Charlottesville’s most notable native son is, of course, Thomas Jefferson, who was born on nearby Shadwell Plantation in April 1743. Best known as the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence and as the third U. S. President, Jefferson was a true polymath—a statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, musician, scientist, farmer and philosopher, who did much to shape the early course of history and discovery in this country. Monticello, the home which Jefferson designed and had built to his specifications on a mountain top overlooking the town of Charlottesville is today one of the most familiar and most visited American architectural landmarks, along with his other lasting contribution to learning and architecture, the University of Virginia. But it wasn’t always so.
Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, Monticello served several different owners as a private residence for nearly a century. During that time financial woes, legal battles, the ravages of the American Civil War and constant efforts by its owners to stave off deterioration plagued the home and estate. Finally in 1923 the home was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a private non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Jefferson’s former home and to making it a national shrine for all Americans to visit and enjoy. It is at this point in time that the histories of Monticello and the Municipal Band come together.
The Band was organized in August 1922 and first performed in public on April 10, 1923 in a parade up and down Main Street in Charlottesville followed by a brief concert outside Pence and Sterling’s Drug Store. In the same issue of the Daily Progress that reported this event there was a lengthy article outlining preparations for the celebration of Jefferson’s birthday and in the next day’s issue “…the inauguration of the national movement to create a $1,000,000 fund with which to buy and maintain Thomas Jefferson’s home as a national shrine.” (Daily Progress, 4/12/1923) As incredible as it may seem today, the article went on to state that among the many features of this event “Martial and band music will be furnished by the Charlottesville Band…”, itself an organization less than a year old which had only first performed in public three days before! Also recall that many of the men in the Band had limited musical experience and had been playing their chosen instruments for barely six months! It was a tribute to director Harry Lowe’s audacity and teaching skills, as well as to the confidence of the Band’s members, that they were asked to perform on such a monumental occasion.
In the final analysis rainy weather forced all the ceremonies on the 13th indoors, so the event was held at the University of Virginia in Cabell Hall. The Daily Progress on April 13th reported “Selections were rendered at intervals by the city’s recently equipped Municipal Band, who measured up fully to the occasion, and were received with unbounded applause.” Then in the next day’s issue it further reported “Musical selections were rendered by the city’s recently organized Municipal Band, under the skillful leadership of Harry Lowe, and made the hit of its new career.”
So the fortunes of Monticello as we know it today and the Municipal Band simultaneously began on auspicious notes. Over the years that followed, the Band would make the journey up the mountain to Monticello many times for many occasions. But it was on July 4, 1963 that the Band and Monticello began together their longest running and perhaps most beloved association, that of performing for Naturalization Ceremonies for new U.S. citizens. The following brief description was written by Virgil Goode, Jr., former U.S. Representative (5th District of Virginia) and appears on the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s “Local Legacies” web page:
To honor the legacy of the third President of the United States, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which has owned and operated Monticello since 1923, celebrates the history of American independence with a naturalization ceremony that dates to 1963. In that year, the Honorable Thomas J. Michie, Judge of the U.S. District Court of Western Virginia and a member of the Foundation Board of Trustees, originated the practice of naturalizing citizens at Monticello during the Independence Day holiday; the naturalization ceremony became an annual event. The ceremony is opened with a concert of patriotic American music; the petitioners for naturalization, their family, friends and guests are welcomed; an invited guest reads the preamble to the Declaration of Independence; and a guest speaker delivers remarks before the new citizens take the oath of citizenship. After the formal proceedings, the day ends with a true Fourth of July picnic.
The Municipal Band provides much of the patriotic music to which Rep. Goode refers. Over the years the Band has performed for many prominent guest speakers, including Sir John Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia; many Virginia governors and other state and federal officials; Presidents of the United States of America Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush; astronomer and author Carl Sagan; Gen. Colin L. Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. Secretary of State and former UN Ambassador; and Nadia Comăneci, gymnast and Olympic gold medalist to name just a few. And, of course, almost five thousand new citizens, their families and guests, and a host of visitors to Monticello have also enjoyed the music and pageantry in the over half century that naturalization ceremonies have taken place at Monticello.
Two other notable occasions at Monticello at which the Band has performed also come to mind. On January 17, 1993 President-Elect William Jefferson Clinton and Vice President-Elect Albert Gore along with their wives and a host of dignitaries made an early morning stop at Monticello during their pre-inauguration tour. While the weather was clear and dry, this event was notable in that the Band had to arrive on the mountain well before dawn in order to clear security and get set up for the guests’ arrival. The air temperature at the time was about twelve degrees Fahrenheit—possibly the coldest conditions in which the Band has ever performed!
Later that same year on April 13th the Band once again performed at Monticello, this time for the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. The speaker on that occasion was Russian politician Mikhail Gorbachev, last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, during Mr. Gorbachev’s visit the weather was much more pleasant and spring-like than during Mr. Clinton’s! The event marks one of only two times the Band has played for heads of state of foreign nations, the other being for Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain during her visit to the United States and Charlottesville in 1976.
Over the years the Band has enjoyed a cordial relationship with all those associated with Monticello. Except for the Covid pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 the Band has performed every Independence Day at Monticello since 1963 and on many other occasions as well since 1923. Hopefully, this genial association will continue for many years to come!