And the band plays on

Meire Grove Band has been performing since 1883  In 1883, Nicholas Bohnen, organist and choir director of St. John’s Catholic Church, Meire Grove, Minnesota, organized a city band.  Fifteen years later, he petitioned the City for financial support to keep the group going.  His request was tabled “till the Band could be heard from as to what the Band was going to do in return if a donation was allowed.” What the Band did was keep on playing, entertaining, traveling, and maintaining musical traditions in the Meire Grove area for an astonishing 127 years after its inception, making it the oldest band in the state. Current director Vern Meyer, who started playing the trumpet with the Meire Grove Band when he was in seventh grade, credits the band’s longevity with a continuing tradition of young people joining in. Members today include high school students from tenth grade and up, all on a volunteer basis. “We don’t make any demands on anybody,” Vern says.  “If they enjoy playing, they’re more than welcome.  We can’t pay anything, never have, never will, so they come for pure pleasure.”  He notes that donations for gigs go toward arrangements, music stands, pay for the truck driver, and the like. Nobody knows when the first band was organized.  Certainly in the days of the Egyptian and Assyrian empires, there were groups of musicians.  Today’s brass and marching bands originated with the military.  One of the first Roman bands to tootle its troops to victory was organized in 570 BC and included the latest high-tech instrument, the brass trumpet. The primary purpose of a military band was to keep the marching unit in order.  The leader gave signals with his long baton.  If the marchers at the end of a column couldn’t see him, he tossed the baton in the air, making him the forerunner of today’s mini-skirted majorettes.  Military bands also played as armies advanced, keeping up morale and fighting spirits.  The kilted Scots were particularly prone to give credit to the bagpipers who inspired them to be called “the ladies from hell.” Late in 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the formation of a military band.  The Revolutionary War saw its own battle of the bands, as American fife and drum units competed with the British, who played clarinets.  This band was—um—disbanded after the war, but reorganized in 1798 with clarinets, french horns, oboes, a bassoon and a bass drum. Today it is the United States Marine Band, and it has played for every presidential inauguration except Washington’s. Each subsequent immigrant group to the U.S. brought its own musical traditions, and some of them found their way into band music.  New England, belying its Puritan reputation, fostered some of the finest brass bands in the country.  Civilian bands, both professional and amateur, became a passion which continued throughout the turn of the last century.  The Fall 1890 Sears Roebuck catalog offered a variety of instruments for sale.  Each came with a free German silver mouthpiece, music rack, and instruction book. Irish-born John Gilmore of Boston, immortalized in the words of Meredith Willson’s marching band anthem, “76 Trombones,” began his career in earnest at the end of the Civil War.  His gigantic band acquired a tremendous following as it toured the nation.  In 1869 he directed a World Peace Jubilee with a 10,000-voice choir, 1000 instruments, 100 anvils (a true anvil chorus), two batteries of cannon and all of Boston’s church bells.  They must have heard it in Minnesota, at least. Gilmore died in September 1892. The day after his funeral, a fellow named John Philip Sousa, who had led the U.S. Marine Band for 12 years, inaugurated his own band.  The opening number paid tribute to Gilmore.  Sousa carried out Gilmore’s tradition of playing music of every type, not just marches.  Liszt, Wagner and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” joined his repertoire, along with a little thing of his own creation called “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”  Showmanship, professionalism and good musicianship brought fame to Sousa and his successors, who included Patrick Conway, Arthur Pryor, and Edwin Franko Goldman. By the early 20th century, no town in America was complete without a wedding-cake-style bandstand, or at least a canvas-roofed makeshift, and a hardy group to puff away in it once a week during the warm months.  Sousa remained popular until his death in 1932, but by then the rest of the brass band craze had essentially peaked.  The phonograph, jazz, talkies, the automobile and similar influences had conspired to replace Sunday afternoon at the bandstand.  But the tradition never really died, and today there is renewed interest in brass bands.  Big band, Latin, pop, Broadway musicals, and rock numbers are popular, along with traditional marches. Vern says, “Oddly enough, we have some marches in our folders that have been there for 70 years.  We think they’re just as good as the new ones. But we can’t play nothing but marches.  We try to play some New Orleans jazz, polkas, waltzes and other numbers.” From July 13 to 24, 30 members of the band, which can number as many as 45,  went to Germany, where they played in Holdorf, ancestral home of the Meyer family who settled Meire Grove, along with several other towns.  They gave seven concerts, which were very well received. “We gave them a taste of our music.  They don’t want to hear a German polka; they know how to do that.” Instead, the Germans heard “Roll out the Barrel,”  “Basin Street Blues” , and “The Stars and Stripes” forever which, oddly enough, was very familiar to them.  “They knew that one inside out,” Vern says.  “I think they play it a lot.  The whole crowd got up and clapped when we played it.” The Meire Grove Band plays mainly for parades, festivals, and the like, along with the occasional funeral.  After Bohnen, there have been only three other directors—Herman Meyer (Vern’s grandfather), George Baltes, and Vern, who says, “The whole idea is to maintain the culture of our German heritage.”

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