Like nearly all performing arts groups, the Bangor Band — the longest continually playing community band in the country — has stayed mostly silent during the pandemic, as restrictions on gatherings continue. But that doesn’t mean that the venerable community band, now in its 162nd year, hasn’t been staying busy during its involuntary downtime.
With more than a century’s worth of photographs and memorabilia to sort through, band president Sue McKay figured now was as good a time as any to catalogue and digitize an archive of the band’s history.
“There’s just tons of stuff sitting in filing cabinets at our office at Bangor Parks and Rec,” McKay said. “It’s not doing anything, just sitting there.”
To that end, the band has enlisted Jonathan Fenders, a junior at Hampden Academy and a member of Boy Scout Troop 41 to digitize the archive for his Eagle Scout project. Over the past year, Fenders has been taking all those old photos and scanning them and organizing them into a catalogue that later this year will be accessible on both the Bangor Band and Bangor Historical Society websites.
“I decided on this particular project because it could tie in some of my interests, like music and history,” said Fenders, who plays bassoon with the band. “As a musician myself, I find it really interesting to look at some of the concert programs, like one from 1883 or another from 1926, with two new John Philip Sousa marches. It’s really neat that the Bangor Band played those pieces when they had just been published, and we even still play some of them today.”
The Bangor Band was founded in 1859. In its second season, it played rallies all across New England for the 1860 Abraham Lincoln-Hannibal Hamlin presidential ticket, supporting Hamlin, a native of Bangor who went on to become Lincoln’s vice president in his first term. During the Civil War, it became a regimental band attached first to the 2nd Maine Infantry and later the 14th Maine Regiment. In February 1865, the Band was present when Union forces recaptured Fort Sumter from the Confederacy.
Since then, the band has remained a constant presence in the lives of Bangor residents, playing free concerts both indoors and outdoors all year long, and participating in parades and observances for Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and during the holiday season.
That was the case until this year, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down nearly all live performances. Fenders said he’d looked through the archive to see how the 1918 influenza pandemic might have affected the Bangor Band a century ago, but found that, at least by mid-November of that year, the band had resumed playing.
“From what we have documented, it doesn’t seem like it affected the Bangor Band at all because the band did march during the Armistice Day parade in November 1918, celebrating the official end of World War I,” he said.
That’s certainly not the case during this pandemic, however. McKay said the band had tried last year to plan a series of short pop-up concerts, to be held outside at long-term care facilities around the Bangor area in the fall. With small, 10- to 15-member groups spaced out 9 feet apart, McKay thought it might be a safe way to bring a little entertainment to residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, most of whom have been fully locked down since the pandemic started.
But just as the concert series was due to start, COVID-19 cases began to spike in Maine in October, and the entire plan was scrapped.
“Now, we have no idea if we’ll be able to have a regular concert season at all this year,” McKay said. “It may be that these outdoor mini-concerts for really small audiences might end up being the thing we do, until things get back to whatever normal is.”
While it’s been hard for all performing artists to essentially sit and wait while the pandemic runs its course, it’s especially difficult for Bangor Band members, given the nature of most of the instruments its members play, McKay said.
“To quote the great Billy Miller, ‘All we want to do is play,’” she said, referring to longtime member Miller, a percussionist with the band and also with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. “It’s not like with a piano or a guitar, where you can kind of sit down with it and entertain yourself. You can’t really do that as a percussionist or tuba or trumpet player. It’s not a lot of fun to sit down and play the tuba to yourself.”
Plus, even more so than people singing, wind instruments can potentially be extra-efficient at spreading virus particles. Until the pandemic is over, tuba players, clarinetists and trumpeters alike are mostly out of luck.
“That’s the thing about the band: these are people that love to play music, but it’s music that is meant to be played in a group,” McKay said. “Until then, we’re just going to have to keep our lips in playing shape until we can be together again.”