Christian Brothers, America’s Oldest High School Band Celebrates 150th Anniversary

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – Memphis has topped the charts for decades with its legacy of musical firsts. And this 5-star story includes yet another.

The Bluff City is home to America’s oldest high school band, as they prepare to embark on a 150-year celebration.

The Christian Brothers High School Gold Concert Band practices every day, but right now the members are also preparing for the trip of a lifetime. According to the group’s director, Patrick Bolton, the trip, from March 12 to 17, will kick off the 150th anniversary celebration.

“And this trip to Washington DC is something we’ve been planning for a long time. We’ll be landing in DC. We’ve got a concert scheduled next to John Phillip Sousa’s grave as soon as we get off the plane, so we’re thrilled about that,” Bolton said.

The band CBHS is also scheduled to play at the Lincoln Memorial, Union Station and possibly the Capitol, among other venues. Group president and euphonist Chapel Rainer is thrilled.

“It’s the fact that we can play and it’s really good music and at a really high level and also we can do different trips like that, it’s a great experience,” Rainer said.

The band’s anniversary tour is also a walk down memory lane, visiting sites linked to its long history, beginning with a concert at a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where school and band founder Christian Brothers, was baptized.

“The group was founded in 1872 by Brother Maurelian, who was the founder of CBHS at the time, we called it CBC, which was Christian Brothers College, which was a school for young children, until the graduation,” Bolton said.

Brother Maurelian was the group’s first director. There were only about twenty members then and according to the current manager of the group, most of the instruments were probably purchased from a Sears catalog.

“I think Bro. Maurelian bought these instruments, put them in the hands of the kids and we went to town,” Bolton said.

Over the years, the CBHS band has also added more instruments, members and band managers. Bolton himself, a former member of the CBHS group, is only the 10th group director of this school and has been for 22 years.

“We play music from our region, from our history all the time,” added Bolton, who named the music written and performed by WC Handy among his favorites.

The Gold Band also plans to play at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on its 2022 tour.

“The reason for that was because Bro. Maurelian loved showing off the Liberty Bell. He was going around the area and we had pictures of him and students standing next to the Liberty Bell all the time,” Bolton said.

After that, he said the band members would travel to Baltimore, Maryland.

“We’re going to play at the oldest Christian Brethren school in America, Calvert Hall, we’re going to do a joint gig with these guys,” Bolton said. “And we also visit the church where Brother Maurelian was first introduced to the Christian Brethren. And it’s as if those events hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be here right now.

Part of Bro. Maurelian will also travel with the band on the anniversary tour in the form of an old wooden box he used as luggage.

“He’s traveled the world with this box and we’re going to bring it with us to Washington, DC and visit the places where he started – started us,” Bolton said.

Bolton learned that the moniker “America’s Oldest High School Band” dates back to the late 1940s and early 1970s.

In 1973, the mayor of Memphis and the governor of Tennessee made separate proclamations officially bestowing the title on the band on the ensemble’s centennial. Bolton said the band’s history also coincides with many historical events in Memphis.

“Our first gig was the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the spring. And we started at St. Patrick’s Church there off Beale Street and we marched down Beale Street at the time…it would be 1870 and 3,” he said.

He pointed to an inscription at the base of the fountain in Court Square in downtown Memphis after the band performed for its dedication in 1876. The band was also present for the dedication of the first bridge over the Mississippi River.

“When they first bridged the Mississippi, the Frisco Railroad Bridge, we played for it underneath on a riverboat,” Bolton said.

Looking to the next 150 years of the band CBHS, Bolton hopes the school musicians will continue to learn the lessons he learned as a clarinetist in that same ensemble.

“Because it taught me to work hard and it also showed me the benefits of working hard,” he explained.

Incidentally, CBHS actually has four different bands: The Historic Band, which is a small band inspired by the original band created by Brother Maurelian who also wear similar uniforms to that first band; The Purple Band which teaches students to play musical instruments; The Walnut Groove Jazz Band, plays jazz music; and the Golden Fanfare.

Although CBHS bands still participate in community events and parades, the school ended its marching band program in the 1980s.

The band’s 150th anniversary tour will take place March 12-17. Other activities are also planned in Memphis throughout the year.

For more information on the Christian Brothers High School Band and Patrick Bolton’s book about it, “The Christian Brothers Band: The First 75 Years 1872-1947” visit www.cbhsband.org

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