Harold Josiah Crosby, Composer;
Dexter’s Native Son
(Feb 11, 1886 – Jan 18, 1920)
Nothing is more stirring musically than a good march, a good march to set your toes to tapping and to get your heart beating. And when you think of the great marches, you think of the Kings of Marches, John Phillips Sousa, Maine’s own R. B. Hall, and Henry Fillmore, the “biggies”. For you band members out there, young and old, current and past, many are the hours and days we spent trying to master the intricacies of The Stars and Stripes, Officer of the Day, or Americans We, with their tricky rhythms and challenging trios. But often forgotten among the March Kings is Harold Josiah Crosby, a Dexter (ME) native whose life and musical career were cut short at age 33, long before he could reach his full potential and greatness as a composer, putting his name among the remembered few.
Harold Josiah Crosby was born on February 11, 1886, and began his musical career under the tutelage of his parents, Josiah Willis Crosby (an attorney) and Fanny Dearth Crosby, both accomplished musicians themselves. At a young age he began playing piano, composing music, and learning other instruments, particularly the trombone and baritone. He mastered these musical skills as a child, and at his graduation from Dexter High School in 1904, the school orchestra played one of his earliest compositions, The Commencement March. A year later, at age 19, Crosby conducted the school orchestra’s presentation of his original composition, Concert of Nations.
After high school, Crosby took courses at Colby College, the University of Maine, and the New England Conservatory of Music, yet he never completed a degree program. During this time, he continued to compose marches, several of which had been published by the time he turned twenty. In 1910, he left Maine for Boston where he played in pit orchestras for the Boston Globe Theater and the Columbia Theater and with various concert bands in the Boston area. It was in Boston, too, on April 23, 1910, that he married Harriet Thompkins (b. 1882 in Dixfield, ME), a woman three years his senior; we know, too, that he had a daughter, Louise C. who died in 1934. In 1918, a young entrepreneur, he established the Harold J. Crosby Publishing Company of Boston, selling his own work and the works of others. In this same year, on Sep 12, he registered for the Draft for World War I. His draft card lists him a tall with a medium build, blue eyes, and light brown hair. His new wife is listed as next of kin and his occupation is shown as a Theater Organist for the Columbia Theater of Boston.
His marches, distinct from his March contemporaries such as John Phillip Sousa, were often described as “exciting and distinctive” for which they found wide acceptance in their day. Because of the popularity of his music, he often merited full page advertisements in leading band journals of the first two decades of the century. In its heyday, the H. J. Crosby Publishing Company catalog listed 30 of his popular military regimental marches, many of which were written during World War I, explaining the prevalence of patriotic titles. It is these regimental marches that “earned him an important place in the history of band music”; however, “with few exceptions, his marches are rarely heard today.”
While relatively little is known about Crosby and his marches are rarely heard, he was, at one time, recognized as one of the major contributors to American marches. His music was featured on a multi-volume collection of March music played by the United States Navy Band. This collection, called Heritage of the March, highlighted the great composers throughout the history of marches as a musical form. Volume 13 is dedicated to him and contains eight of his more popular marches, to include the Battleship California March, a piece commissioned by the United States Navy in 1914, The United States Navy, and Citizen’s Pride.
It was reported by one biographer of Crosby that in 1919, four months before he died, Crosby was a guest conductor for the John Phillips Sousa Band at Symphony Hall in Boston, conducting four of his own Marches; Sousa was so impressed by the marches and by Crosby that he announced he was going to add these Marches to his nation-wide tour that season. However, this information could not be corroborated, but given Crosby’s popularity at the time, such an honor by Sousa is very probable, adding credence to Crosby’s oft overlooked importance to American Marches.
On January 18, 1920, in New York City, where he further sought fame and fortune, Harold Josiah Crosby died at age 33, “a sad end to a promising career.” One of the best known composers in the East, as he is described in his obituary, Crosby is buried in the family plot in the Elmwood Cemetery in Dexter, his name written across a musical staff on his gravestone.
Though he died young, his name, his legacy, and his music continue today. To honor him, one of their own, the Dexter (ME) Community Band recently changed its name to the Harold J. Crosby Community Band of Dexter, Maine. The band falls under the auspices of the Carl R. Cutherbert Community Band Foundation, a 501(c) nonprofit dedicated to music education and preserving musical archives. This foundation currently owns the rights to H. J. Crosby’s marches, making them available to the H. J. Crosby Band and other bands throughout the state. Though his marches may not be as well-known as Sousa’s, Hall’s, or Fillmore’s, they have become a mainstay of the Harold J. Crosby Community Band of Dexter; at every concert, the band performs at least one, and often more, of his Regimental Marches. . The band’s repertoire includes such Crosby greats as Leading the Parade, Citizen’s Pride, Queen of the Fleet, Liberty Forever, and his little known Waltz, In a Rose Garden, among others. In the fall of 2016, the band will be hosting a Band Camp devoted almost exclusively to Crosby’s music, to share our love of those great marches with a much larger audience.
We can only speculate about the influence Crosby could have had on American marches and American music. But for those of us in the Dexter region, and particularly those of us who play his music as part of the H.J. Crosby Community Band, he will always be one of the great March Kings of the era, deserving of a place among the more recognizable names of John Phillip Sousa, R. B. Hall, and Henry Fillmore; most of all, he will always be one of us, Dexter’s native son, Harold Josiah Crosby.