Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies
Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies
Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal SocietiesIsraelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal SocietiesIsraelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies

Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies
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Israelite House of David - Musical Traditions
About the Authors: Keith Howard & Tom Meldrim

     The Israelite House of David musicians played to audiences all over the world.  Through the years, it is likely that the numerous House of David bands had played to well over 1 million people all told!  To this day, the House of David music is still being played and recorded by well-known artists ... who just might be surprised to learn the history behind the music.

~ You may click the images below for a larger view. ~


    (1) The followers of Mary and Benjamin, believed themselves to be the vanguard of an elect people.  By adhering to a set of beliefs, pursuing a pious lifestyle and by faithful endeavors they were to prepare the way for the elect.

     Music was a fact of everyday life for House of David Israelites.  It was a part of their personal life and integral to their worship.  It was used for social functions and commercial enterprise.  Their music reflected their heritage and expressed their religious values.  It enabled personal growth and the achievement of communal goals.

    (2) Almost every Israelite was involved in some form of musical expression.  Adults played in Menís Bands and Ladyís Bands.  Children played in childrenís bands.  Israelites sang in ones, twos, threes, fours, and fives and in larger choral groups.  They formed comedy musical acts, string bands, marching bands, jazz bands and dance orchestras.

     They hand-crafted musical instruments for sale and for their own use and taught generations of non-members how to play.  One of these teachers was a lovely lady named Ruby Glover who taught music at the House of David.  She and her husband lived on the third floor of Shiloh.  Members played and sang for their own entertainment and they performed on public stages in Benton Harbor and across America.

    (3) For over a half century the music of the House of David provided entertainment to the public and made the Israelites famous in the process.  The colonyís music industry was a major component of their economic success, which in turn had a significant impact on the development of Southwestern Michigan.  During the first half on the twentieth century the fame of the House of David was based as much on itís musical talents as on any other facet of its organization.

     The musical culture that developed in the communal atmosphere of the House of David could find its origins in the faith that the members had committed their lives to.  The confluence of three aspects of that faith provided the gestation that bloomed into a unique musical phenomena.

     The first root of this musical tree was inherited from those who came before them in the Israelite faith.  A second root was born of the evangelism used to gather new adherents to the early colony.  A third root can be expressed as a serendipitous combination of belief, purpose and culture that fashioned these other elements into something unique.

     The members of the House of David were followers of the Christian Israelite faith.  They believed in the teachings of a succession of prophets.  The fifth in this line of prophets was John Wroe who founded Christian Israelite Societies in England, Australia and America during the first half of the nineteenth century.  Some members of the House of David were members of the John Wroe Church, however, when they joined the House of David, they left the Fifth Church (John Wroe).  These members were looking for the Seventh Messenger - Benjamin.

    (4) The earliest mention of bands found to date is this English broadside posted in 1824 announcing the public baptism of John Wroe.  "Appropriate hymns accompanied by a select band of music" was to mark the event.  Over 30,000 people attended this event!

    (5) By the time of the American Civil War John Wroe had traveled numerous times to Australia and America establishing Christian Israelite Societies in these countries.  This picture was taken in Melbourne, Australia around 1895.  It shows that by the end of the nineteenth century an instrumental music tradition was firmly established in the Christian Israelite Church.  Over twenty instruments are shown in this Christian Israelite sanctuary including a pipe organ, several brass horns, woodwinds and numerous stringed instruments including a concert sized harp.

    (6) In 1904 shortly after the founding of the House of David, Benjamin sent The Star over to Australia, which was exactly what the 5th Church members were looking for.  They wrote back to tell Mary and Benjamin that 50 members had accepted The Message (Star).  Therefore, these 50 members were, in part, waiting for Mary and Benjamin.  Mary and Benjamin then embarked on an evangelizing tour of Australia.  When they returned to Benton Harbor the following year, they brought home with them 85 converts from the Christian Israelite Society.  These converts included most of the leadership and over twenty musicians and instrument makers from the Wroe Church.

    (7) When they arrived the Australians marched single file from the train station to the colony.  They had brought brass instruments from Australia and formed a brass band that played as they marched.  These Australian musicians were to become the core of the House of David bands.

     A second source of the House of David musical tradition stems from the practice of using music to draw crowds to street corner preachers.

    (8) Like the Salvation Army the House of David deployed street corner bands with their preachers.  Bands and preachers traversed the country together.

    (9) This tradition of street corner preaching was passed down from Mary and Benjamin to a cadre of preachers and street corner musicians who spread out across America to gather in the elect.  Over the years these preachers and musicians evolved into the members and road managers of the Vaudeville march and jazz bands.

     The third root of the House of David musical tradition can be called the "Race for Immortality".  This was a term used among the followers of Benjamin and Mary to describe a mental attitude that motivated members.  Band members usually signed their letters home "Yours in the race".

    (10) An esprit de corps developed among the members who thought that together they could overcome any obstacle with their faith and even conquer death.  This state of mind evolved from their millennial teachings and communal way of life.

    (11) Believing that they were to prepare themselves and 144,000 others for the immortality of the body the followers of Mary and Benjamin set about making a society and economy equal to the task.  As it was thought there would be little time to achieve these goals a sense of joyous urgency permeated the everyday life of the group.  Every day was one day closer to the Millennium and every national and world event convinced the colonists that they had very little time to prepare.

    (12) Every member must develop their talents and use them to their utmost ability to prepare the way.  As one big communal family of brothers and sisters the pressure to conform and pull together was strong.  Members were able to bring a focus on their objectives that few other groups could match.

    (13) While this ethic motivated the rank and file members it also raised the leadership of the little colony to inspiration and genius.  Chief among these inspired leaders was Benjamin himself who encourage and promoted the development of the House of David bands.

     There was nothing in Benjaminís background to explain his ability and vision in managing this complex organization.  When Mary and Benjamin founded the Benton Harbor colony in 1903 it quickly became evident that Benjamin had a keen entrepreneurial sixth sense, a deep understanding of human nature and the knowledge of how to yoke together the talents and industry of others to accomplish common goals.

     To this end he was able to see that the musical talents of his followers could be parlayed into wholesome entertainment and a commercial commodity.  Benjamin took and active roll in managing the bands.  Benjamin wrote this letter on May 31st, 1921 to the Ernest Young Agency, for many years the bands booking agent:

Dear Mr. Young;

     Brother Tyler was telling me about your phone message this morning and in reply I wish to say, I would let you keep the band boys now if it was agreeable to them, but I suppose they would want a rest or recreation for a short time.  I donít know just how long they would want to rest, but the sooner the better, say until around Labor Day.

     As to the girls band we would like them to have a trip as they are all so anxious and it would be an encouragement to them.  Furthermore I believe they would draw as well if the act is fixed up right.  Say, for instance, if they would use false beards and be standing facing the audience when the curtain rises.

     The audience would have a shock thinking they were mistaken and that it was the boys with their hair down.  Then they could whirl or drop the curtain, whichever you please, and throw them off behind the chairs on the floor then face the audience again with no beards and hair down to play.  18 pieces is perhaps the best we could do.

     As to the boys band we think we could manage it all right if we had another teacher to put them under to finish them off.

     Sincerely yours;
     Benjamin of the House of David

    (14) The true beginning of the House of David Musical tradition was the use of music to praise God.  In their worship services the Israelites used standard protestant hymns as well as ones written by members to express their religious tenants.

    (15) As did the Christian Israelites in Australia the House of David Israelites formed impromptu bands used in religious services and for personal entertainment.

    (16) The House of David Israelites led frugal lives and avoided vices.  One of their few sources of entertainment was playing music.  Always practical the colonist could use their homegrown entertainment to hone skills for more public performances.

    (17) It seemed every member played an instrument.  Soon members formed all sorts of bands.

    (18) Colony children grew up in the musical tradition and played in bands from an early age.  While children were expected to contribute to the work of the colony they were also encouraged to spend time developing their musical talents.

    (19) It seemed everyone played in a band.

    (20) Starting in 1904 colony members began building communal living quarters on land purchased along the north side of Britain Avenue in Benton Harbor.  This area had for decades been the location of numerous resorts that catered to a primarily Jewish clientele from Chicago.

     Starting with a building called the Ark the Israelites soon had completed second and third buildings named Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  To the west of Bethlehem was an old pear orchard that the colonists appropriated as an outdoor meeting place.  The Pear Orchard was used for preaching and other communal events including music.

    (21) Israelite bands were often to be seen and heard around the colonyís buildings and soon the colonists found a crowd of non-members hanging around on weekends to hear the bands play.  A bandstand in the Pear Orchard and a large birdhouse to the north of Bethlehem were built to entertain their "Gentile" visitors.

    (22) Always the opportunists when it came to making money for their cause the Israelites had soon constructed an ice cream parlor.  Weekend concerts in the immediate area of the Ice Cream Parlor attracted many visitors and assured brisk ice cream sales.

     The success of the Ice Cream Parlor convinced the Israelites that a business could be made of entertaining outsiders.  They had only to look at the resorts that flourished in the area to see that they could parley their talents into a successful resort.

    (23) By 1907 the crowds drawn to the Ice Cream Parlor were so large that they were an impediment to the daily life of the colonists.  Clearly this business needed to be relocated away from their private dwellings.  Negotiations were initiated with the Eastman Springs Company and land to the immediate south of the existing colony was purchased.

     The House of David went about building their own resort, which they named "The Springs of Eden".  The first building they erected was a new Ice Cream Parlor.

    (24) They then moved the birds from the birdcage as well as other animals that had been on display to the park and expanded that attraction into a full zoo.  The original zoo was located just west of the east train trestle where the midget auto raceway was located years later.

    (25) The park was an immediate success.

    (26) Visitors who flocked to the Benton Harbor area from Chicago via Lake Michigan steamers had only to board a city streetcar to the House of David and then ride a park train to reach Eden Springs.

    (27) The Eden Springs Resort was an in-house operation all the way.  House of David members grew, processed, prepared and served the food sold to park visitors.  Colonist made the souvenirs sold in the shops and built the steam trains that carried guests around the park.  An army of member gardeners, florists, waiters, mechanics, salespersons, ticket sellers and many other workers ran and maintained Eden Springs Park like the Garden of Eden.

    (28) The opening of Eden Springs provided a commercial outlet for the Israeliteís music.  Colony members entertained the huge crowds.  When crowds grew too large to entertain from a single stage members performed at multiple stages throughout the park.

    (29) While the park managers regularly booked Vaudeville acts into the park, colony members staffed the park bands and developed other kinds of entertainment.

    (30) Menís bands, womenís bands and boyís bands all played regularly at Eden Springs.

    (31) As the membership of the House of David grew, various new enterprises were launched to utilize member talents and earn money.  One of these businesses was making musical instruments.

    (32) Joseph Hannaford, patriarch of a prominent musical family from the Australian Christian Israelites was an accomplished instrument maker.  Once at the colony, Joseph set up business and with other craftsmen produced musical instruments for many years.

    (33) With all the musical talent at the colony and the Vaudeville contacts made when booking acts into the Eden Springs Park it was a short step to hiring the bands out.  By 1910 bands were loaded on trains and sent on road trips to appear in theaters across the country.

    (34) When it was decided to send out road bands Benjamin called home Bennie Hill.  Bennie Hill was the best known of the evangelistic preachers at the House of David.  He spent almost his entire career on the road preaching.  Most of that time was spent on street corners and in lecture halls.  During the early 1920ís he became a road manager for the band.

     As Bennieís letters home and the correspondence of other band members make clear a major objective of the traveling bands like the street corner preachers was spreading the word of the messenger.  Bennie and the rest of the band members took every opportunity to place articles about the Israelite religion in local papers and to give lectures about their faith both at the theaters where the bands appeared and at other venues in the same towns where the bands played.

    (35) Before the turn of the century the most popular band and dance music was the march.  John Phillip Sousa was famous as the March King and new dances such as the Foxtrot and Ragtime with their syncopated rhythms were the latest fad.  Large brass bands were the popular musical group of the time.  The original House of David road bands were formed as twenty piece brass bands.

     The 20-member brass band began touring on the Vaudeville Circuits shortly after the Eden Springs Park opened in 1908.  The band toured mainly during the fall, winter and spring.  In the warmer months most band members provided entertainment at Eden Springs or went back on the road as baseball players in the colonies famous ball teams.

     By 1920 the 20-member march band had moved from marches to Jazz making the House of David Band a pioneer in the performance of early Jazz.

    (36Movie footage available On March 24th, 1920 Bennie Hill wrote to Mary and Benjamin from New York City: "Tomorrow morning we have to get up early, have our breakfast and be in our uniforms with our horns ready by 9:00 AM.  Then we board a large bus to take us to City Hall to play for the mayor.  After that we are to make a speech on our faith."

    (37) By the early 1920ís popular music in the United States was undergoing a Jazz revolution.  It appears that the twenty-piece House of David road band was playing Jazz no later than 1919.  Late in 1920 the band reorganized as two ten piece bands to focus exclusively on playing Jazz.  Gone were the big brass band and the marches.  This new arrangement usually consisted of two coronets, two saxophones, two trombones, a tuba, a banjo, a piano and drums.  It was optimized for playing early Jazz, now known as "Classic" or "Hot" Jazz.

    (38) Life on the road for the House of David bands was not easy.  While they often would play one theater for a week or more sometimes they would play just one or two performances and be back on the road again with little time to care for their woolen uniforms, instruments, long hair or beards.  Often they got little sleep and it was always a struggle to procure proper lodgings and vegetarian food.

    (39) Theatre chains owned theaters across the country.  Each chain contracted acts to appear in their chain exclusively.  A contracted act would travel across the county appearing in the theaters of the chain they were contracted to.  This was called traveling the circuit.

    (40) The House of David Bands were promoted as a novelty act on the circuit.  While by all accounts the quality of their music and performance was first rate, being an oddity always helped pull in the crowds.

    (41Movie footage available Band member Frank Rossetta, shows the biggest novelty of the House of David Band - long hair and beards.  From 1910 through the 1920s when the road bands were active the popular style was short hair and shaved faces.

    (42) Because the men of the House of David neither cut their hair nor shaved their faces they were viewed as an oddity.

    (43) The late 1920ís marked the end of the road bands.  Legal troubles with former members and the State of Michigan plagued the House of David throughout the decade resulting in bad press.

     The death of Benjamin and the division of the colony at the end of the decade further robbed the road bands of their purpose and motivation.  Where the bands had once pulled together they now pulled apart.  As did the rest of the membership they no longer had the common purpose that had made them a musical phenomena.

    (44) Never again would the House of David field road bands.  But music would continue to be an important part of the entertainment at Eden Springs Park and other local venues.

    (45) Over the following years the commercial bands became more mundane as paid non-members gradually filled their ranks.  Eden Springs Park closed in the early 1970s.  In the last few years, music consisted of one hired organ player.

    (46) In retrospect it is hard to judge how important the music of House of David was.  The bands played to huge audiences and enthusiastic reviewers across the United States before and during the early days of Jazz.  Contemporary accounts consistently describe them as top musicians but while the baseball teamís position in history is secure the echo of the road bandís music seems to have faded almost as quickly as the bands themselves.

    (47) The House of David road bands are forgotten today because there are no surviving sound recordings of the bands.  While there is evidence that they recorded professionally no recording of these famous bands has come to light over our investigation of several years.

     The history of Jazz is written in the music of these early recordings.  Contemporaries with less fame and probably less talent than the House of David bands made many of the early Jazz recordings that exist today.  Because their recordings survived these other bands are known today as the pioneers of Jazz.

     Two tantalizing artifacts of the House of David band legacy do survive.  One of these was a song that became a Jazz classic and a fiddle tune standard.  The other is an early House of David band member who helped immortalize that song and became a pioneering legend of early Jazz in his own right.

    (48) The House of David Blues was published in 1923 by a writing team headed by Elmer Schoebel.  Together they wrote many of the most popular Jazz tunes of that era.  In a 1968 interview Schoebel related that a representative from Robbins, a New York music publisher had found them in a Chicago cafť and charged them with writing a tune that would capitalize on the publicity about the House of David at the time.  Schoebel claims the House of David Blues was written in one hour.

    (49) By the end of 1923, no less than 9 different versions of the tune had already been recorded and released on about 27 different record labels.  The House of David Blues has been recorded many times in the eighty years since then.  It evolved from a popular hit tune into a jazz standard, and later became a fiddle mainstay of the Grand Olí Opry.  In the process it slipped into the vernacular.  Today few know the original words and the famous bands they memorialized.

     Perhaps the version that is closest to the way the House of David bands played the tune is the first recorded version done by Elmer Schoebelís own band in 1923...

The following track is sampled using the MP3 format.

Hear this song! "The House of David Blues"

    (50) Years later House of David musician and conductor Manna Woodworth claimed that he wrote the House of David Blues.  There may be evidence that the House of David was using it as their theme song prior to the Schoebel publication in 1923.  Since Schoebel and the House of David band were continuously crossing paths he could have seen the House of David bands perform it and, without the stringent protection of modern copyright laws, simply "adapted" it to fit their needs.

     We are surveying source material to see if identifying the earliest documented performance by the House of David can substantiate this story.  Sources identified so far prove that the House of David was playing it as their theme song in 1925, two years after the Schoebelís publication date.

    (51) Whoever wrote it The House of David Blues was used as the theme song for the House of David traveling bands and sport teams.  Legend has it that when House of David basketball teams played the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1930ís the Trotters came up with the theme song "Sweet Georgia Brown" to compete with the intro used by the House of David teams.

    (52) When the musical Hannaford family followed Mary and Benjamin from Australia to Benton Harbor, the older brother of band leader Ezra "Cookie" Hannaford, named Ephraim Hannaford, played in the band that marched from the train station to the colony.  He became an early member of the House of David band and was a first-rate trombone player.

     At some point in the early band years prior to 1920 Ephraim left the band and the colony.  Band correspondence from the early 20ís are filled with warm references to "Eph" and sorrow over his departure from the colony.  So far we have no evidence as to why he left.  After Ephís departure they often met on the road when he was with other bands.  Accounts of these meetings show they traded music and instruments.  Eph was always on the lookout for good deals on instruments for the House of David bands.

     After leaving the House of David Eph went on to become a legend in Jazz.  He was a regular in several famous early Jazz bands in both the Chicago and New York and featured on many early recordings.  He appears twice with different bands on surviving early recordings of The House of David Blues.

    (53) An unanswered question today is were the House of David bands true pioneers in the development, or only pioneers in the dissemination of Jazz?  The fact that they were promoted as a novelty act does not preclude innovation.  The novelty angle was played by many of the early Jazz bands that are considered innovators.  Neither did their fame, nor the fact that they reached their zenith during the birth of Jazz makes them Jazz innovators.

     While some Jazz musicians recognized as true innovators today were not fully appreciated in the time their genius was usually evident to their contemporaries and insured that their legacy survived in recordings.  This is not the case with the House of David bands.  The lives of true Jazz innovators were usually lives lived for their art.  Many of them were tragic figures that gave up everything else in life.  With the House of David musicians it was always about their faith.  The music was only a means to an end, not the end itself.  Perhaps this is the reason why Eph Hannaford left the House of David band.

     The House of David kept Jazz at armís length.  In the 1920ís Jazz wasnít considered a respectable art form.  Itís birth in New Orleans brothels and bars were still a recent event.  The term "synchopep" which was regularly used in marketing the House of David bands was a common euphuism for Jazz used by those who preferred to present jazz as a respectable middle class dance music.  In retrospect the Israeliteís faith and the society they invented while pursuing it was probably their greatest innovation.

A Note About the Authors...

     Over the past few years Keith Howard and Tom Meldrim of Kalamazoo have been gathering information about the musical traditions of the House of David to better understand itís historical significance.  Keithís interest was initially drawn to this topic when his hobby of collecting old post cards and an interest in the early development of Jazz found common ground in the House of David.  Tomís interest stems from a family tradition, childhood experiences and an interest in preserving House of David history.

From the Authors...

     We felt this aspect of House of David history has not been fully detailed in contemporary accounts.  One reason for this lack of exposure is that little information is available today about a phenomena that reached its zenith in the early years of the 20th century.  In contrast the House of David baseball tradition continued on for an additional thirty years and is better known today.

     Describing the way their experiences and beliefs created their music, how they were changed by their music and how their music affected the rest of the world is the purpose of our project.

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Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies
Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies Israelite House of David: One of America's Most Famous Communal Societies