Arts & EntertainmentSpotlight

The History of Tacoma’s Music Entertainment

Tacoma has one of the most unique music scenes of all time. The artists that Tacoma produces are truly inspiring. This isn’t news to anyone that lives here though. Tacoma has a rich heritage of music that dates back all the way to the early 1900s. But what happened to all the folk instruments? The early 1900s was full of them. Bagpipes, banjos, accordions, harmonicas, ukuleles, all these instruments had a much bigger presence in the early days of the downtown Tacoma music scene.

For instance, how often do you see people playing accordion outside of Andrea’s Keller in Leavenworth? Not very often I would imagine, well in the early 1900s that would have been different. A band of 28 accordionists come together to form Tacoma’s All Accordion Band. This band performed on Broadway Street in the Jubilee Parade in 1940. Folk instruments were apart of mainstream life style at the time. Music stores such as Ted Brown Music on Broadway Street had full windows displays of harmonicas for the public to gawk at. In today’s time all you see is guitar players and singers wanting to start the next Van Halen. The early 1900s was all about heritage and culture; bring different music styles and different instrument talents from all around the world.

The symphonies and orchestras that occupied downtown Tacoma is what started it all. In 1910, Swedish violinist Olof Bull was the first director to conduct the Tacoma Symphony. The Tacoma Symphony was the first representation of high caliber symphonic music entertainment in Tacoma. This symphony focused on giving their audience the best quality music they could perform, for the sole purpose to entertain.

The question still remains: what happened to the folk instruments of the early 1900s? It’s hard to say. It could have been the Great Depression. The depression had devastating affects nationwide. We can see evidence of this here in Tacoma. In the 1900s you can see an emergence of one-man bands. In the 1930s and ‘40s you might see a musician playing up to 3 or 4 instruments at a time. A musician would play instruments such as guitar, mandolin, harmonica and even drums all at once. The Great Depression had an affect on the scene, but it could not get rid of the folk instrument. If anything rock n’ roll was the reason for the disappearance of the folk instruments. Bands such The Ventures, The Fabulous Wailers and other Tacoma acts used guitars and horns primarily for their sound. The vast popularity of these groups shows that the public started to view the accordion and the bagpipe as nerdy. The folk instrument never truly died though.

Today we are seeing a reemergence of the folk instruments. Instruments such as the banjo, the harmonica, and especially the ukulele are becoming more and more popular with the public in current times. When I say public, I mean in particularly the social group known as the hipsters. We have seen this trend similarly in the 1960s with the hippies. Folk instruments such as mandolins, sitars and nylon string guitars were vastly popular, just like today with ukuleles and the banjo becoming popular. The type of music that is popular dictates the types of instruments that the public will often play. The folk instruments may have disappeared for a while after the early 1900s, but they will never truly disappear. Folk instruments will always recycle themselves with the times.


Illustration by Danielle Burch.