Patrick Gilmore and the Salem Brass Band

One of the greatest source of civic pride in mid-19th century Salem was the Salem Brass Band, a military band attached to the Salem Light Infantry. The outfit had been organized in 1837 and was a familiar sight at militia drills, parades, and other public gatherings.

In December of 1854 the Salem Brass Band offered its vacant bandleader position to a 23 year old native of County Galway, Ireland by the name of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. The salary was $1,000 a year plus all the income he could generate from band activities. Gilmore accepted the offer and took the reins of the Salem band the following month.

The choice of Gilmore was a stroke of good fortune for the Salem Brass band and the Salem Light Infantry. The young bandleader proved to be a brilliant organizer and a creative genius. Gilmore had left home at age 9 to move to a British military town that was also the home base British Militia Regimental Band. The youngster learned to play the fife, the one-keyed bugle, and the cornet. Before long he was also composing waltzes, polkas and marches.

When he came of age for military service the lad joined the regimental band. Gilmore’s unit was sent to Canada soon after he joined it in 1848, and from there the young musician made his way to Boston. There he organized a both a minstrel group and a militia band. In 1854, Patrick Gilmore was chosen to lead the prestigious Boston Brass Band.

Gilmore proceeded to work his magic with the Salem Brass Band, just as he done in Boston. In 1857, the band’s reputation earned it a highly sought invitation from the New England Militia Company to play at the inauguration of U.S. President James Buchanan.

The Salem Brass Band’s performance in the nation’s capitol was praised by the Washington press, further enhancing its reputation as one of the nation’s leading outfits. But the publicity also enraged the Boston area bands who had not been chosen to make the trip.

Their egos bruised, a group of the Bostonians decided to ambush Gilmore’s group at the Boston train depot when they returned from Washington. The Bostonians planned to destroy the instruments of the Salem musicians and render their lips unserviceable for playing. Fortunately for the unsuspecting Salem band members they caught an earlier train home and missed their surprise rendezvous with their jealous counterparts.

Through the music grapevine Gilmore learned of the failed plot. Before the band’s next trip to Boston the young bandleader took appropriate steps to protect his men. Patrick recruited a squad of Salem goons, all armed with blackjacks and brass knuckles, to accompany his musicians to Boston.

As expected, Gilmore’s band members were set upon by a hostile crowd of Bostonians immediately upon disembarking from the train. The Salem thugs, lurking in the background, raced down the train platform and did what they were brought along to do. The Boston musicians received an substantial dose of their own medicine.

But the Bostonians would have the last word. In a classic example of “if you can’t beat ’em, join em'” Gilmore was lured away from Salem to take over the famous Boston Brigade Band which he would reorganize and then lead for three decades.

Within a few years Patrick S. Gilmore’s Boston Brigade Band was arguably the finest military band in the nation, and its leader was staking out his reputation as a peer of the brilliant John Phillip Souza.

Jim McAllister
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