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We Were the General’s Band

Clifton Springs, N.Y. — In 1942, Bob Wadsworth was supposed to ship overseas as a radio operator. But the military soon got wind his talents lay elsewhere.

He was whistling a fiddle tune one day while on duty stateside, he recalled, when a fellow overheard him and asked if he could play in a band. No question about it, Wadsworth was the one to ask.

He’d picked up the violin when he was 5 years old and had been playing it ever since. He hadn’t brought a violin with him when he left home from Lyons, Wayne County, to serve in the Army, though. So he checked around and found a similar stringed instrument, a viola, and bought it for $25.

“Things happened quickly from there,” said Wadsworth, who learned the intricacies of the viola as fast as he could. Violin music is written in treble clef, while viola music is written in alto clef.

“I was supposed to be listening to code,” said Wadsworth, now 88, from his apartment in Ashton Place, “but instead I was writing down the clef … I taught myself the clef on government time.”

The government benefited from Wadsworth’s efforts. The small band he joined soon evolved into a six-piece ensemble that caught the attention of a general. “We played anything he asked for,” said Wadsworth, who continued his music career after the war, teaching at high schools and at Ithaca College. “We were the general’s band.”

They toured New England, playing for dinners and other fancy affairs for the top military brass, in symphony halls and other venues in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire. Then, it was overseas to Arctic sites where the band played at U.S. bases in Greenland, Newfoundland, Labrador and Iceland. Wadsworth recorded on the back of his viola all the places they played, writing the names in small, neat, permanent black ink.

That viola Wadsworth bought in 1942 is still the one he plays and gives lessons on from his apartment. One recent afternoon, he showed off the beautifully polished wood instrument in his spare bedroom, where he was also about to give a lesson to Midlakes sophomore John Himes.
The 15-year-old said he likes learning from Wadsworth because he teaches more than music.

“He has got a background,” said John, who found out about Wadsworth through his mom, Robin Himes, who works at Ashton Place. John already plays saxophone, guitar and drums, and was interested in learning the viola. “It took off from there,” he said.

Wadsworth enjoys sharing stories from his days in the general’s band, especially one about Marlene Dietrich, the famous German-born American singer and actress. Wadsworth said his band had just played at a base in Greenland and was about to leave for Iceland when Dietrich arrived to entertain the troops. “We were onstage when she did her show,” said Wadsworth, who recalled the starlet had a “stupid program — but she had on a red dress and that was the main factor.”

Dietrich was playing a saw, he said, making sounds on a bent saw blade with a cello bow. When she realized the general’s band was still backstage, after their own performance, she insisted they join her. Wadsworth said they played harmony to her attempts at playing a Hawaiian song. When the show was over, Dietrich wanted the general’s band to go with her on tour. But they declined, said Wadsworth: “We were afraid we’d lose our identity.”

Near the end of the war, Wadsworth was sent to the Pacific theater to be a rifleman. “That was a whole other ball game,” he said.

Then, the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war was over within days. That didn’t mean Wadsworth could go home, though. A warrant officer asked him if he played French horn. When Wadsworth said he did, the officer replied, “Fine. Then I want you.”

Wadsworth said he stayed on, playing horn for the Army until he was discharged in 1946.

“I’ve always done music whenever I could,” he said.