High-School Band Pays Tribute to Teens of Civil War

The Williams Fifth Regimental Cavalry Band in northern Arizona is a group of high-school students strictly devoted to playing Civil War tunes. They dress in authentic clothes and play throughout the summer at community events. Gillian Ferris Kohl of member station KNAU reports.

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After a civil war in the United States, some of the veterans helped to found a town called Williams, Arizona. The town is still there, and today it's the home of one of the more unusual groups involved in Civil War reenactments. It's a Civil War band, and it's made up entirely of teenagers. They remember the teenaged fifers and drummer boys who were among the casualties of that war in the 1860s.

Gillian Ferris Kohl of member KNAU has our report on this holiday.

GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL reporting:

The music room at Williams Middle School is filling up with students from the neighboring high schools. They walk over after school, along streets named in honor Civil War generals like Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman.

The students use the middle school's auditorium for band rehearsal, where they're killing a little time before practice begins. But as soon as their band leader, Mr. Grimes, comes in the door, the musicians abruptly quit goofing around and take their places on stage.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCOTT M. GRIMES: Hi, I'm Scott M. Grimes, instrumental music director for the Williams Fifth Regimental Calvary Band.

I feel that our band has been an ambassador of patriotism and Williams, and what great kids these are. And there's a lot said for kids that are in music. Music keeps kids in school. It really does.

KOHL: For the last eight years, Grimes has used the band as a way of fusing together two areas of study, history and music.

Mr. GRIMES: I educate them on the history of the Civil War and the bloodshed that was there, as well as current conflicts. But we talk about, you know, the sadness. For example, we play Home Sweet Home.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GRIMES: Just prior to the battle of Murphysboro, and Home Sweet Home, a Union band showed up and began to play. And then a few, I'm not sure how long after, but a Confederate band showed up, and they played. And what they did, they were close enough to talk to each other. And they played back and forth. They played for, I'd say quite a while, an hour or so, and the last number they played they played together, and it was Home Sweet Home. The boys wanted to go home. And they woke up the next morning, slaughtered each other by the thousands.

KOHL: The band has produced four CDs, with a portion of the proceeds going towards scholarships for the kids who go on to college. And the City of Williams hires the band each summer to play at some 50 public performances. At $8 an hour, it's not a bad gig for a teenager in rural Arizona.

Mr. KEVIN KIRKLEY(ph): My name is Kevin Kirkley. I'm 17 years old. I've played the drums in this band, or the rope tension snare drum. From a teenager's point of view it's kind of like embarrassing to be marching around in a blue wool uniform in the middle of summer. I mean it's not exactly a chick-magnet thing, or anything.

The hardest thing, really, is holding up from, like, cracking up, because you get all sorts of odd people that show up and just start dancing or, you know, and the south will rise again, and stuff like that. Most years it's a pretty good time.

KOHL: But nobody laughs when 17-year-old Billy Eastland(ph) brushes his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes and lifts his trumpet to his lips.

(Soundbite of Taps)

KOHL: Eastland is the lone trumpet player for the song Taps, the military funeral song written during the Civil War.

(Soundbite of Taps)

KOHL: Eastland is a quiet kid who's performed Taps at many military funerals. He says it's hard to describe in words what it feels like to play such a sorrowful tune. That's why the music speaks for him.

(Soundbite of Taps)

KOHL: For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl.

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