Salem Band, established in 1771, is the oldest,
continuous mixed wind ensemble in the nation.

Our Rich History

Salem Band historical photo

The Salem Band is an ensemble with roots that can be traced to the mid-eighteenth century and the arrival of the first Moravian settlers in North Carolina. While the band as it is known today is not that old, variants of mixed wind performances do date to that time in the early North Carolina Moravian communities. The late Harry H. Hall, music educator and historian, asserted in his 1967 dissertation that “there has emerged from this modest eighteenth-century beginning an unbroken lineage which seemingly establishes the Salem Band of today as the oldest existing wind band, civic or military, in the United States. (Hall, “The Moravian Wind Ensemble…,” 293) Whether one agrees with this statement or not, the fact that the Salem Band has a long and storied existence cannot be disputed.

Emigrating from the music loving areas of Europe, the Moravians brought that love of music—sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental—to the backwoods of North Carolina. Because they were active participants rather than just passive listeners, a musical culture flourished in each of their three North Carolina settlements: Bethabara (1753), Bethania (1759), and Salem (1771). Records show horns, flutes, trumpets and violins present in the 1750s, being joined by trombones in 1768. In February of 1772, shortly after Salem’s 1771 organization as a congregation, the Vorsteher Collegium (the community financial committee), decided that instruments from Bethabara and Bethania would be divided, or shared, with Salem. Thus, Salem received its first wind instruments–a consort of trombones. From this point on, other instruments (winds and strings) began streaming into the community. The Collegium musicum der Gemeine in Salem, or Musical Society of the Congregational Community in Salem, was founded around 1780, and over the next 35 years accumulated a massive library of sacred and secular music and instruments (strings, woodwinds, and brass).

During the first half of the nineteenth century, changes began occurring in the music, its function, and the instruments themselves. An increase in secular influences from outside the community resulted in a growing popularity of secular music, which contributed to a division in the functions of the various musical ensembles which were now designated as either sacred or secular. Perhaps the greatest catalyst to outside secular influences occurred in 1831 when the state of North Carolina rescinded an earlier order exempting Moravians from military service. Almost immediately Salem formed its own militia, complete with a band which rehearsed twice weekly. According to Hall, this action can be considered the formal organization of the Salem Band. This band became very popular, playing for various events across the state which in turn enhanced Salem’s reputation as a musical center in North Carolina.

Just as music and musical preferences were changing, so were the actual instruments. It is presumed the earliest secular ensembles (including Salem’s Collegium musicum) consisted primarily of string and woodwind instruments, with the brass instruments reserved for the more sacred functions as dictated by church traditions. Evolving brass instrument design, especially the refinement of valves, resulted in a shift in this division of duties. Saxhorns are believed to be the first true valved instruments present in Salem, arriving probably around 1850. With their arrival and ultimate embrace, the band in Salem shifted from one of primarily woodwinds to predominantly brass. Not until the early 20th century would woodwinds regain a prominent place within the band.

By 1851, references to the Salem Brass Band began appearing in documents and records. Edward W. Leinbach (1823-1901) reportedly taught and directed this new ensemble, which perhaps remained the most popular ensemble in Salem up to the start of the Civil War. During the war, the majority of Salem’s instrumentalists enlisted, forming the noted NC 26th Regimental Band, led by E-flat cornetist Samuel T. Mickey (1839-1914), and providing the majority of the instrumentalists for the NC 21st Regimental Band. As a result, the instrumental aspect of musical life in Salem was put on hold during the war years. After the war, community music was slow to revive as other recovery issues took precedence.

By 1872, however, Leinbach began instructing a group of young men in instrumental music. This group of 20+ members became known as the Salem Cornet Band, and eventually merged with the remaining members of the old band under the direction of Civil War bandsman (26th) Daniel T. Crouse (1836-1903). As with the earlier group, this group became popular both locally and across the state—so popular, in fact, that in 1879 the decision was made to train another group of instrumentalists which would take over the instrumental duties required for church services and traditions, thereby freeing the older musicians for other band commitments. Also directed by Crouse, this group was referred to by several names, among them the “Church Band” and the “Amateurs.” This ensemble soon began incorporating secular music into their repertoire, and some members began support roles with the older ensemble. Sometime between 1881 and 1884, these two bands merged on the civic front, although the Church Band continued to provide most of the service to the church. From this 1879 group came an individual who would direct the band for 40+ years, Bernard J. Pfohl (1866-1960).

From the early 1880s to World War I, there appeared numerous bands in the area—Winston formed several bands (at least two of them known as the Winston Concert Band albeit at different times), and there were various “combination” band efforts (The Wachovia Cornet Club or Concert Band, the Twin City Cornet or Concert Band). It is unknown why these organizations chose to disband then re-form under another name, especially since they often consisted of the same musicians with Crouse as the director. (The last Winston Concert Band was directed by Crouse’s son, Walter.) Through all of this, however, references continued to be made to separate Salem ensembles, indicating that the Salem musicians still maintained their separate identity. Although Pfohl became director of the church band in 1889, little has been discovered as to leadership of the civic-sided Salem Band during that period. Pfohl was first mentioned as director of this ensemble in 1904, although photographs from the 1890s show him as a band member.

In 1898, the Salem band began rehearsing in the second floor auditorium of the then new Salem Boys’ School building on the corner of Church and Bank Streets in Salem (the current rehearsal hall). Rehearsals were held twice weekly, a practice which continued until World War II. Both indoor and outdoor concerts were presented, with regular summer concert performances dating back to at least 1904.

These concerts were held on Fridays, although occasional Saturday, Sunday, and Monday concerts were held. By 1925, the concert evening was changed to Tuesday, but moved to Thursday in 1927. After WWII, concerts returned to Tuesday evenings, which has continued to the present. Summer concerts were held either weekly or every two weeks. If a concert was postponed for inclement weather or conflict with another event, it was rescheduled rather than canceled. The early concerts were presented on the Salem College campus until the 1920s, at which time they moved to Salem Square where they have remained with just one exception—in 1989 storm damage forced a temporary relocation to the upper portion of the new section of God’s Acre (Salem’s graveyard). In addition to regular summer concerts, the band often accepted invitations to participate in special events, music festivals, or contests, both locally and out of town, a tradition which also continues today.

The directorship of Salem’s Bands, at least since the Civil War, has consisted of individuals dedicated to the ensemble and its mission. Pfohl conducted the Salem Band until 1942, when he passed the baton to Austin E. Burke, Jr. (1912-1988), a trombonist, former circus bandsman, local Moravian (Calvary congregation), and a co-worker at Duke Power. Burke remained director until his retirement from the band in 1972, at which time his assistant, Samuel E. Fort, Jr. (1926- ), was named director. Fort, an electrical engineer and member of the Trinity congregation, directed until after the concert season in 1991.

His successor was assistant director, N. Denny Fordham, Jr. (1937-2006). A local businessman from the Calvary congregation, Fordham only directed the Salem band for one year, although he continued with the Easter Band until his death in 2006. His duties with the Salem Band were picked up by band member and assistant director Jeff Whitsett (1958- ), who served the band until retiring as director in 2011. When each of these directors retired, they returned to the band as instrumentalists, further demonstrating their connection with and commitment to the band.

A new chapter in Salem Band history was written at Whitsett’s retirement, when the ensemble conducted a formal search for a new director—the first in its history. Numerous capable individuals applied and interviewed before the current director, Dr. Eileen M. Young, was named director in 2011. She also holds the title of first woman director of the ensemble, an ensemble in which women were not even invited to play until the 1930s. Under her leadership, the band has continued its series of summer band concerts on Salem Square and holiday concerts, and has added fall and winter concerts to the schedule. Membership has grown in numbers and quality, and is proud to be part of and continue such a long standing and honored tradition.

Postscript

Prior to the inclusion of women in the band, the subject of women playing in the band was a controversial topic, especially among some of the older, more traditional bandsmen. B.J. Pfohl, director of the band during that period, did not seem concerned at all with the prospect of female participation in the band, however. One band director apparently not in favor of including women was reported to have remarked that eventually a girl may become a director of the band. Upon hearing this remark, Pfohl was said to have looked at him, chuckled, and stated that perhaps that would not be such a bad thing!

As late as the 1980s, many of the men frequently reminded the women members that they let saxophones in the band before they let in the women! Who would have guessed that a few short years later a woman, who plays clarinet and saxophone, would be conductor.

Mr. B.J. is, I’m sure, looking down and smiling.

For more information on the band and its history:

Hall, Harry H. A Johnny Reb Band from Salem: The Pride of Tarheelia. Rev. ed. Raleigh: NC
Department of Cultural Resources, 2006.

Hall, Harry H. “The Moravian Wind Ensemble: Distinctive Chapter in America’s History.” PhD
diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1967.

McCorkle, Donald M. “Moravian Music in Salem: A German-American Heritage.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 1958.

Pfohl, Bernard J. The Salem Band. Winston-Salem: Privately printed, 1953.

Rothrock, Donna K. “The Perpetuation of the Moravian Instrumental Music Tradition: Bernard Jacob Pfohl and the Salem, North Carolina, Bands (1879-1960).” EdD diss., University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1991.

 

Prepared and written by Dr. Donna K. Rothrock, Salem Band Associate Principal Horn

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