James Blain Beam | Easton’s “Music Man” of the early 20th century

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Photograph of James B. Beam provided by the Easton Kiwanis Club

Article submitted by: James D. Moyer

I have known about James Beam for some time, mostly from my family speaking of him.  I have always been involved in music, especially public school music programs while growing up in Easton. Oftentimes my grandmother, great aunts and even parents would mention “Mr. Beam” and that he would come around to their elementary classes with a tuning fork in hand and have them sing. He would sing “Good morning” or ‘What’s your name” and the student would answer back in a repeated “sol-mi” or descending minor third pattern. If you were involved in music at Easton High School, you were going to hear of Mr. James Beam.  My great aunt Iona Huff once said he would tap his thumb to index finger and say “beat, beat, ready, sing”.  She graduated from Easton HS in 1925 from what is now known as the “Governor Wolf” building. The class of 1925 was the last to graduate from this building before the high school moved to the 12th street building. Also, on a sad note for me as a lifelong music educator, Beam once told my father as an elementary student at Franklin School “you are a listener, not a singer”. To this day I have never heard my father sing, but will not dwell on this aspect in this article.


As I was in my office at Pennsbury High School one day watching choral music YouTube videos, I came across the Easton High School Choir under the direction of Mr. Pete Deshler singing the Easton High School Alma Mater – the music composed by James Beam.  Having attended Easton High School I knew Beam had composed this – and I knew that the text was written by former Easton High School Principal Mr. Elton E. Stone. We learned the Alma Mater in choir at Easton HS under our then director Mr. Edward W. Milisits II, and sang it at graduation. We played it in the band under director Mr. Gerald Bender at every football game while the cheerleaders led the singing by the crowd and student body. All of the student cheering section knows the line “Easton High School our High School so dear” if nothing else. Football games at Easton are filled with alumni on Friday nights – many of whom know the entire Alma Mater, but there’s just as many that only know the one line. We also learned the text/lyrics in Mr. Richard Grucela’s homeroom class. Grucela felt it was important that all EAHS students knew the school song – but I don’t remember ever being told about the men who created it.  However, watching this YouTube performance of all three stanzas, hearing the Alma Mater in its lilting triple meter, dancing like a waltz, intrigued me to find out more about this music man of my hometown. I knew there was more to Mr. Beam than just a school song.

James Blain Beam was born in Easton on 27 April 1886 to George Henry Beam (1846-1909) and Lucy Ann (Hope) Beam (1852-1936).  James was the 8th of their 12 children, and the family lived in Odenweldertown as late as 1897. The children were all born between the years 1874 and 1896.

On New Year’s Day 1909 just around 12 noon, George Henry Beam was fishing on the Lehigh River – here is an excerpt from his obituary in the Easton Argus of January 1, 1909:

“George Henry Beam, a well known resident of this city, was accidentally drowned in the Lehigh river opposite Dock and Franklin Street, at noon today while he was trying to take up a fish net. He was sixty-one years of age and resided at 1214 Elm Street.

Mr. Beam went across the river to within about ten feet of the south bank. While working with an oar it broke throwing him heading into the river. He was able to swim it is thought, but the cold water numbing him to such an extent that he was unable to help himself. His cries were heard by several boys who notified his sons-inlaw, Charles Bethman, Mathew Morrow and John Sigafoos, who reside nearby. Bethman jumped into a boat and Morrow and Sigafoos followed in another boat. They reached the place where Beam had gone under and recovered the body within ten minutes after it had disappeared. The body was taken to the residence of Manford Lantz, Dock and Franklin Street, where Dr. W.C. Roberts endeavored to resuscitate the unfortunate man.

From the back window of the house members of the family saw the husband and father drown. The children would not let the mother look, but calmed her as best they could, assuring her it was someone else in peril. They saw him stand in the water for a time and then sink as if he had been in bed with the cold or taken with a cramp.”

While there is no information that his parents were musical, several of his siblings were quite musical and known as excellent local singers.  Rebekah Beam was a well known educator and contralto in the Easton area, Lucy Beam Bethman was also a singer, and mother to C. Darl Bethman who was conductor of the Easton Oratorio Society, the Concordia Mannerchor as well as choral director at several local churches.  Ima Beam Conkey was also a well known contralto and involved in musical activities during her life in both Easton and Long Island, NY. Chester Beam lived on the South Side of Easton and was an active singer at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Berwick Street, and sang in many community musicals.

James Blain Beam’s music education began at the former Dock Street Chapel in Easton, this is where he took piano lessons around age 12 for .25/per lesson.  At the age of 14 he took over duties as the Sunday School pianist when the regular player moved away. Following his success in playing for the Sunday School his parents purchased him a Estey parlor organ (also called a harmonium) and his musical talent blossomed.  He attended the Easton public schools and graduated from Easton High School. After high school he attended the Easton School of Business, also known locally as the ‘Jones Business School’ after its founder/Principal Mr. R. L. Jones. This school operated from 1873 to about 1916, and held classes on the second floor of the Jones Building at 22-24 Centre Square (the former Bixler’s building).

Beam went on to receive a Bachelor of Science in Fine Arts degree in Music from New York University. He attended NYU part time in the summer and evenings while working full time during the day to pay for the tuition costs. Beam would spend his summers in NYC studying while teaching violin lessons at NYU. He completed a Master’s Degree in Music (organ and voice) at New York Teachers College, and did additional graduate work in music at Cornell University.

Beam served many churches in the Easton area as both organist and choir director.  While working at St. John’s Reformed Church in Riegelsville he met Dr. J. Fred Wolle (1863-1933) following a worship service.  Wolle is the founder of the famous Bethlehem Bach Choir.  This meeting would lead to Beam both studying organ with Wolle, and singing under his direction. Beam was called on by several Easton churches to help build their music programs and choirs.  He took special pleasure in discovering good voices in people who had no idea they could sing.

He was a charter member of the boards of the Easton Symphony Orchestra (founded by Earle D. Laros, EHS 1905), the Easton Oratorio Society, and the Easton Community Concerts Association.  All of these organizations no longer exist today. In 1975 he was the first person in the Easton area to become a member of the Modern Music Masters (Tri-M) Society, a national honorary society for music. A member of the Easton Kiwanis Club since 1919 – he was honored with “Jim Beam Day” on May 29, 1974 by the Kiwanis and a celebration dinner was held at the Hotel Easton.  Guest speakers included County Judge Carleton T. Woodring, Mrs. Ethel Powell, and former EHS Principal Albert S. Erb. They all spoke about Beam’s contributions to the community in music, education, art and service.  Of course there was music performed, in addition to several solo pieces a quartet (including his sister Rebekah as the alto) sang his own setting of “The Lord’s Prayer”.

Beam was hired by the Easton School district around 1915 and served as a music educator for 40+ years retiring in 1956.  He is listed in the 1918 Rechauffe’ (the Easton HS yearbook) as faculty, and began his duties as ‘supervisor’ in the fall of 1919.  Also listed in the 1918 yearbook is M. Claude Rosenberry who was music supervisor from 1915-18.  Rosenberry left the Easton School District in 1918 to go to the Reading Schools, and then in 1926 he was appointed as the first Director of Music Education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction in Harrisburg.

During Beam’s time with the Easton Schools he taught music to students from Elementary through High School traveling to all the buildings in the District, including the school in Riegelsville. He directed the high school Boys and Girls Glee Clubs (and combined them to create a mixed choir as needed), the high school orchestra 1926-29, the band in 1927-28 (and was the first to allow girls to join the band) and oversaw the annual “Operetta”, which would now be similar to a high school musical theater performance. Beam, a noted composer and arranger of especially sacred music, composed two operettas: Hunter’s Moon and George Washington and his Rag-A’-Muffins that were performed at Easton High School.  Hunter’s Moon was performed four times at EHS (1928, 1933, 1942 and 1954) and went on to be published by Chappell-Harms, Inc. He also served as Music Supervisor/Music Superintendent working in both a teaching and administrative position. For many years he would spend his mornings preparing lessons for elementary students, and the afternoons at the high school with the ensembles and teaching music theory/harmony and voice lessons.

Beam had other compositions including a setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” for choir, a work called “Supplication” that was published by Boosey & Co. in 1920 as a solo, then published again in 1925 for solo tenor and mixed choir.  Beam was moved to compose this work after learning of the combat death of a friend during World War I.

Beam is probably most remembered in Easton High School history for composing the music to the school’s Alma Mater in 1930-31.  The text was penned by then Principal, Mr. Elton E. Stone, and has three verses in a strophic form.  The first verse – familiar to Easton High School graduates is:

The Arch, with its Keystone, our symbol of strength,

The Hills, where the green forests grow.

And the Delaware Forks brings a message of old

Where the great rivers, murmuring flow.

All Hail! Alma Mater! The Pride of our Hearts!

Easton High School, Our High School so dear.

We pledge to your welfare the strength of our lives!

Now and ever, as year passes year. 

The “Arch” refers to the arch that is in front of the former Easton High School, now known to most people as the Governor Wolf building on Second Street in downtown Easton.  The EHS class of 1957 had a smaller version of the arch made in celebration of their 50th reunion, and installed at the current high school on 25th Street in 2007. Beam is said to have written the melody to the Alma Mater in 10 minutes after school one day.

Beam was well liked by his students, and very active as a faculty member at EHS.  Some former students (now in their 80’s) remember him as a “jolly” man with an “infectious laugh” and a huge booming baritone voice.  One former student stated “you could hear him coming to our classroom as he greeted people in the hallway with his huge voice”.  Another said “he was always happy and shared that joy for life with those around him”.  Beam’s house at 1800 Lehigh Street in Wilson Boro was host to many a cast party following the operetta at Easton High School, with crowds of people stretching half a block around the house. It was the ‘place to be’.

An avid reader and antique collector, it was not uncommon for Beam to just ‘show up’ at your house with something that he felt you needed.  This could be a sofa, a cabinet or table, or even a piano.  One family member recalls “Uncle Jim” showing up with a pink spinet piano because he felt ‘they needed a piano’.  It then had to be refinished and painted because, well, it was pink!  But Beam was not going to pass up making sure they received what was needed.  Also a lifelong supporter of the arts, he and his younger sister Rebekah, who was a locally known educator and contralto, for many years would not pass up their center section, front row balcony seats at the NYC Metropolitan Opera House.  They were season ticket holders for 60 years and attended performances at both the “old” and “new” Metropolitan Opera Houses. The Beam’s experienced every major singer and conductor of the early and mid-20th century.

It has been noted that Beam retired having used only one half of a sick day for illness during his 40+ years with the Easton School District, and since he led an evening concert on the same day that he was out sick for the morning only, the district removed the blemish from his record.

He touched many lives during his years in public education.  It is estimated that more than 50 students from Easton High School went on to study music professionally. Two notables include James McKeever (EHS class of 1936) who went on to be a professional singer and Professor of Voice at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, and Charles W. Rasely (EHS class of 1939) who studied at the Juilliard School in NYC and later became the Music Supervisor for the Oneida School District in New York. In 1976 Rasely composed a piece on a text by Emily Dickinson entitled “I Never Saw A Moor” for mixed chorus and dedicated it to James B. Beam. Rasely’s compositions are published by Plymouth Music Company, Inc.

After his retirement in 1956 from the Easton School District, Beam taught music part time.  He served various schools in Bethlehem Township including the Farmersville Elementary School. In 1963 he retired “for good” at the age of 77.  Beam then took up painting after being introduced to it by his nephew William Conkey who studied at the Philadelphia College of the Arts. He was interested in the mixing of paints and various techniques used.  Beam himself said about music and art “both are means of self expression and both require an understanding of composition, balance, tone and texture.”

Beam charged into this new passion head first and was completely self taught, joining five different county art associations and entering into all the art shows that came along.  He was the winner of many shows in the Lehigh Valley and New Jersey, and had his own one man show at Little York Mill Gallery in New Jersey.  He preferred to work in tempera and cover the finished work with layers of varnish and/or shellac to bring out the colors. Rodale Press used one of his paintings of a ‘winter scene’ as the cover for the December 1972 issue of Prevention magazine.  He has works in the Allentown Museum of Art as well as the Siegel Museum in Easton.  Beam would often give away his paintings to friends, former students and family. There are many of his works still out in the community at large, and several have sold at auction.  It is estimated that he painted 1500+ works, many of them the same ‘scenes’ but each an original work, and many scenes as remembered from his childhood. He described his style as “a primitive and realist”. His works are in a Grandma Moses style of painting with Beam’s own signature touch. He once stated “a primitive painter won’t pay much attention to perspective, but I try to”.  He had a great love and passion for painting, much like music earlier in his life, and continued to create art for the remainder of his life.

James Blain Beam passed away in Easton Hospital on 11 July 1979 at the age of 93. He is buried in the Easton Heights Cemetery with the rest of his family. A simple stone marks his final resting place with the phrase “Music is akin to God” etched into the stone.  I am sorry that our paths on this earth crossed for only 15 years, and that I never had the opportunity to meet this local musician and artist – but I feel as though his spirit lives in his work, his memory, and now the students of his students.  We as musicians stand on the shoulders of those before us, and I am grateful for what James Blain Beam brought to the Easton community, which is much more than just the Easton High School Alma Mater.


©2023 James D. Moyer

James D. Moyer, a native of Easton, is Director of Choral Activities at Pennsbury High School and Vocal Music Curriculum Coordinator k-12 for the Pennsbury School District in lower Bucks County, PA. He also serves as Director of Music for the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ.  A 1982 graduate of Easton Area High School, he holds degrees from Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey and the University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.