The Jacksonville State University marching band recently performed at a Tech football game. The Marching Southerners, as the band is formally called, presented the closer featuring Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The half-time show was inspired by the famous James Bond movie From Russia with Love.
“Our show ends with very fast, powerful, dark sounds and we figured a good way to go out with a boom would be to use the [hammer and sickle] and lots of red at the end of the song,” said JSU tenor saxophone player Antonio Ferrell.
The show featured color guard performers wearing the infamous hammer-and-sickle symbol. The flags used in the performance also bore the flag of the former Soviet Union. According to a widely circulated e-mail from Head Band Director Ken Bodiford, the color guards were representing Russian sailors and add to a large set of ending visual effects.
“Since our musical repertoire consists of all Russian composers, as a design team, we though that it best represented the theme of our program if we displayed the essence of the Russian flag of that time period. We assumed that our audiences would be able to make the connection with these amazing Russian compositions with the Russian flags at the end of the show,” said Kenneth Bodiford, the band director at JSU.
The hammer and sickle was widely used as a symbol of Soviet Communism by representing industrial and agricultural workers, and the emblem was used as part of the official Soviet flag from 1923 to 1991.
The song featured at the show was written by Shostakovich in protest against Communism. Written in 1937, the Symphony No. 5 was described as criticism of the oppressive nature of the Soviet regime and expresses an artist struggling in oppression.
The band is not new in the field of using symbols with strong political and social overtones. A few years ago they formerly used the Confederate flag as part of the symbol for its organization. The band currently uses the letter ‘S’.
“Years ago we did not use a Confederate logo to be racist or anything of that nature,” Ferrell stated.
“The Southerners have always held a standard of excellence in performance and ethics. There was never any intention to make anyone uncomfortable I’m sure, however everyone is going to have a problem with anything anyone does. So what can you do? If it offends anyone I hope they look past the effects and listen to the music,” said former Jacksonville State marching band member Michelle Amosu.
“Our show has been announced and planned for months now, way before the Russia-Georgia conflict started. [The directors] assumed our audience would make the connection between our Russian music and the symbol. We of course were not expecting this new conflict with Russia to occur,” Ferrell stated.
Those at the game expressed mixed opinions about the wide use of Communist symbols. One Tech professor who attended the game does not believe that the show was promoting Communist ideology.
“Having grown up during the Cold War era, I thought how incredible it was that our times had changed such that having several dozen hammer and sickle emblazoned flags waving at halftime did not raise a chorus of boos or lead to an investigation by McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee,” said Jud Ready, a professor at the MSE department at Georgia Tech.
On the other hand, some JSU alumni questioned the band director with similar expressions to that of Tech marching band student Alex Viera: “If they did a salute to German composers would they automatically use the swastika?”
“If people thought this flag waving was somehow about supporting Communism, they need to quit watching Red Dawn re-runs [or] they [have] undergone much more indoctrination than I have against the pinko commies,” Ready said.
Nevertheless, in the face of wide criticism, the top personnel have ordered that Soviet symbols no longer be used during the show.
“I have instructed my assistants and staff to strip the production of any Russian symbols in the show. The visual program and ideas will be limited, just as any other typical college band,” the band director said.
“Because of the unexpected reaction and controversy we have taken the hammer and sickle off the color guard uniform and they are no longer using the Soviet flags,” Ferrell said.