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Memphis, Tenn., is home to the oldest high school band in the country


Every year in Memphis, Tenn., a Saint Patrick's Day parade brings thousands of people to what's known as the birthplace of the blues - but not only the blues. Another musical legacy was born on Beale Street 150 years ago today, when a group of students played what would become a historic first gig. Here's Christopher Blank of WKNO.


CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: Every band kid in the world knows this sound - the rehearsal room. This one's at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis.

PATRICK BOLTON: We call it the Silver Cornet Band.

BLANK: Patrick Bolton runs the program.

BOLTON: And as you can notice, their instruments are period. We have cornets, we have alto horns.

BLANK: The period has a specific start date - March 17, 1873.


BLANK: On that day, a small group of students took their new instruments down to Beale Street and played this tune, an old Irish song called "The Wearing Of The Green." And maybe it bestowed a dash of Irish luck, because 150 years later, the group is still around - the oldest high school band in the country.

BOLTON: Sometimes I'm up there and like, I can't believe we're doing this. This is amazing, you know?

BLANK: Bolton is the 10th consecutive band director across 15 decades and a Christian Brothers alum.

BOLTON: And the legacy is extremely helpful for my job because I'm like, you're part of this now.

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


BLANK: In 1912, a 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. Last Saturday at Handy's shotgun house, now a museum on Beale Street, tour guide Oscar Robinson held court in front of young musicians from Christian Brothers, all wearing their dark-blue wool, 19th century band uniforms, which are nearly identical to one a young W.C. Handy wears in a nearby photo.

OSCAR ROBINSON: Anybody hear of a song called (singing) "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've" - you ever heard that song before? That was composed by W.C. Handy.

BLANK: There are more than a few blank stares in the room. Even the country's oldest high school band has a youthful memory. Though the group still keeps Handy's music in the repertoire - time out of mind. Just outside the house, past and present collide in a sonic blur. Memphis' Saint Patrick's parade, a week early, has started. Modern drum lines flow into Elvis tributes.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Don't be cruel...

BLANK: Lots of Elvis.


PRESLEY: (Singing) ...To a heart that's true.

BLANK: In the middle of all this, the Christian Brothers band members, like cornet player Justin Bowers, embrace their antique look and sound.

JUSTIN BOWERS: You know, we just add to the experience, you know? Like, it's really entertaining, you know? We're just kind of adding to the whole experience. Like, over there, they're playing their hearts out. We got people over here singing their hearts out. And, you know, we're just adding on to that. You know, that's how it feels. We're just contributing to a good thing going on in Memphis.


BLANK: And with that, they march once again into history. One hundred fifty years of high school band music is in the books, the luck of the Irish still at their backs.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Blank in Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Blank