The members of the band, Did You Ever See Allegro, are students at the fictional Cumberland Conservatory in Maryland. The city, about 175 miles west of both Baltimore and Washington, DC, is located at a place where Maryland is only a few miles across, between Pennsylvania to the North and West Virginia to the South. It was an important outpost for commerce and transportation through the 1800s, being at the junction of the first railroads. heading West, the old National Road, and the Baltimore and Ohio Canal. It was an important point o the underground railroad before the Civil War.
By 1969, when the band’s tale begins, the area was far from wealthy. Coal mining had lost its appeal, and the rugged terrain didn’t support most types of agriculture. One of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, nobody knew they were poor because there was nothing else to compare themselves to. The Conservatory attracted music students from the mid-Atlantic states.
There were few opportunities for employment in the area, making a traveling band almost inevitable. The student body was mostly white, but the unnamed fraternity to which most members belonged was integrated. The local chapter had black members as well as LGBT members and one blind brother. This didn’t sit well with all students’ parents, nor even with all members of the fraternity or the band. In fact, one member of the band had been a member of the Junior KKK in Southern Maryland, the area to which John Wilkes Booth had fled after assassinating President Lincoln. He correctly assumed he would be relatively safe there because of sympathy for the Confederacy.
Cumberland was representative of its time – segregated, bigoted, set in its ways. The Conservatory was an island of tolerance in a place and time of intolerance. Integrated couples were barred from hotels, and same-sex couples met with near-universal hostility. Home to about 20,000 people, the city drew few tourists. Like much of America at the time, it was provincial and proud of it.