Ode to Joy


Eisenstaedt's Ode to Joy


On October 30, 1950, Life magazine carried what is arguably the most widely seen and possibly the best photograph ever made at the University of Michigan. It shows an exuberant drum major—head thrust back, right leg thrust forward at an impossible angle—marching from right to left across a close-cut field. Seven children bounce along behind him in ragged single-file, their own heads thrown back in imitation. In the background, four stately trees seem to march in a procession of their own.

The photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995), the great Time-Life photographer who specialized in capturing spontaneous images that told an entire story, the best-known example being a sailor’s passionate embrace of a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day in 1945.

In the fall of 1950 Eisenstaedt was in Ann Arbor on assignment from Life, then monumentally popular, to shoot a feature package on the Michigan Marching Band. The assignment testified to the extraordinary prestige of the band and especially of its director, William D. Revelli, director of U-M bands from 1935 to 1971.

Revelli made the Marching Band the nation’s best by a combination of personal dedication (at the start of his career, at his own expense and on his own time, he devoted ten years of training and practice to mastering the principal band instruments); the highest standards (“Revelli was not fussy,” a drummer of the 1930s recalled much later, “we just had to be perfect”); and charisma.

Other band directors said their students played better for Revelli, as a guest conductor, than for themselves. U-M leaders deferred to him. Don Canham, a legendary figure in his own right as athletic director from 1968 to 1988, once said: “I wouldn’t have dared tell Revelli what to do.” The commander-conductor of the U.S. Air Force Band declared that “football has its Vince Lombardi, Symphony Orchestra has its Toscanini, the film industry its John Wayne. The bigger than life figure in the history of the American Band movement is clearly Dr. William D. Revelli.”

In the Marching Band (only one of several U-M bands under his supervision), Revelli forged an instrument with a rare power to inspire and thrill. Its surging, wheeling ranks somehow combined flawless precision with a kind of wild exuberance. That was the ineffable quality that Eisenstaedt saw materializing before his eyes that afternoon in 1950—even though not a single musician appears in the picture.

The setting appears to be Ferry Field, looking north toward what was then called Yost Field House, now Yost Ice Arena. The long brick wall bordered State Street about where Schembechler Hall stands now.

As he recalled it later, Eisenstaedt already that week had shot many pictures of “the usual things: the formations, the rehearsing, and so on.” He was wandering on the athletic campus when he caught sight of the drum major—it was Dick Smith—rehearsing all alone. Kids were playing nearby, and “they saw him, too,” Eisenstaedt said, “and all of a sudden they ran out and began to mimic him. It happened so quickly that I barely had time to focus.”

At least two superb photographs of the drum major and the children resulted. Both have been reprinted, but only the one that appeared in Life became famous. Revelli never forgot the coverage. “I think that for our marching band,” he told an interviewer more than 30 years later, “that article was the greatest thing that ever happened.”

The photography critic David Friend, a veteran editor at Life and Vanity Fair, has noted that while Eisenstaedt took well-known pictures of celebrities from Winston Churchill to Jacqueline Kennedy, his best works, like those of Frank Capra on film and Norman Rockwell in portraiture, were “the ones that distilled everyday life to its essential joie de vivre.” They captured “the ebullient moment.” The image of the strutting drum major and the kids, Friend said, was Eisenstaedt’s “ode to joy.”

In a memoir, Eisenstaedt wrote: “People sometimes ask me, ‘When you go off on an assignment, what do you have in mind?’ The truth is, unless the briefing from the editors is very specific, I don’t usually know. I may have nothing consciously in mind. I have to see things first. You never know what you’ll discover.”

Sources included Alfred Eisenstaedt and Arthur A. Goldberg, “The Eye of Eisenstaedt” (1969); Grace Shackman, “The Band Master,” Ann Arbor Observer, December 1991; “The Story Behind a Famous Photo,” Ann Arbor Observer, September 1979; Gregory L. Talford, “William D. Revelli: An Introspective Study” (Master’s thesis, Central Michigan University, 1985); and David Friend, “Eisenstaedt’s Ode to Joy,” The Digital Journalist.


  1. Doug Dunn - 1967

    When that photo was taken, I would have been about the same age as the first kid in line. Our family spent several summers on Martha’s Vineyard as did Mr Eisenstaedt. Because my wife and I met at Michigan,we bought a copy of that picture which he was kind enough to sign. It graced my office in NY for many years and now is in our home. Thanks for providing more background on the picture.


  2. Fran Wright - 1964

    Now we need to know who those children are that are following the drum major.
    This photograph was also in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit and is included in the book Family of Man which must have been the “catalogue” for the exhibit from about 1955.


    • Laurie Olm - U of M 1962

      I am one of those “totally neighborhood” kids. We never know pictures were being taken… totally surprised when they appeared in LIFE magazine… We played there every day with the band…


    • Anika Scholten

      My grandmother is the little girl in the back of the line. She always tells me stories about her and the boys also featured in this photograph, such an amazing thing to look back on!


  3. Mike Altese - AB 89; PharmD 98

    I always thought this was in the former courtyard/field right next to the school of education on E. University. There is a building there now. I guess I can see the Ferry Field too, but in my mind it will always be that long forgotten patch of land by the School of Ed.


  4. Wystan Stevens - 1970

    Mike: No, this is definitely Ferry Field. The School of Education field lacked Ferry Field’s monumental brick wall.
    Fran, the children here were all identified, in a story about this photo that ran in the Ann Arbor Observer, a couple of decades ago.


  5. Barry Garelick - 1971

    I had the honor of being in the Michigan Marching Band in 67 and 68 under William D. Revelli and the great George Cavender. His speech at the annual indoctrination for both new and old members of the Band in August always stayed with me. “No one tells you to have spirit in the Michigan Band. But we’ve always had it. And I still get a thrill when I see the band come running out of the tunnel onto the field; I have for the past thirty years, and I always will.” A great man, and a great band.


  6. Wendy Diehl

    Former President Bill Clinton claimed that this was one of his all-time favorite photos.


  7. Donald Faloon - 1969

    The football practice field in the fall of 1965 was right where the drum major and children are marching, and to the west. You could hear the Dr. Revelli’s Marching Band practice. They played with such power and spirited tempo. I had walked on to try out for football, and hearing the inspirational sound of the band as part of that experience was remarkable and unforgettable.


  8. Warren Cohen - 1985

    This is one of the many things that makes Michigan so special. I only wish our football and basketball team could return to such glory. After all, we are the leaders and the best.


  9. Craig Harabedian - 2009

    I had always heard the story that 11 different people claimed that they were the seven children in the photo. It is funny that a similar situation of mistaken identity occurred with Eisenstaedt’s other famous photo of the sailor and nurse in Time’s Square.


    • Anika Scholten

      I’ve heard about those stories too. My grandmother is the little girl in the very back of the line. She can name every single one of the boys in the photo including many stories I could hear any day! Her father worked alongside of Eisenstaedt. We have been trying to connect lately with the other people in the photo to have a reunion and remake of this!


  10. Julie Jones Medlin - 1958

    I lived in Betsy Barbour and we were allowed to ask a faculty member for dinner on occasion. I asked Mr. Revelli and he and his wife graciously accepted. They were most charming. I have a photo taken December 1956 of the 3 of us chatting after dinner. I would be glad to send a copy if you would like it for your archives. Julie Jones Medlin


  11. Norman Sparks - 1953 Engineering

    Besides being an extraordinary director and motivator, Dr. Revelli had an uncanny ability to recognize a budding musician. I had the privilege of playing under this greatest of directors from 1950-1952. About 1959 we took our three sons to a Bandorama concert in Hill Auditorium. Backstage, Dr. Revelli shook the hand of our then three-year-old David and said, “Someday, son, you will play on this stage”. David remembers the comment to this day. He did indeed grow up to play the trumpet in the MMB ’76-’79 under Dr. Revelli and the great Prof.George Cavender, including Bandoramas at Hill Auditorium and three trips to the Rose Bowl.


  12. Caroline Smith - 1957

    Those of us who grew up in “lower Burns Park” remember the Revelli family fondly. Rosemary, their daughter, was in our class, and we often saw the Revelli family out and about the neighborhood. In much later years, Dr and Mrs Revelli walked to the NEW Kroger store on Industrial regularly, and we always worried about them crossing busy Stadium Boulevard.


  13. Virginia Wilson - 1965

    From my student apartment on South Division, I listened to the UofM Marching Band as they practiced. It was always thrilling, having accompanied my parents to UofM games when I was younger (they had met as students at UofM) The Eisenstaedt photo has been one of my favorites from The Family of Man collection. How cool to know the story brings all of my favorite things together!


  14. Robert Chartrand - 1960

    I have so many memories of the “Chief” is hard to pick any particular one. I remember a trip fo Chicago for the Northwestern game when Dr. Revelli was standing in the lobby of the Sherman Hotel in uniform waiting for the band to assemble when a little old lady, apparently mistaking for the door man handed him her bag and asked him to place her bag on the elevator. And, being the gentleman he was, he did so. And she, in turn, handed him a tip which he kept! For many years afterward he always said that if thing didn’t work out at Michigan he had another job he could fall back on.
    Bob Chartrand
    Past President of the Band Alumni Assoc.


  15. Marion K."Bud" Snook - 1948

    I was in the MMB in ’45 while in the Navy ROTC, and will never forget I almost fainted when we emerged from the tunnel into “the limelight” at the first home game and beheld the huge crowd in the Big House all around us. Back as a civilian in ’46 I couldn’t find time, but in late ’47 Dr. Revelli needed some volunteers from former members to fill out the band for the Rose Bowl trip, and I was accepted. What a thrill that was, a once in a lifetime experience, with UM emerging as the National Champions after beating USC 49-0!
    Dr. Revelli was a great leader.


  16. Thomas Brush - 1956

    I recall a comment attributed to Dr. Revelli concerning the start of band practice.
    If you get there early, you are on time. If you get there on time, you are late. If you get there late you are gone.
    Everyone got there early!


  17. Leslie Polgar - 1965

    As a freshman in Sep. 1965, I came from Ohio\’s top High School Band (Cleveland Heights), but nothing prepared me for Revelli\’s absolute dedication for perfection. Nothing less. Although I was in the Mich Marching Bnd for just that year, Revelli\’s work ethic benefited my entire career. Thanks for a great article!


  18. Jonathan Chase - 1973

    Though I was an Engineering major, I marched all four years, from 1969 to 1972. As a senior, I was privileged as a rank leader to lead one of the files out of the tunnel for the legendary pregame ritual. Nothing matches the excitement of being the spark which ignites the energy in Michigan Stadium — and everybody in Ann Arbor knows it, even the kids!
    Strangely, after my Dad died in 1993, my uncle arrived at the house and pulled the “Best of Life” photo book from the bookcase. He immediately turned to that Eisenstaedt shot and explained to me that he had worked for many years with Dick Smith at Borg-Warner.
    It’s a small world for Michigan band members!


  19. James Gardner - 1969

    I played in the Symphony Band and I will never forget those precious years of being surrounded by so many great players. He was so inspiring and worked harder4 than any student sitting in that band. I’ve posted several performances on youtube. If you type in my id – maestrojimbo you’ll see the many videos there. Enjoy!


  20. Patricia Engle

    How can I get a copy of this that I could frame?

    You can purchase the image from Getty Images.


  21. John Strobel - 1960 & 1968

    Everyone talks about Dr. Revelli’s insistance on perfection, and they are Oh, so right! When he got on the podium in front of the Band he demanded the very best and wouldn’t back down until he got it. But no one talks about the kind, compassionate person behind that. We all cursed him after a rehearsal but when my wife first met him she said, “How can you talk so about that nice man?” And one day I went to him (he was my Advisor) and said I wouldn’t be back next semester; I had to lay out and work because I didn’t have enough money for my tuition. He said he was sorry to hear that and nothing more. The next day I was summoned to the SAB and informed that the Alumni Association was going to pay my tuition for the next semester. Dr. Revelli was there for bandmembers when we needed him.


  22. Jan Holland - 1973 & 1977

    I was in Dr. Revelli’s Symphony Band his last year @ MI (women weren’t allowed yet in the Marching Band. I always went into rehearsal petrified that Dr, Revelli would “go down the line”. It isn’t a good experience. I wouldn’t trade that one year of trepidation for anything. His demanding perfection & a group of wonderful musicians made the band great. After Title IX women were allowed in the marching band and I was proud to play in it under the direction of George Cavender, another great experiences.


  23. James Mackie - 1950 1956

    In the spring of 1950 I was in the U of M Symphonic Band, sitting in one of the buses that was carrying the band to Bay city for a concert. On our bus was a photographer with a couple of Leicas, snapping pictures right and left. He sat down next to me to reload and and I found out he was the famous Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. I started asking him questions and he took and interest in me. We wound up talking for 10-15 minutes. He was so kind and generous to me.
    He told me he was on assignment for Life Magazine – he planned on taking 2000-3500 pictures on a three day shoot and the rolls would be sent to an editor at the Life office in NYC. He advised me to take a lot of pictures and only show the best ones. I told him I would be graduating in a few months and asked what I should buy for a good camera. He said for all around use you can’t beat a Rolleiflex. I still have the Rolleiflex I bought when I graduated. Ever since I tell people I studied photography with Alfred Eisenstaedt.
    The picture in the story was made on a follow up assignment. I never have seen any pictures from that band trip in the spring of 1950.


  24. kenneth copp - 1955

    I was a freshman in fall 1950 so saw this drum major in action. Fast forward to fall 1954 when I was selected as the student Michigan stadium announcer for the MMB & therefore had the privilege of working with Dr Revelli & George Cavender. An exciting & memorable time.


  25. George Lotzenhiser

    I enjoy Michigan Today and the many other publications I receive from the U of M. I was particularly interested and amused with a publication from there that centered around Dr. William Revelli, the late conductor of the U of M Band(s). I entered the U of M in 1947 on a graduate fellowship in pursuit of a Master of Music degree. I assisted in the operation of the U of M Marching Band and in the performances with that unit as well as with the Symphonic Band. The article had asked him a number of questions about his recollections in connection with those units. He alluded to some long-remembered incidents and he also related to an event in which I was the “key” to one of the “worst” events! The band was performing on the football field… at mid-game.. 120 strong.. moving down the middle of the filed… Playing the Indiana Fight Song. That entire block of musicians all stopped on the 50 yard line (EXCEPT THE RIGHT GUIDE IN THE FRONT RANK — ME). I had been responsible for designing the show AND HAD INSISTED that standing still in a big block for a whole chorus of the “enemy’s fight song was terrible showmanship”…continued an extra 10 yards…turned smartly and blasted out to the entire crowd on that side of the formation and field.
    Power of positive thinking… but created some doubt in my mind that I would ever finish my degree… even though I had many other WW2 veterans in my camp… All of that aside… I really do appreciate the fine quality of material coming from the University and having just celebrated my 90th, fully intend to enjoy your periodicals for many more to come.


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