cornhusker Marching Band.
The first and best instance of the importance this growing identity held is the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day, 1941. The Cornhusker football team had finally made their first bowl game, and Lincoln celebrated. When the athletic program was silent about whether the band was to accompany the team to Pasadena, California, to take on Stanford, countless letters were written to the Board of Regents. One such ultimatum was presented by 55 Nebraska businessmen, threatening the Board of Regents with electoral consequences if the band was not funded to attend, saying, “We are the ones that help pay taxes and support the University of Nebraska and we trust you will make every effort possible to have the band go to Pasadena.” Again, pressure from the community made it possible for the band to travel with the team, this time to the one of the most desired locations. As the band pulled away from Lincoln to travel to California, word reached Lentz that the American Society of Composers, Arrangers, and Performers (ASCAP) was starting a ban on their music – most of the music that the band used – due to contractual disputes. The ban would go into effect on January 1, 1941, the day of the Rose Bowl parade and game. Lentz scrambled to find other music to use for the performance while the band co-opted a tune, the Song of the Vagabonds, and added their own words, creating Band Song, which is now used as a prelude into Hail Varsity. Ultimately, to Don Lentz’s dismay, the band still defiantly played Dear Old Nebraska U, but there were no consequences from ASCAP.
The band’s performance was terrific. Though the California stadium was largely filled with Stanford fans, there was a long, standing ovation. The Stanford director complimented the band, saying he had never seen anything like them. The press similarly lauded the band; the Portland Oregonian stated, “Beyond any room for argument the 120 piece band that blew such encouraging symphonies in brass for Nebraska was the finest that has ever been seen.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “There just couldn’t have been a one hundred percent Nebraska crowd at the Rose Bowl, yet you would have thought so when the University of Nebraska Band received a tremendous ovation for its performance.” Being hailed nationally, the CMB enjoyed its prominence throughout the rest of the decade. At home, Nebraskans celebrated their now-famous band, and its concerts would be well attended for quite some time. The Lincoln Star shows just how intertwined the band was in Nebraska culture by saying, “The scarlet clad unit in the Rose Bowl. . . did itself and every other Nebraskan extremely proud,” and, “The high standing of one of the most popular teams ever to appear in a California stadium seems to be rivaled only by the Nebraska Band.” The Cornhusker Marching Band was now an indispensable part of the University of Nebraska and the culture around it, earning the title “The Pride of All Nebraska.”
The Cornhusker Marching Band’s modern identity within the University of Nebraska is largely due to the multiple factors that shifted it away from the military. Though the CMB remains proud of its military heritage, the modernization of uniforms, drill, and music was necessary for the band to become a modern collegiate band. Funding was the tension that finally brought about the official separation between the ensemble and the military, showing that the band’s priority had shifted away. The CMB adapted well to its role as a school spirit organization, as seen by the 1941 Rose Bowl trip. This trend would continue, with multiple trips to Europe and a 1993 performance in the Kennedy Center in front of President Clinton to honor Johnny Carson. In every one of these performances throughout the century, the Cornhusker Marching Band represented the University of Nebraska on a national stage.
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