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Bristol Band celebrates 150+ years of music with hometown heart

BILL BOWERS CONDUCTS the Bristol Band on a lovely Wednesday evening. This summer marks the 150th year the band has played on the Town Green. Photo by Sandy Rooney

“The multigenerational stuff — you don’t see that a lot of places. It makes old people feel young and young people appreciate old folks more.”
— Gary Moreau

BRISTOL — Donna Wood remembers when she first heard the Bristol Band play in the summer of ’79.

“We went to one concert and that decided it. I was playing the next week,” she said.

Wood started playing flute in 4th grade and loved (and loves) being a part of the band because, she said, “I felt like I got to be myself.”

Now 72 years old, Wood still plays every Wednesday evening during the summer on the Bristol Town Green with a band that will this year celebrate its 150th year in existence.

Well…151st.

“We had all this stuff planned for last summer,” said Alice Weston, band tuba player and daughter of longtime band manager and president Ken Weston.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bristol Band did not play last summer, for the first time since its founding. This year it’s back, though it started small and missed its biggest gig — the Fourth of July Parade — the band has been growing its weekly numbers to nearly “regular” size, which is about 50 band members give or take, according to Alice Weston.

Only vaccinated band members are playing this summer, and the band is situated on the grass instead of on the bandstand as usual, in order to maintain some distance.

“It’s been awesome,” Alice said.

This summer the multigenerational band will celebrate its belated anniversary — officially next Wednesday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m. — with a nod to its roots…all the way back in 1870 as a post-civil war military band.

MARCHING ORDERS

“In the years following the civil war bands were being organized in many towns throughout Vermont. By 1870 a few of the men of Bristol had gotten together and started a band,” wrote Reg Dearborn, Bristol Band enthusiast and historian, in a short pamphlet he compiled last year.

Other towns with bands that sprung up around the same time as Bristol include St. Johnsbury and Lyndon.

The Bristol Band was first formally organized with Thomas S. Drake in 1872 under the name “The Bristol Cornet Band,” and at the time had nine members. The following year, leadership was taken up by Smith W. Hatch and the first bandstand was built on the west side of the green.

Jump ahead to 1896. The Bristol Military Band was formed by the combination of the Cornet Band and the Citizens band, which had split in 1887, with George Guinan as leader. Five years before, the original bandstand had been used as kindling for a Fourth of July bonfire. It was not replaced until another fire — in 1898 — cost the band its instruments and uniforms and caused band members to raise money for replacement items, as well as a new bandstand, which was erected in 1899.

Guinan continued as band director until 1916, when Howard Hasseltine took over. Hasseltine was a band member for 63 years and Milton “Zip” Elmer, who would follow up his leadership position, played with the band for 74 years, up until his death in 1995. Roy Clark started with the band as a high schooler in 1927 and took over as manager and director in 1955. In 1969, Clark changed the band name to simply “The Bristol Band.”

The current bandstand, built in 1937, is now called the “Roy J. Clark Memorial Bandstand.” It also has a roof.

“It’s not a roof,” Dearborn said.

“It’s a ‘sounding board,’ because the original deed for the park forbid anything with a roof being built on it,” he added cheekily.

Though the past century and a half has seen world wars, fires and drastic cultural shifts, the Bristol Band has played through it all.

“There’s always been a band,” Dearborn said.

The women kept the music alive while the men were off at war, Alice said. According to Dearborn, women began to be welcomed as regular members of the band in the 1930s.

Since Clark’s retirement in 1983, Bill Bowers has served as conductor and Ken Weston as manager and now president. And they’re still at it.

‘IT’S A FAMILY THING’

Bowers, who started playing trombone when he was in 5th grade, said he’s kept conducting all these years because he’s fascinated by the history and likes the people.

Ken Weston recruited Bowers, who had been a music teacher to all six of his children, to come play with the band. They’ve been a team ever since.

Ken — originally a trumpet player but more recently a mellophonist — and his wife made sure their kids got involved as well. It was only partially up to the children though. “The rule in our house was that if you wanted to play a sport, you had to take piano lessons,” Ken said. He still tells the young people in the band that while a sport may be fun when you’re 16, “music is going to be with you when you’re 76.”

Or 89, in Ken’s case.

Though Ken recently stopped playing with the band because his eyesight is going and he can’t sight-read anymore, he’s still a part of the community in every way, daughter Alice said.

Alice, 55, said she has played with the band “every summer without fail,” since she was 10 years old.

“It has helped me stay connected with my dad, and it keeps him engaged in the community,” she said.

The band takes pride in facilitating community in multiple ways — among the band members and among the townsfolk, as well as across generational divides. They have music to thank for it.

Ken said the reason the band has held on for so long is because “people love to play.”

“Folks hang on for a while just for the love of music,” he said.

“Music is part of the fabric of our life — people need it,” Gary Moreau said. And that’s as true now as it always has been.

Moreau started playing trumpet and singing with the band when he started college in the mid-’70s. “It was just kind of fun…music is what I do,” he said.

He’s not kidding.

Moreau served as president of the Vermont Music Educators Association for 12 years and worked as a music teacher in Essex Junction, where he lives, for 41 years. But even though he doesn’t play trumpet with them much anymore, Moreau continues to be a staple of the band with his singing, particularly his rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” which traditionally closes out the Wednesday night concerts.

But regardless of whether he’s singing or not, Moreau and various family members come down to Bristol nearly every week “just to listen,” he said.

Back when he was playing trumpet, Moreau’s parents used to drive down from Burlington every single Wednesday to support him and the band.

“It’s a family thing,” Moreau said.

Though there’s magic to the music, band members and audience alike agree that what keeps the band relevant is the relationships it facilitates and nourishes.

PLAYING THE TRIANGLE

Martha Chesley first saw the Bristol Band play when she was in the area visiting her grandparents in the 1950s. As soon as she had her own kids and moved to Bristol, she’s attended concerts consistently.

“For the last 46 years it’s been a number-one-have-to-do-type of event,” Chesley said.

She recalled the carriage rocking to the music when her kids were little. Now, her grandchildren are coming to the concerts.

“Ah, it’s joyful and so calming to be here with other people…there’s so much tension with all that’s going on right now and this brings — I don’t know what it is — peace, grounding, nostalgia,” she said.

Over her years in the audience, “I’ve watched band members grow up…it’s a family,” Chesley said.

So much so that one summer the band invited Chesley to play the triangle with them. “I sat in the back and just went “diiing, diiing,” she laughed.

This sense of openness pervades the atmosphere the band creates.

“You really do get to know everyone, and you’re accepted,” Wood said.

That acceptance doesn’t have anything to do with how practiced you are as a musician.

Wood and Moreau agree that a special aspect of the band is the wide age range among members — currently from 14 to 90, Alice said.

“We just help the young folks, everyone will help you do better,” Wood said.

“The multigenerational stuff — you don’t see that a lot of places,” Moreau said. “It makes old people feel young and young people appreciate old folks more,” he added.

Many youths started joining the band during Bowers’s time as a music teacher at Mount Abe, where he taught from 1969 until 2000.

These days, there are fewer young folks than old-timers, but they represent for sure, Moreau pointed out.

Clara Young of Orwell is “almost 15” and this is her first summer with the band.

“I started playing flute when I was 10…I’m barely clinging on for most songs, but it’s still fun,” she said. “It’s so nice to be here…it’s an interesting experience,” Young added.

Young isn’t the only one struggling with the music at moments though.

“We’re all a little rusty,” Alice said.

But in the past year, Alice also noticed a surprising health benefit of playing a wind instrument.

“It’s emotionally really healthy…like a built-in mindfulness meditation because it’s so much about your breath,” she said. “At the end of (playing a concert) I always feel great.”

SMALL TOWN FEELING

And feeling great is much more important to the band than sounding great, partially because they know the audience doesn’t particularly care how they sound.

“You can come down here and never hear the band,” Dearborn said.

“We’re pretty much elevator music for conversation,” Wood said.

Band members don’t mind.

“It’s a good reminder that what we as a town put a priority on is gathering,” Chesley said.

And everyone is welcome to watch, chat and even play.

Sometimes folks from out of town or people who have played with the band in the past come by for an evening, pull out their instruments and are welcomed like anyone else, Alice said.

For the most part though, folks stick around and develop their own styles of in-band communication.

“We know the music so well — who loves what and who hates what — and we tease each other about it,” Wood said. She noted that she despises playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” though newer show tunes are among her favorites.

Alice shared that Wednesday evenings are “very jokey among the band members.”

And they face a longstanding challenge: trying to pin clothespins — the “appropriate” use of which is to keep music from blowing off the music stands — to each other’s shirts without the other person noticing…until they get home and have to admit they got “pinned.”

“I have an advantage because I sit in the back,” Alice grinned.

Wood was less forthcoming.

“I’m not admitting to anything. But…I will help replace clothespins,” she said.

‘HEARTBEAT OF BRISTOL’

Hijinks included, the Bristol Band is part of the town, Dearborn said. “It’s tradition, habit,” he said.

“What a treasure…it’s really like the heartbeat of Bristol,” Chesley said.

And that’s worth celebrating.

Come out to the Bristol Town Green at 7 p.m. on Aug. 18 for an anniversary performance, featuring a program heavy on Civil War marches and including the new “Bristol March,” which was specially composed by tubist Jim Diette of Starksboro, who was one of Bowers’s first students at Mount Abe. Moreau will accompany several pieces with his voice.

For those who might be peckish before the performance, St. Ambrose Church will host their annual lawn party and chicken barbeque starting at 5 p.m. And Sally Rooney of Vergennes designed a new band T-shirt that has been printed for the band members — extras might be for sale.

But even though it’s been 150 years — plus one — the musicians aren’t making too big a deal about it. They seem to know the band will be around for its 200th anniversary, at least.

When asked if he thinks the band will continue, Bowers looked puzzled. “Oh YEAH,” he said.

The simplicity of the tradition keeps itself relevant.

“It’ll keep going as long as people will want to come out on a summer night and get together,” Wood said.

Reach Hannah Laga Abram at [email protected].

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