Allentown Band and Sousa make Fourth of July special

The British are a very odd people. When they needed a signature tune for the most famous British television show ever exported to America, for example, they selected a rousing march named for the main symbol of America's rejection of British tyranny back in 1776.

John Phillip Sousa's "The Liberty Bell" provided the rousing music on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" for years, and it's probably familiar to many people for that more than for its popularity at American patriotic events, including the inaugurations of our last three presidents.

The Liberty Bell itself (the historic relic, not the song) had to be taken from Philadelphia and hidden by patriots to foil Redcoat plans to melt it down for bullets with which to shoot American colonists, who had decided that freedom was better than the oppression of a lunatic king.

That happened a year after the bell was rung to observe the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Where did they hide it in 1777? Why, in Allentown, of course, at the Zion Reformed Church. To this day, a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell is on display at the Liberty Bell Museum in the church's basement.

So it was more than fitting that when America's oldest (and best) civilian community band scheduled two concerts to celebrate Independence Day, Sousa's 1893 "The Liberty Bell" march was planned as one of the opening numbers for each.

The first concert of the Allentown Band was scheduled for Wednesday evening at the city's West Park, my favorite place in the whole world to listen to music. Gruesome weather forecasts, however, forced the cancellation of that performance.

Bummer. I was looking forward to all that music, especially what the band always plays as its grand finale — Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," of which I never get tired, even though I've heard it umpteen times.

If you have never been enchanted by the piccolo solos, or if you have never had your hair blown back when the band's brass section comes to the front of the stage to blast away with the last part of that march, you are indeed culturally deprived.

Fortunately, the second part of the band's Independence Day schedule will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Bethlehem, and the weather forecasts are looking good.

Not only will there be "The Liberty Bell" and "Stars and Stripes," the band also will play one of my favorite Sousa marches, "Semper Fidelis," along with a couple of other Sousa compositions and a selection of several wonderful non-Sousa numbers, including such things as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

I must digress to note that it always irks me that Sousa wrote the magnificent "Semper Fi" for the Marine Corps. I supposed it's understandable; America did not have much of an Air Force when Sousa wrote most of his stuff, but I still get jealous, even though our "Wild Blue Yonder" is a pretty nifty number.

Anyway, the Independence Day concert on Independence Day will be begin at 7:30 p.m. at the outdoor Levitt Pavilion at the SteelStacks complex in Bethlehem (right by the old blast furnaces).

The Allentown Band's habit of specializing in Sousa music is not the only connection with the man known all over the world as the March King.

Since the band held its first documented performance on the Fourth of July in 1828, it has had close ties to Sousa, who recruited 20 members of the band for his own band. They included famed cornet soloist Albertus Meyers, who returned to Allentown to serve as our band's conductor for 51 years.

When I discussed all this with Debra Heiney, the band's business manager and base clarinet player, she told me about a historical tidbit I had missed. When Sousa died in 1932 at a Reading hotel, after a rehearsal with the Ringgold Band, Meyers had spent the evening with him and was the last person to see him alive.

Also, if you attend the Allentown's Band's key concerts, there often is a youngster dressed in 19th century garb, including knickers, who walks back and forth across the stage with a placard announcing the name of the next number.

That is a tribute to the placard boys Sousa used, particularly when he and his band performed in Allentown in the 1890s.

Heiney said the selection of "The Liberty Bell" march for this week's Independence Day concerts was no accident.

"The Liberty Bell is our symbol of freedom, and there is the connection with the Liberty Bell church in Allentown," observed Heiney, who also is a music teacher in Bangor.

That made me think of my late Aunt Ev, who was a beloved music teacher in Eden, N.Y., and whom I considered to be the world's foremost authority on music.

Before I moved to the Lehigh Valley in the 1980s, I knew nothing about the Allentown Band. Within a week or two of moving here, we went to Eden for a family gathering and I told my aunt I now worked for a newspaper based in Allentown.

To my surprise, she immediately expressed her delight that I was now at the site of what she said was the best community band in America.

Nothing that band has done since then has ever made me think she was wrong.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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