Hearing 'The Blue and White’ before home football games is a near-religious experience for me.
The entirety of the Marching Tar Heels stands at the steps of Wilson Library, amped up that kickoff is only an hour away. Our uniforms blend with the Carolina blue worn by fans standing on Polk Place, who are enjoying the weather, shooting the breeze, or taking a break from their trek to the game.
The drumline assembles in front of the band as they run through warm up exercises. Fist bumps and stick-clicks are passed down the line as we each arrive from our own performance in the Pit. This is our brief break before the march eventually leading us to the tunnels of Kenan Stadium.
As the first chords of 'The Blue and White’ begin to swell, anyone watching the drumline sees us pretending our drumsticks are violins and swaying to the music. There’s no percussion part written for the piece. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The chorale is 90 seconds that never fail to give me goosebumps. Woodwinds carry the melody for most of the song as brass provide regal chords underneath. Towards the end, the band quickly drops in volume before crescendoing to its loudest peak. Then the bottom drops out, with low brass belting their strongest notes yet and upper brass joining in the melody. The tune concludes with a high C from trumpets and a final crescendo from everyone.
It is absolutely glorious.
The Marching Tar Heels have been playing 'The Blue and White’ as a warm up exercise since 1997, when two senior members felt moved to write for the band. Students Joshua Potter and Ryan Ripperton came up with an idea together on a bus ride to Washington D.C. before reaching out to alumnus Brian Miller, a recent graduate who had an extensive knowledge of UNC traditions.
The three pulled inspiration from a little-known hymn titled ‘Pilgrims’ for their arrangement. Written by British composer Henry Thomas Smart in 1868, the tune served as a base for the UNC trio before writing parts for modern band instruments and creating lyrics. They presented the chorale as a gift to the band program in the fall of 1997 and although the words are not sung by the band, the song itself is a staple of every performance.
Ripperton, who is now the director of a non-profit youth arts program in Richmond, VA, says it’s an honor to him the Marching Tar Heels play the chorale so frequently. The song still means a lot to him, reminding of his own experience as a UNC student.
“Every time I hear it,” Ripperton says, “the faces of my friends, the emotions of the life-changing experiences I had at UNC -- they all come flooding back. But as that becomes true for further generations -- a unifying piece of music that becomes a shared experience for those that came after us -- it's more than Josh and I could have ever dreamed for when we wrote it.”
Potter, who now directs the bands of Providence High School in Charlotte, also says the band’s tradition of playing 'The Blue and White’ makes him proud. Back when he was a band director in Raleigh, it was easier to make it to one or two UNC football games during the fall and hear the band play. Now, he rarely gets the chance due to the busy schedule of his high school band.
Last November, Providence traveled to Cary, North Carolina, to perform in the Cary Band Day competition. It’s one of the bigger high school competitions in the area, lasting over 12 hours and featuring dozens of bands. Occasionally, the competition invites a college band to perform in exhibition as entertainment. This was Providence’s first year traveling to Cary and, as Potter learned after registering, the Marching Tar Heels happened to be the exhibition band.
After his high school’s performance, Potter led his students back to the buses to change. As he waited for them to regroup and head back to the stadium, he heard a much larger band began to play nearby. He peered around the bus and saw a formation filled with Carolina blue.
“The UNC band’s warm-up space was located directly next to our buses,” says Potter. “When they began to play 'The Blue and White,’ I walked over so I could hear.”
Potter listened until the warm up was finished, and started to head back to his bus when Carolina band director Jeff Fuchs recognized him. He instructed the band to play the chorale once more and waved Potter over.
“He invited me to come conduct the piece,” says Potter. “Getting the opportunity to conduct it with my current students looking on from just a few yards away is a memory I will always cherish. It provided me the opportunity to tell them about the UNC tradition too.”
It might not be as widely known as ‘Here Comes Carolina’ or ‘Hark the Sound.’ It might not be as historic as hearing the bell tower ring ‘Victory’ after a win. But 'The Blue and White’ is an incredible tradition for the UNC band and one near to my Carolina-blue heart.
The Marching Tar Heels will perform it for the first time this season ahead of Saturday’s game against Pitt. If you wander by Wilson Library and see the band there, take a minute to stop and listen for the regal, sweet chorale. It just might give you goosebumps too.