By Gail McCarthy
---- — After a half century, George Ramsden will set aside his fire engine red night shirt and plunger baton after he leads the Rockport Firemen’s Band this Fourth of July for the final time.
Ramsden has been part of this tradition for 50 consecutive years, and he looks forward to Thursday’s parade in Rockport, before he steps down from that role.
“Apparently in 1955, a bunch of guys who were firemen — Rockport firefighters who were musicians — got together to march in funny outfits, and they called it the firemen’s band,” he recalled. That was just for one year.
Then, on sort of a whim back on a hot June afternoon in 1964, two longtime members of the Rockport Legion Band — Billy Crowell and George “Rammy” Ramsden Jr. —were having a cool drink in the Ramsdens’ living room. The late “Rammy” was George Ramsden’s father, who marched in the band even when he was 92 years old in 2007. He played saxophone and the late Crowell played trumpet.
George Ramsden said both these gentlemen played professionally in addition to working their jobs, and playing with the Legion Band — and they thought it would be fun to do it again. So they did.
“We continued the tradition of fun outfits and the name of the firemen’s band,” he said. “Along the way, it was called the Rockport Firemen’s Marching Band, and then a Gloucester reporter called it the Firemen’s Marching Clown Band — there was a certain evolution to the name.”
He talked of some of the former guest players, like the late Russell Scatterday, a drummer who, at one time, had played and marched with John Philip Sousa. Then there was Christopher Cooper, a French horn player and Rockport High graduate, who marched when he was young, then went on to play for the San Francisco Symphony.
That first year Ramsden marched he was 22 years old, just two days shy of his 23rd birthday.
“All of a sudden we had this band, and my father said ‘Oh, my son will lead it,’ “ he recalled.
That first parade, Ramsden wore a set of tails, a pair of madras Bermuda shorts, and a pair of old ratty sneakers.
The next year, he wore what is now his signature red nightshirt, which he purchased in the fall of 1959 at the Providence College bookstore during his first week in college. That same summer he signed a contract with Rockport Public Schools, which was the beginning of a 44-year career at Rockport High School.
The size of the band has ebbed and flowed over the years. One of its largest contingents came together during the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, when it numbered about 50 musicians. The numbers have dwindled but with the help of student musicians, the band has successfully managed to continue this Fourth of July tradition.
“For years it was made up of adults and as time has gone by, that number has diminished and we have depended greatly on the musicians from the schools,” said Ramsden. “About nine years ago, Jim Davison, then band director of Rockport High School, got involved and started a feeder system, and we hope that continues because without the youth, this tradition can not continue.”
Ramsden said he will always remember the fun he had seeing the faces light up of the people in the crowd when the band appears, especially when the band is coming around a corner. Over the years, some impromptu happenings included the time decades ago when Phyllis Rudolph, owner of the former Coffee Shop on Main Street, stepped out of the shop, ended up leading the band “and the crowd roared,” said Ramsden.
Paul Murphy of Rockport remembered the time in the early 1970s when Ramsden took a detour to the house on Broadway of the beloved Doc Green, who was ill.
“He was a great baseball fan, and that day, the band took a left and marched to his house and played ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ in tribute,” he recalled.
Murphy, a town selectman, said Ramsden is a Rockport treasure. The town will honor Ramsden at a selectmen’s meeting July 9.
“George has done countless kind deeds. He’s been such a large factor in so many people’s lives here,” said Murphy, who called Ramsden a close family friend. “He has such a way of wanting to help people. My father used to say that he had all the wonderful attributes of the Irish without the shortcomings.”
Ramsden said there is an heir apparent in the wings, though the band has not announced it at this point.
“But it is a musician who has marched for years with the band, and I’m excited that this person wants to do it,” said Ramsden.
Meanwhile, the band is in great need of horn players, both brass and woodwinds, for tomorrow’s parade. Absolutely anyone can take part, whether young or old, resident or visitor. Just show up at Rockport High School’s music room around 4:45 p.m. on July 4. Ramsden said horn players just need to be able to read basic music, and have their own horn with lyre and a mouthpiece. (The band has more than enough drummers.) In terms of uniforms, players can wear whatever wild and wacky outfit they want to, but no flip flops for shoes.
Anyone seeking further information, they can call Ramsden at 978-546-6123 or Jim Davison at 546-2207.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.