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America's Oldest High School Band Marks 150 Years in Memphis

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Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
In the Christian Brothers High School band room, students rehearse "The Wearing of the Green" using a musical arrangement from around the time the the group was formed in 1872. Its first public performance was St. Patrick's Day of 1873, playing this song on Beale Street.

Like band rehearsal rooms across the country, the one at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis is loud and chaotic, especially before music instructor Patrick Bolton calls everyone together for a run-through.

Today's rehearsal isn't even the whole concert band — just the smaller Silver Cornet Band, a group that styles its look and its sound from — well, itself. That is: a version of the group around the time of its first performance, which took place during a St. Patrick's Day parade on Beale Street 150 years ago today.

According to a newspaper article of the time, the ensemble played the old Irish song "The Wearing of the Green." And maybe that debut came with a bit of Irish luck for what was then called Christian Brothers College. Because with 150 unbroken years in operation, CBHS claims the title of having the oldest high school band in the country.

"Sometimes I’m up there and I’m like, 'I can’t believe we’re doing this, this is amazing," says Bolton, the 10th consecutive band director across 15 decades, and a Christian Brothers alum. He also wrote his Master's Degree thesis on the history of the band.

"The legacy is extremely helpful for my job, because I’m like, ‘you are part of this now,'" he adds.  

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Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
Christian Brothers High School's music director Patrick Bolton showed a vintage Sears Catalog where the first band instruments were likely purchased in the 1870s. He says the types of instruments seen in old photos are the same as advertised in the catalog.

That legacy happens to intersect with another groundbreaking moment in American music: the birth of the blues.

In 1912, local bandleader W.C .Handy composed a tune based on music he heard while traveling through the Mississippi Delta. “The Memphis Blues” changed band music forever. Bolton says that one CBHS music director got to know Handy personally. The group's sound shifted from the militaristic, march-style music of the post-Civil War period to a jazzier repertoire.

By 1948, when CBHS recorded its first concert, the music had become more orchestral.

But last Saturday, just before the Silky O' Sullivan St. Patrick's Day Parade on Beale, the Silver Cornet Band was reaching all the way back.

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Michael Ochs Archives
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of W.C. Handy Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The band members convened at Handy’s shotgun house, now a museum on Beale Street. Tour guide Oscar Robinson held court in front of the musicians wearing their dark blue, wool 19th Century band uniforms. They’re nearly identical to one a young W.C. Handy wears in a nearby photo. Bolton says the CBHS band is now dedicated to keeping Handy's works in the repertoire.

Just outside the house, the parade was getting underway. Past and present collided in a sonic blur. Modern drum lines flowed into Elvis tributes.

In the middle of this, the CBHS band members seemed a picture from a bygone era. Still, cornet player Justin Bowers was excited about the chance to recreate this 150th Anniversary performance.

“We just add to the experience, you know," he said. "Like it’s really entertaining. Like over there they’re playing their hearts out. We got people over here singing their hearts out, we're just adding on to that, contributing to a good thing going on in Memphis."

And with that, they marched once again into history. 150 years of high school band music is now in the books -- the luck of the Irish still at their backs.

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Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
The Christian Brothers High School band perform in Memphis' Silky O'Sullivan St. Patrick's Parade, held this year on March 11. The band made its public debut on Beale Street, March 17, 1873.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher's favorite haunt is the intersection of history and cultural change. He is WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.