For 250 years, music has filled the cobblestone streets of the Old Salem historic district in Winston-Salem. This summer, the band that’s played everything from Moravian hymns and polkas to rock ’n’ roll covers celebrates its historic milestone with their community.
Eileen Young lowers her baton and turns to face the audience. Framed by a stand of cedars in the heart of historic Old Salem, the Salem Band’s conductor introduces their next piece, a crowd-favorite polka version of the beloved Moravian hymn “Morning Star.”
Morning Star, o cheering sight! Ere thou cam’st, how dark Earth’s night!
The sounds of woodwinds, brass, and percussion rise and fill the air. It’s a joyful song, a celebration of the band’s Moravian heritage that dates back to 15th-century Europe. This band is 250 years old.
The Salem Band is a community band, which means that its more than 70 musicians are mostly amateurs. By day, they are teachers, doctors, students, barbers, nurses, retirees — you name it. But on Tuesday nights, you’ll find them at band practice.
Eileen Young is the first female conductor of the Salem Band. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Young, the band’s first female conductor and a Pennsylvania native, likes to think about what life might have been like for those first Moravian band members back in the 18th century. Just a few years before the ensemble formed, 15 colonists had made a treacherous covered-wagon journey from Pennsylvania to an abandoned cabin in North Carolina’s Piedmont. The Moravian Church is one of Christianity’s oldest Protestant denominations, and these settlers sought to inhabit a large swath of land where they could worship freely.
“Imagine Salem in 1771, when the band got its start,” Young says. “These Moravians are here, in the middle of nowhere. They’ve planned, built, and established the town of Salem out of nothing.”
Life was rustic, but traditional Moravian hymns lifted their spirits, just as music had for those who’d come before them, the way it does for all of us. The people of Salem founded a musical society and began collecting instruments — mostly trombones at first. Some they borrowed from the neighboring Bethabara community; some they ordered from Europe.
Donna Rothrock is the band’s historian. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Back then, it probably wasn’t called a band, says Donna Rothrock, a French horn player and the band’s historian. “They would get together and play preludes before major services or church festivals. They’d play for funerals, accompanying the hymns sung at gravesides. They’d go to people’s houses and play for them on their birthdays. When George Washington visited in 1791, they serenaded him on his way into town.
“The Salem Band has never been stuffy,” Rothrock continues. “They’ve always realized how important music is for entertainment. That’s why, even today, everything — marches, rock music, show tunes — is included in our concerts. I dare say, anybody could come to a concert and hear something that speaks to them.”
Morning Star, thy glory bright far excels the sun’s clear light.
This season, the Salem Band commemorates its 250th anniversary with an eight-part concert series, culminating with a performance in Salem Square in early August. The shows are open to the public — part of the band’s mission to provide free entertainment for the community.
Concerts usually draw upward of 400 people, a mix of regulars and newcomers. “We have a loyal fan base who is present at everything,” Young says. “One of the great joys of this band, for me, is seeing the friendships that have developed over the years, among people of all different playing and music levels.”
Jeff Whitsett has been a member of the Salem Band since he was 14 years old. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Now 63 years old, Jeff Whitsett was one of the youngest members of the band when he joined at 14. “My dad would drive me to Salem Band practice every Tuesday and sit in the hallway until it was time to drive me back home,” he remembers. “I don’t know if it was cool — I just did it because I liked it.”
When Whitsett got married, he told his wife that he would have a standing Tuesday-night commitment for the rest of his life. So that he could make it to rehearsals and concerts, they took their vacations Wednesdays through Mondays.
Whitsett went on to direct the band from 1992 until Young took over in 2011. “All through my life, I’ve tried to encourage everyone to play an instrument,” Whitsett says. “You can be really good at football, but by the time you’re 30, you probably won’t be playing anymore. You can play an instrument until you drop over.”
Thy glad beams, thou Morning Star, cheer the nations near and far.
The Moravians’ commitment to pacifism was tested in 1831, when early rumblings of a civil war spread through the state. North Carolina’s legislators revoked the Moravians exemption from duty. No longer would their belief in pacifism spare them from a draft to fight for their state.
Rothrock explains that the men decided to form their own militia with their own elected officers so they’d have a better chance of staying together. “They figured, We’ve got this group together. And we’ve got these musicians,” she says. “So that’s when the musicians really organized formally as the Salem Band.”
Flash forward to the 1860s, when the young nation was torn apart by war. Salem Band members knew from nearly a hundred years of playing together that music has the power to unite people. They didn’t fight with weapons; they healed with song. “Every regiment in the state had a band,” Rothrock explains, “and the majority of Salem’s instrumentalists formed the noted NC 26th Regimental Band and made up most of the NC 21st Regimental Band.”
During the Civil War, members of the Salem Moravian Church Band were able to return home on furlough in the summer of 1862. Photography courtesy of OLD SALEM MUSEUMS AND GARDENS HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION
Even in the midst of fighting, the bands played on. “They were there to entertain the troops, and it lifted spirits when they played,” Rothrock says. “Many times, during battles and skirmishes, the instrumentalists would serve as medics, carrying litters of wounded people.”
Young has been conducting the Salem Band for more than a decade; in the beginning, she had reservations about the band’s military service history. “When I started, I often struggled with how to justify part of this band having fought on the wrong side of the war,” she says. “But they really didn’t want to fight and would have done almost anything to avoid it. Being in the band saved their lives and assuaged their convictions — and all through music.”
Morning Star, my soul’s true light, tarry not, dispel my night.
Rothrock got involved with the band in 1975, the summer after her freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her parents and grandfather played in it. “I’m Moravian and grew up knowing about the band,” she says, adding, “Who didn’t know about the band?”
Today, thinking back on her more than 40-year tenure, Rothrock can’t imagine her life without the Salem Band. “It’s not that I choose to do this,” she says, “it’s one of those things that I can’t not do. It has become a part of me.”
Like the Moravian star, the Salem Band is an icon of Old Salem. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
And she can’t imagine her community without it, either. “It’s such a support in times of comfort and in times of grief,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s continued all these years, and will continue into the future. Music is always with us, and as long as we have that, we’re still connected.”
Back in Salem Square, Young raises her baton again. The audience is ready. They know this one — some have heard it from the band, others learned it at church, still others sang it with loved ones. Young’s baton sweeps down, and the band begins to play. The crowd joins in, their shared music rising to the stars above.
A Q&A with Eileen Young
We sat down with Salem Band’s first female director to talk about the legacy she’s building and how community-based music has been uniting the town of Winston-Salem for 250 years.
Salem Band’s first female director, Eileen Young.
OS: How did you end up in North Carolina, and how did you become the conductor of Salem Band?
Eileen: I’m a Pennsylvania native, and I grew up in the northern province of the Moravian church, so I always knew about the Moravian community. I moved to North Carolina in 1986 to attend graduate school at UNC-Greensboro. I got my master’s and doctorate degrees in clarinet performance, and I’ve been performing professional clarinet ever since. Around 2010, I had been conducting smaller bands at universities and in my private studio. One of those folks played in Salem Band and said that their director was retiring and encouraged me to apply for the position. I had no intention of becoming a band director and I didn’t really take that request seriously, but she kept pressing me gently. When I thought about my community band experiences — in high school and college I played in several community bands — I realized that those were some of the best times in my life. After a rigorous application process, I was ultimately offered the position, and took it!
OS: What’s special about directing a volunteer band?
Eileen: I have to say that one of the things I really get gratification out of is that when band rehearsal is finished, I can hardly get the musicians out of the band room! They’ve formed their own relationships, and they just stay around and want to talk to each other. If I chase them out of the band room and the building to lock up, when I go outside, there they are on the sidewalk, chatting away. I guess I’m really proud of the community aspect of the community band.
OS: In what ways does the band unite the community of Winston-Salem as a whole?
Eileen: Well, I always like to keep it at the forefront that that is what we are — we are a community band. Because of that, I don’t put any particular professional expectations on this group — I want the members of our band to have fun, to enjoy themselves. We also have a very loyal fan base, which we can see through our donors. Also, with all our Moravian connections around here, it’s become a way for some of our Moravian musicians to grow confident enough to play at places like their Easter sunrise service, or to play with a small brass ensemble for events in their own circles.
OS: What does it mean to you to be the first female director of the band?
Eileen: Well, I feel a responsibility to do the best job that I can and to be a good example to young women who may want to follow a similar path. It wasn’t easy at first — there was a little bit of pushback when I was hired as the band director, but that ironed itself out pretty quickly. Everybody realized that I was an experienced band musician, and most importantly, that I was devoted to keeping this band going and integrating it with our community. I wanted our band to be combined with the arts and innovation side of Winston-Salem, and over the years, I believe that people have noticed and appreciated that about my work with the band.
OS: What’s your favorite part about directing the band?
Eileen: This might sound cliché, but I just really enjoy making people happy with music. Making the musicians happy to be there, making the audience happy to be listening and experiencing that moment with us. I try to set up programs so that there’s something for everybody. I love the concept of using music creatively to enhance the community. I not only enjoy the music part of it, but also the creative opportunities to organize concerts and write scripts, and getting to know the people of Winston-Salem.
OS: You’ve been conducting the band for over a decade, now. What’s one of your favorite memories from band practices over the years?
Eileen: Well, we do a lot of friendly teasing in band rehearsals. I’ve gotten to know a lot of these folks well enough to joke around with them. For instance, the other night at rehearsal, I was teasing Donna Rothrock, who was featured in the Our State article. She’s kind of a serious person, so I announced at the band rehearsal, “You guys, someone got Donna to smile!” and Donna shouted, “The photographer made me do it!” That gave us a good laugh. — Anna Grace Thrailkill
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