Grafton keeps town band tradition alive

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(Host) At the turn of the century almost every small town had a band.

The tradition has fallen out of fashion, but don’t tell that to the Grafton Cornet band.

VPR’s Susan Keese jumped on the bandwagon to find out why.

“One two three” (Drum sounds)

(Keese) It’s a Saturday morning and the Grafton Cornet band is playing he Alumni Parade in Springfield.

Its big red-painted flatbed waits in a shopping plaza parking lot for the band members to come together.

(DesRochers) “They always show up but they always show up at the last minute.”

(Keese) Dick DesRochers is the president of the Grafton band. He plays a big-belled brass sousaphone.

(DesRochers) “I’ve been in the band for about 46 years and we’ve participated in every memorial day since it got started in 1868. So we have a pretty good track record. And this is our 140th year!”

(Keese) That’s 1868 that Memorial Day got started, to honor the recent civil war dead. The Grafton Cornet band formed in 1867. That makes it the second oldest town band in the state, after St. Johnsbury’s.

Band historian Dan Axtell says the group has clung to some traditions that no longer make sense. Like the name. Only a handful of the 30 or so members actually live in Grafton these days. Several play in more than one band.

(Axtell) “It’s mostly not Grafton, mostly not coronets anymore. But it continues in the same tradition as a community band open to anyone.”

(Keese) A photograph in the band room in the old Grafton firehouse shows the original band in plumed hats and uniforms full of buttons and braid.

It’s more casual now– red vests, straw hats. The musicians gave up marching 15 years ago.

(Band member) “Who needs a chair?”

(Keese) Now they set up their metal folding chairs and music stands on truck bed.

(Woman) “He’s going to be movin’ soon, better get sittin'”.
(Sound of truck taking off)
(Sounds of the band tuning up)

(DesRochers) “It’s pretty hard to march and play at the same time and a lot of our players were older players and so it was a lot harder.”
(Switzer) “It’s a lot more fun when you’re riding than when you’re marching.”

(Keese) Doug Switzer plays a euphonium. He’s in his seventies. He joined the band sixty years ago, when he was 12.

(Switzer) “Back when I joined the Grafton Band I lived in Bellows Falls, and several people from Bellows Falls, younger people, used to go out and play with the band on a weekly basis. And what we played was pretty much the popular music of the time. So it was easier to get younger people to play in the band.”

(Keese) The youngest member at the moment is 15 year-old-Rachel Axtell. She plays clarinet. Her dad plays trombone.

(Trombone plays, then band plays)

(Keese) The flatbed takes its place among the bagpipers, clowns, scout troops and floats. People on the sidewalk tap their feet as the band rolls by playing a Sousa March.

(Ruth Harvey) “It’s cheerful music. Makes you want to get up and march on down the street.”

(Keese) Ruth Harvey, a former Windsor county senator, joined the band 32 years ago, after moving to Vermont from New Jersey. Harvey’s sons got involved. It looked like so much fun, she learned to play the trumpet.

The worst thing that ever happened to the band was in 1989. During a concert on the Townshend town common, a passing car lost control and plowed right through the seated musicians.

(DesRochers) “A lot of people got hurt. They found one player underneath the car.”
(Woman) “And the next week we met in Bud’s barn and played together the pieces that we were to play at the end of the concert.”
(DesRochers) “Anybody that was injured would want the band to keep playing and this is what we did.”
(Woman) “We just got together.”
(Des Rochers) “And we finished our regular season on schedule.”

(Keese) Some say it’s the band’s incredible collection of old music that makes it so popular. The group plays everything from show tunes to obscure 19th century marches and waltzes your great grandparents might have hummed.

Others say it’s the power of tradition that keeps it going.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

Note: The band will be in Wardsboro today for the Fourth of July.

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