In 1987, former Press Lifestyles Editor, Anne M. Newton, interviewed Jack Q. Williams, who worked for the Southern Railway, about his participation in the 1926 Johnson City Kindergarten Orchestra.
Williams' most blatant memory about the musical experience had to do with his thumb and an automobile. Charlotte Brown, director of the Orchestra, provided transportation for those students needing a ride.
“I remember her driving a two-seated touring car,” said Jack. “She picked us up and drove us to orchestra practice and afterward took us home.” He lifted his right hand and said, “See that thumb. occasionally, that bruise mark on it starts growing and splits the nail.”
“I got it mashed in her car. She drove a vintage car with doors that opened backwards (known as suicide doors because they were hinged from the rear rather than the front. Once, as I was getting in the car, someone closed the door on my thumb. It was in there from the time we left for school until the moment we got home. I never said a word.”
Jack said it was the most painful 10-minute ride he'd ever taken. He admitted that he showed no emotion, being too bashful to say anything.
Johnson City Kindergarten Orchestra Classmates, Columbus Powell School, 1926
In May 1926, when Williams was only 5 years old, a photographer came to Columbus Powell and took several pictures of the melodious group. Jack marveled that Ms. Range, their teacher, somehow worked magic to keep everyone tranquil and in their designated position. “Knowing those boys,” he said, “I don’t know how we posed so well for the picture. Maybe she used a black snake to keep us in line. That would have certainly worked for me.”
Although the students in the photo are not individually identified, the 1926 Johnson City Kindergarten Orchestra consisted of Jimmie Joe Biddle, director; Maurie Wody, S.T. Williams, Florence Greenway, Margaret Norris, Francis David MaGill, Emma Good, Jack Q. Williams, Kenneth Shell, Marie Truman, Mildred Truman, Charlotte Brown, Billy Payne, Perry White, Isabelle Robinson, Anne Jennings, Lester Hyder, Betty Hargen, Jean McCormick, Pauline Bowery, Betty Preas, Charles Dubbs, Roland Johnson, Virginia Rumley, John Wallin, James Coleman, Jane Jones, Guy Blackwell, Melba Loudy and Thomas MaGill.
The Knoxville Sentinel included a story about the Kindergarten Orchestra in their June 12, 1926 issue. According to the paper, the orchestra performed numerous times for local audiences and state bodies meeting in convention in Johnson City over several months.
The group, made up of 30 young musicians, ranged in ages of from 4-6. The newspaper noted that it was, perhaps, one of the very few, if not the only organization of its kind in the United States. Song-o-phones, similar to those in a regular brass band, were used by the children in the orchestra.
Jimmie Joe Biddle, seen up front wearing a black suit and bow tie, was the orchestra’s 5-year-old director, “who wielded his baton with the dignity and grace of a professional.” The paper also described a young “wee miss” who read notes from the piano score as she skillfully played the xylophone.
Their repertoire included the “Blue Danube Waltz,” “La Paloma,” “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other patriotic melodies. Williams barely remembers what they played, just that they had so much fun.
“At that time, I don’t know what songs we knew,” he said. It didn’t really matter because I always had fun, I’ve had fun all my life.”
Williams went through the 3rd grade at Columbus Powell, then left for Boone, NC in 1929. His family returned to Johnson City six years later and he enrolled in Junior High and Science Hill High School, reuniting with many of the same people he knew in the Kindergarten Orchestra.
If any of my readers has additional information about this unique orchestra, please share it with me.