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We Meet The People Who Ring The Bells In Boston's Old North Church

NOEL KING, HOST:

The oldest church bells in the U.S. hang inside of Boston's Old North Church. And on Independence Day, members of a bellringing guild will pull their ropes. Here's WBUR's Andrea Shea with a preview.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPS CREAKING)

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Narrow, creaky, wooden steps wind up to the Old North Church's ringing room, where four members of the MIT Guild of Bellringers have gathered for a session. They've come from around Boston to pull on the eight ropes that dangle from holes in the ceiling. There's one for each mammoth bell hanging up in the belfry.

JOHN BIHN: Ready? Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

BIHN: Each ringer is in control of one bell. And so in order to ring anything, there's an element of teamwork where each ringer needs to ring their bell in the right place in order for it to sound musical.

SHEA: Twenty-six-year-old John Bihn is the guild's ringing master. He says the club attracts all kinds, from history buffs to people looking to play gigantic instruments.

BIHN: The bells, once they start swinging, have a lot of momentum, which is how we can have a community ranging from young ringers to ringers even in their 70s that still are able to ring these huge thousand-pound bells.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

BIHN: Spread them out just a little bit more.

KATARINA DUTTON: There's something extremely visceral and extremely satisfying about ringing a really heavy bell, like, that literally weighs 10 times what I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SHEA: Thirty-one-year-old Katarina Dutton is also fascinated by the 17th century English style of playing called change ringing, which is more math-y than melodic. The ringers pull the bells in repeating patterns that shift or change. Here's what it sounds like with eight bells.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SHEA: Dutton, who's a math teacher, happily acknowledges the guild's change ringing hobby is pretty geeky.

DUTTON: What I like to say is it's combinatorics with loud numbers, which - combinatorics is the math field of taking a set of numbers and rearranging it or putting it in different orders or different groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

BIHN: Let's go again once more.

SHEA: It's challenging to stay on top of the changing patterns, especially for 45 minutes straight, but the guild members say it's also thrilling to pull bells Paul Revere rang as a teen years before the Revolutionary War. Dutton thinks it's pretty cool that these big bells have never been automated and are always played by actual humans.

DUTTON: And I'd love it if people who hear us on the street could appreciate that and recognize that for how kind of awesome it is, that this is something that's been happening, truthfully and totally honestly, for hundreds of years (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.