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First Band in the Land

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The Salem Band, whose roots date back to the mid-eighteenth century, is probably the oldest wind band, in the United States. At least, the late Harry H. Hall, music educator and historian, believed so. As he wrote in his 1967 dissertation, “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.”

Salem Band

More than two centuries ago, the Moravians brought a love of music -- sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental— with them from Europe to the backwoods of North Carolina. As participants rather than listeners, they developed a musical culture that flourished in their three North Carolina settlements: Bethabara (1753), Bethania (1759), and Salem (1771), all in Forsyth County.

Records in the 1750s show horns, flutes, trumpets and violins were present. Shortly after Salem organized as a congregation, the Vorsteher Collegium (the community financial committee) decided that instruments from Bethabara and Bethania would be divided, or shared, with Salem which thus received its first wind instruments–a consort of trombones, in 1978.

Other instruments (winds and strings) began arriving in the community which finally founded the Musical Society of the Congregational Community in Salem around 1780. Over the next 35 years, the society accumulated a massive library of sacred and secular music and instruments (strings, woodwinds, and brass).

Changes in music and instruments brought an increased secular influences, resulting in a growing popularity of secular music, and contributing to a division in the various musical ensembles. In 1831, when the State of North Carolina rescinded an order exempting Moravians from military service, Salem formed its own militia and band, which was the formal organization of the Salem Band.

The directorship of Salem’s bands, at least since the Civil War, has consisted of individuals dedicated to the ensemble like Bernard Jacob Pfohi, under whose care and direction, the band grew from ten to more than 500 members. In 1942, Austin E. Burke, Jr., a trombonist and a co-worker at Duke Power, became director. When he retired in 1972, his assistant, Samuel E. Fort, Jr., was named director.

Fort directed through 1991, followed by N. Denny Fordham, Jr. A local businessman from the Calvary congregation, Fordham 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.

Dr. Eileen M. Young, DirectorDr. Eileen M. Young, Director

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. In 2011, Dr. Eileen M. Young was named director of the ensemble.

(Note: Women had not been invited to play until the 1930s.)

Under her leadership, the band has continued a series of summer band concerts on Salem Square and has added fall and winter concerts to the schedule. Membership has grown in numbers and quality, continuing a long standing and honored tradition.