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Strike Up the Band: The Bristol Fourth is Here!

The flags and bunting adorn the handsome colonials and Greek Revivals along Hope Street, the hydrangeas are blooming and a fresh stripe of red, white...

The flags and bunting adorn the handsome colonials and Greek Revivals along Hope Street, the hydrangeas are blooming and a fresh stripe of red, white and blue has been painted along the July 4th parade route downtown.

The parking lot at the Lobster Pot was clogged yesterday, the Celtic music session at Aidan’s was standing-room only and Independence Park was jammed with revelers listening to a Jimmy Buffet cover band.

Welcome back to Bristol, where the annual Fourth of July fever has broken out. Celebrating this summer holiday is a tradition held more tightly in Bristol than anywhere else in the United States. The Fourth is this historic New England town’s secular religion, a timeless mix of patriotism and provincialism.

To outsiders and parade watchers, the Fourth Holiday is a time to view the parade and see the fireworks streak across the night sky over Bristol harbor.

In Bristol, tis the season of family gatherings and high school reunions.  Bristol natives gather from around the globe to party with old friends and family. Cookout tables are piled high with salads, stuffies, little necks, steamers, lobsters, chourico, burgers and hot dogs.

This year is the 230th incarnation of the Bristol Fourth parade, billed as America’s oldest Independence Day celebration. Through depressions, wars and family milestones, the rituals of a Bristol Fourth are always in abundance.

Listen to writer Mary Cantwell, who in her lyrical love letter to Bristol, `American Girl’  recalls coming of age in Bristol during the Great Depression and World War II.

``Early in the morning when the sky is grey we can hear the dull boom of the Fourth of July canon,’’ writes Cantwell. ``Get up, get up my mother pleads…get up, get up…it’s time to get out the old blankets and folding chairs and spread them over’’ the narrow strip of lawn in front of their Hope Street home to claim a spot ``before the people from out of town come and park their carcasses right in front of you.’’

The canon blasts at dawn still. Parade watchers joust for prime viewing perches on Hope. And the town still will not allow anyone to camp out overnight or set out chairs and blankets before 5 a.m.

The highest honor the town can bestow on a resident is to be named chief marshal, who leads the parade. From 1795 until World War I, chief marshals were a long line of Yankee, Protestant surnames: Colt, DeWolf, Chase, Burnside, Rockwell and Haffenreffer. Then immigrants settle into a town that became an industrial powerhouse and Italian-American and Irish-American names are on the marshal list: Leahy, Riccio, Campagna. The first chief  marshal of Portuguese-American lineage came in 1954 when Matt Brito klcked off the march. Since, many marshals have been of Portuguese ancestry in this community that has been home to generations of Portuguese-speaking immigrants.

This year, state Rep. Raymond Gallison, D-Bristol, chairman of the House Finance Committee, will lead the parade. Before the parade begins, festivities will occur on the town common. According to tradition, a patriotic speaker gives an address on the importance of the Fourth. This year, Dr. Donald Farish, president of Roger Williams University, will give the speech. Past patriotic speakers include U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, and former White House domestic policy advisor Ira Magaziner, father of state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

Rhode Island is fortunate to have this tradition on our front lawn. On Independence Day, there was Bristol, there is Bristol. Let’s hope that as long as a free people celebrate our independence, that there will always be Bristol.

Strike Up the Band: The Bristol Fourth is Here!
Strike Up the Band: The Bristol Fourth is Here!