Several years ago, we had one of the more enjoyable discussions here at the Dare Society when the subject matter was "old-timey" or dying Southern colloquialisms. At the time, I shared some of the favorites that I heard often from my Sampson County grandparents. In particular, I noted my grandfather's use of the phrase "to beat the band."
Reflecting on his life made me, naturally, think back to those phrases he would use. And I just had to know where "to beat the band" came from. I assumed it had some sort of early 20th century, Glenn Miller Orchestra or radio show tie.
A post at English Language and Usage discusses the phrase, saying it is an "idiom for to the greatest possible degree."
Also, to beat all. To the greatest possible degree. For example, The baby was crying to beat the band, or *The wind is blowing to beat the band , or *John is dressed up to beat all . This idiom uses beat in the sense of "surpass." The first term may, according to one theory, allude to a desire to arrive before the musicians who led a parade, so as to see the entire event. Another theory holds that it means "make more noise than (and thereby beat) a loud band." [Colloquial; late 1800s]
Of course, there is debate. What band? The Word Detective has an entire entry on this phrase, with discussion that it could actually relate to a town in Ireland.
“Beat the band” first appeared in print, as far as we know, in the late 19th century. Interestingly, another “band” phrase, “when the band begins to play,” was current at the same time, meaning “when things get serious,” or what we might today call “crunch time” (“It’s send for Bucky quick when the band begins to play,” 1910). I think it’s significant that both of these phrases arose at a time when recording technology was in its infancy and music was almost always heard live, whether in a music hall or at a concert in the park.
... In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1961), Partridge suggested that “beat the band” was developed from the older phrase “to beat Banagher,” Banagher being a famously corrupt village in Ireland. Something outrageously corrupt or unfair was said “to beat [be worse than] Banagher,” meaning to surpass the accepted standard.
But while Banagher does exist and apparently at one time had that reputation, the likely origin of “beat the band” is simpler, and simply musical. To “beat the band” means literally to drown out the sound of a brass band with whatever you are doing, and thus, metaphorically, to excel or surpass the standard to such a degree that all eyes turn toward you (“I was on the box-seat driving, you know, — lickety-split, to beat the band,” 1897).
Incidentally, the use of “to beat” to mean “to surpass, excel” is simply a modern use of “to beat” in its older military sense meaning “to defeat or vanquish.” The use of “beat” in other phrases equivalent in meaning to “beat the band” (“to beat anything,” “to beat all,” etc.) dates back to the early19th century (“Well!’ I says, ‘if this don’t beat everything!’,” Charles Dickens, 1863).
Regardless of its roots, "to beat the band" is one of those quintessential grandfatherly-type phrases that I will try to incorporate like, as I mentioned a few years ago -- to the chagrin of my wife -- "fuller than a tick." It would be sad for these sayings, like "I declare," or "you know not!" (that's one my grandmother has been known to use), "catty wampus" and much more to go the way of the Greatest Generation.
As far as grandfathers go, mine was incredible. He was a grandfather "to beat the band." I swanny.
(Non-family images from GlennMillerOrchestra.com and Twitter)