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"History Time": Salem’s musical druggist

Posted by Marjorie Nesin  June 22, 2011 10:00 AM

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1901 sheet music cover (American Memory, Library of Congress)

By the time of this particular edition of the march, it was already being used as a Harvard fight song.

By Jim Dalton, Guest Columnist 

“My step quickens when I hear Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes”: my feet move irresistibly at the sound of Reeves’ “2d Conn.,” but my main thrill is in marching ahead of 500 or more schoolboys playing the flowing trio of Bigelow’s “Our Director” and for this march he should be held in greatest reverence and love by every schoolboy musician, professional musician, semi-professional musician, amateur musician, besides the thousands of drum corps members throughout the world.”

-- Joseph L. Rainey, “Tribute to the Late Brother F. E. Bigelow,” in North Shore Musician, Local 126, A.F. of M., Dec. 1929

So, who is this composer mentioned so favorably in the same breath as such luminaries as John Phillip Sousa and David Wallace Reeves?

Frederick Ellsworth Bigelow (1873-1929) was born and raised in Ashland, Massachusetts. In 1892, as a young man, he helped to found the Ashland Brass Band with his music teacher, Joseph Morrisette; and shortly thereafter composed “Our Director,” a march dedicated to Morrisette.

After earning a degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, he moved to Salem and took a position as head druggist for a store on Lafayette Street. In 1913 he established his own Forest River Pharmacy.

Bigelow also played saxophone in the Salem Cadet Band under Jean Missud, Missud was so impressed with Bigelow’s composition that he published it himself.

This was the beginning of the march’s fame. Around the turn of the century it was appropriated as a fight song for Harvard football games (as evidenced by the attached image from a sheet music cover of 1901) and soon picked up by other colleges for the same purpose.

When publisher Walter Jacobs secured the rights to reprint it with words by well-known lyricist Jack Yellin as “The Battle Song of Liberty,” its popularity sparked anew.  Widely popular in the U.S. during World War I, in Europe the tune was nearly ubiquitous. 

Though “Our Director” may be his most famous composition, there were others. Many Internet resources state that Bigelow is known to have written only three compositions; this is, however, inaccurate. He actually wrote at least eleven original compositions for band. Some featured solo alto sax. He also wrote several arrangements of works by other composers for band (with solo sax or trombone) and duets for two saxes. The Salem Cadet Band under Jean Missud premiered all these compositions and arrangements.

Another of his greatly popular marches was “The NC-4 March” (dedicated to Lt. Commander Albert C. Read). Though the name may not mean much to us today, the title refers to a very hot topic of 1919. The Navy-Curtiss-4 was a flying boat -- what we would now call a seaplane. It made the first successful transatlantic flight from May 8 to 27, 1919, taking off from Rockaway, N.Y. with a destination of Lisbon, Portugal. There were stops for refueling and repairs on Cape Cod, Newfoundland and the Azores.

This was not a nonstop nor a solo flight -- the commander and navigator Albert Read (the dedicatee of Bigelow’s commemorative march) was joined by a crew of five. Although it was the first, it was overshadowed by the fame of later transatlantic flights, especially that of Lindbergh.

Bigelow’s “NC-4 March” maintained its place in the band repertoire even though few know the story behind its strange-seeming title. Those interested can find performances of it on YouTube and various other places. Two years ago it was performed by the Merchant Marine Band at a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the NC-4’s transatlantic flight at Queens, N.Y. where the flight originated.

For its part, “Our Director” is still quite easy to find. In addition to the expected band performances and recordings–one can find it played by college, military and professional bands going back to cylinder recordings of Gilmore’s Band–it also became a favorite on circus calliopes, carousels and player piano rolls.

In his tribute to Bigelow published after he passed on, Joseph L. Rainey said, “When bands, through lack of ability, were unable to perform the more difficult marches, they always found a friend in “Our Director,” that they could rely on.”

This alone couldn’t account for the march’s popularity. Much of that is owed to lively rhythms, catchy tunes and an innate sense of balance and good “band style” that places the best of Bigelow’s marches among the most loved pieces in the repertoire.

Jim Dalton is a founding board member of the Salem History Society and is a professor of music theory and music education at The Boston Conservatory. He and his wife Maggi specialize in the research and performance of 19th century American music. Reach him at: For information on joining the Salem History Society, visit :

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Public Domain -- source U.S. Navy

The NC-4 (Navy-Curtiss-4) the first aircraft to successfully complete a Transatlantic flight in 1919.

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