From the early 1920s until his death in 1974, Warrenton's Chauncey Depew Brown sang and played in numerous musicales in the Piedmont. His was not a great tenor voice, but his energy captivated audiences. He rarely sang a word you couldn't understand.
Now, for the first time, a CD of his music is available for purchase.
The foresighted recorder was Warrenton's Harold Spencer, who had an intimate connection with the Brown family since his birth: In the early 1930s, Georgia White Brown, Chauncey Brown's wife, was Spencer's baby nurse.
Spencer told me recently that he had wanted to record Brown singing and playing guitar since July 1951, when he and other teenagers from Fauquier and lower Loudoun counties danced to his music at Buchanan Hall, a little-used and frowzy community center in Upperville.
"The idea was Bunny [Mary] Burrell's. She was at Sweet Briar [College]. I was at Hampden-Sydney," Spencer said. "There was very little going on in the summertime. It was a word-of-mouth party."
The little party expanded over the next few years into a series of galas, announced by postcards that Burrell mailed to friends. Brown always played, accompanied by four other musicians. He knew how to be part of the crowd, strolling among dancers and lookers-on as he sang and played his Gibson guitar to a steady jazz beat. He regularly began the easy-to-listen-to repertoire with "Sweet Georgia Brown," a greeting to his wife, who minded the cloakroom at Buchanan Hall.
Spencer recalled that when the crowd wanted to dance past Brown's contracted time, Brown would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to pass the hat."
Then, Spencer said, "he'd play as long as the excitement lasted" -- usually until about 1 a.m. When Brown sensed that the party was over, "Goodnight Ladies" ended the festivities.
In 1964, the '50s set from Upperville decided to have a reunion at Buchanan Hall on the night of the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase, the first Saturday in May. By then Spencer was an investment banker in New York.
He had always regretted not recording Brown, and so he rented a valise-size Webcor tape recorder from 42nd Street Photo.
"Chauncey knew it was big on my mind" to record him, Spencer said, "and he thought it was great. To get better sound, with duct tape he fastened his mike to my mike."
At Buchanan Hall that evening, Spencer recorded four hours of Brown's music, regretting that the tape ran out before "Goodnight Ladies."
After that evening, Spencer told Brown, "One of these days, 25 years after you're gone, we're going to have a hilarious party with your music."
Spencer told me Brown replied: "Glad you're going to remember me that way. Don't forget me."
"Chauncey," Spencer responded, "we'll never forget you."
Through five moves in ensuing years, Spencer kept the tapes in their original cardboard containers and saw to it that they didn't get damp, dry or hot. Friends often reminded him: "Gosh, you've got those Chauncey Brown tapes. When are you going to copy them?"
Meanwhile, Buchanan Hall was falling on hard times.
The building had been completed in 1933 at the height of the Depression. It was named after Gen. James A. Buchanan, who lived north of Upperville at Ayrshire and who had given the initial bequest for its construction.
The hall's trustees had been renting it out for years and years, but not always to the best clientele.
An undated note to the trustees was found a few years ago: "I had little problem last with some guys fighting [over] girls, so the security guards put him out so shoot in the air two or three times I call the sheriff [but] I take care of the problem for now on out no drinks is allowed and no ins and outs. Thank you Romeo Ferguson."
Another note from Ferguson read, in part: "To the hustlers, leave the guns at home or in your cars . . . this is a nice place to have fun at think about it! No go-go no money!"
By 2000, Buchanan Hall was derelict, and locals decided it was time to restore the structure and grounds.
Spencer attended a fundraiser at the hall and told John Zugschwert, a board member, about the tapes and how their release and sale could benefit the restoration. Zugschwert thought it was a great idea.
Spencer set about finding another Webcor tape recorder so he could hear how the 40-year-old tapes had weathered.
"When I heard how well the sound had held up, I connected the Webcor to my computer with a German program called 'Nero IV' " -- named for the incendiary Roman emperor "because you're burning a CD," Spencer told me.
He then edited the original, "keeping the songs we all know," Spencer said.
Video Labs of Rockville converted the edited tape into a CD.
"It's Time to Pass the Hat" is Spencer's title for the disc, and toward its close you can clearly hear Brown saying those words. An animated "Sweet Georgia Brown," augmented by a blazing trumpet, begins the songfest. A duet, "I Love You, Yes I Do," with Armond Cole singing melody and Brown harmonizing in falsetto, ends a vibrant 55 minutes of out-of-the-past musicmaking.
The rare Chauncey Brown CD costs $20, and proceeds benefit the upkeep of Buchanan Hall. For information, call 540-592-3455 or e-mail
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.