Swing years: North Bend bandleader Harley Brumbaugh to lead voices in 1940 community sing-along

Harley Brumbaugh grew up in the vanished mill neighborhood of Riverside. His musical skills led him out into the world: To the army, college, a teaching career, a band of his own, and eventually, back home. - Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
Harley Brumbaugh grew up in the vanished mill neighborhood of Riverside. His musical skills led him out into the world: To the army, college, a teaching career, a band of his own, and eventually, back home.
— image credit: Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Harley Brumbaugh was six years old in 1940—still years from embarking on a musical career that led him from the U.S. Army to teach at high schools and colleges in the Northwest, to lead his own band, and finally back home.

Yet he has love for the tunes of his early boyhood.

“These are the songs that have lasted,” he said.

Brumbaugh will lead listeners and any willing voices on a tour of the sounds of the era at “I Hear America Singing in 1940,” a community sing-along that’s part of the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society’s annual meeting for 2013.

A well-known local band leader, Brumbaugh starts the show at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24, at Boxley’s Jazz Club, 101 North Bend Way.

Swinging sound

The year 1940 was chosen to commemorate the 73nd anniversary of the 1940 census, the figures of which were finally released last year.

For the occasion, Brumbaugh, 79, researched a selection of the top tunes from that year—26 of them. The society’s annual meeting, which precedes the singing, is the group’s election.

The sing-along, however, was Brumbaugh’s idea, said society member Gloria McNeely.

“He has worked very hard to put this together,” she said. “He wants this to be a real presentation of that year.”

McNeely will be a good judge of authenticity. She was 21 years old in 1940, and remembers gathering with her family around the piano to entertain themselves as a young girl. She was 7 years old when her family bought her first radio.

“This music means a whole lot to me,” said McNeely.

Why a sing-along? “One reason is to remind people of their history, and the importance that music plays in our lives,” McNeely said. “You can almost pick out an era by the music. But this is all singable stuff.”

Courtesy photo

The McGrath Hotel, site of the Harley Brumbaugh’s 1940 retrospective community sing-along, and today’s Boxley’s Club, has a lot of history. It dates to 1922.


Song stories

Brumbaugh’s choices range from love songs and Broadway hits to wartime anthems and goofy novelty songs.

He’s bringing back Glen Miller’s “In the Mood,” Kern and Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are,” and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” as made famous by Jimminy Cricket.

Many are part of the proverbial ‘Great American Songbook,’ the tunes that, when an artist decides that they’ve arrived as a great singer, they embrace—songs like “Fools Rush In,” “How High the Moon,” or “Deep In the Heart of Texas.”

Brumbaugh’s got a tale for almost every one of these tunes, crafted at the end of the Great Depression and on the brink of war. “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” he reminds listeners, was written in 1940—the same year the Nazi army overran the City of Light. Another tune, “Flat Foot Floogie,” written in 1938 by Slim Gaillard and a number-one hit for Bennie Goodman, really made a splash, both for Goodman and Brumbaugh.

“This song changed my career,” said Brumbaugh.

He was leader of the Bellevue Community College (now Bellevue College) band when they went on an historic visit to the University of Mexico in 1980. The group caused a sensation at the college’s Mexico City campus. One university official told Brumbaugh that such a visit had never happened, as most of the faculty was provided by the Soviet bloc.

Yet the auditorium was standing room only, when one of the school’s Russian professors introduced the band, saying, as Brumbaugh recalled, “Although I do not care for your American-type music, you are welcome to sing here.”

“That’s a warm greeting,” quipped Brumbaugh as the curtain opened.

He and the band opened with the swinging strains of “Floogie.” In seconds, the professor had marched out of the building. Bouquets of flowers were landing on the stage.

“The kids just loved it,” Brumbaugh said. He and the band serenaded them with Spanish numbers every third song, and went down into the audience to take their hands.

“They just fell all over the place,” he said.

“It dawned on me, this is what American music can do,” he said. “It suggests democracy, freedom of movement, freedom of expression.”

The next year, the university flew their student president to Bellevue to give the band an award: Most outstanding musical group to perform that year.

“They had the Vienna Boys Choir, orchestras from all over the world,” said Brumbaugh, who was humbled by the award. He still receives letters from friends made on that journey, 33 years ago.

A different time

Popular music was a different animal in the Great Depression. Record sales were in their infancy. As Brumbaugh explains it, the real game was music on paper, and the radio.

“Up until the 1930s, hits were calibrated on how much sheet music was sold,” he said. “People were still playing piano in the home. That’s where the money was. It gradually became what was heard over the radio.”

Any radio station of ambition had an orchestra or live band. Publishing companies sent their hottest songs to radio stations to promote the sheet music.

The music of that era was special, says Brumbaugh: “It was done by craftsmen.”

From the dance bands at the big clubs, to the traveling bands doing hundreds of shows a year, to the Broadway, Hollywood, even vaudeville writers, America was home to  a powerful creative culture, rivaling the classical composers.

As a 14-year-old North Bend kid, Brumbaugh became part of this world when he got his first paying job, wailing on his trumpet at Seattle dance halls for $2 a night.

“I can’t believe someone gets paid to do this,” he said.

In high school, he started his own band with some musical buddies, including Ed Opstad, Jr., the son of the local school superintendent, Edwin, Sr.

When the superintendent became concerned over the grown-up sounds of the dance numbers they were playing—“I don’t think we should have you kids playing this kind of music by yourselves, unsupervised,” Brumbaugh remembers being told—he had them booted from their practice hall, the high school auditorium. Ed, Jr., found them a new rehearsal spot—the Opstad family living room. A few weeks later, they were back in the auditorium.

As a teen, he was selected to play first-chair solo cornet in the all-Northwest High School Honor Band, encompassing the best young musicians from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, and won a college scholarship.

The teenage Brumbaugh’s tutor, Don Anderson of Seattle, had been first trumpet with 20th Century Fox, and worked during the heyday of American bands. His legacy, his music, even his instruments were all later passed on to Brumbaugh, who was brought up in the great tradition.

Old-fashioned sing-along

At the Historical Society event, Boxley’s Place owner and jazz player Danny Kolke will accompany Brumbaugh on piano. They’re working on getting a bass player to build the rhythm.

Vocal duties go to the entire community. Any singer who volunteers will get a thumb sheet. But anyone, regardless of musical ability or lack thereof, is welcome to join in, or just listen.

“It’s just like an old-fashioned sing-along,” said Brumbaugh. “The idea is loosen the people up.” He’ll use jokes and break the ice to make it a good time.

Brumbaugh is no stranger to encouraging folks to sing. His career as a high school music teacher led to teaching night classes and then founding Bellevue College’s music program in the early 1970s,

He’s played with the Seahawks band, the Sonic Six, and led his own bands. In 1998, he began leading the Snoqualmie United Methodist Church Choir. That led him to move back to his hometown, with love-of-his-life wife Cathy, in 2001, after years in Renton.

Growing up in the vanished company neighborhood of Riverside, now an empty, forested grove along Reinig Road, Brumbaugh believes his career was blessed by the atmosphere of the Valley,

“It comes back to this Valley,” he said. “People were there to encourage you. That’s the thing.”

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