Alonzo Draper’s Fife Melodies, 1855

Draper’s son, General Alonzo Draper, killed by friendly fire in Texas at the close of the Civil War. Courtesy Google Images

Alonzo Draper . . . to most of us, the name doesn’t ring a bell, although for Civil War aficionados it conjures images of the youthful, dynamic military hero who, before his tragic death in 1865, had earned the rank of Brigadier General.  Equally interesting to us as fifers and drummers, though, is Alonzo’s father, also Alonzo, whose self-published Draper’s Fife Melodies appeared in 1855.

The Draper family in America descended from Samuel of Yorkshire, England.  An 1892 history compiled in part by General Alonzo’s sister, Adelaide, describes him thus, “He is supposed to have been the wild son of a Church of England clergyman, one Thomas Draper of Halifax.”  “The young man ran away to sea,” she reported, “and never thereafter returned home.”  Later, we are told that Samuel “took a wife who accompanied him on several voyages,” but more careful research reveals the shameful truth hidden behind her carefully chosen words.  Great-Grandpa roamed the seas as a pirate, and his “wife” had been pillaged during a raid on a Spanish port.  Nonetheless, she proved his life’s consort and bore him several children including three sons, each of whom was named for an American seaport–Boston, New York, and Newburyport. (A fourth son, James, was spared a similar fate by his father’s fondness for an uncle or brother so named.)   It is from Boston Draper that the two Alonzos descended and the history of Draper’s Melodies begins.

Draper was evidently a pleasant man and a good musician.  His daughter recalled that he was a music teacher specializing in piano and woodwinds.  He “had a lovable disposition,” she recalled, “which attracted children to him very greatly.”  She indicated that he also composed and arranged music for military bands, although she never acknowledged his dabblings in fife music per se.

The Melodies was unusual for its time.  The 50-year-old Draper shunned the practices of other mid-century fife book compilers, whose works relied upon the tried-and-true formula of mixing several old favorites with newer selections from the dances and songs currently in the air.  Instead, the title-page advises that he composed each of the 148 tunes himself.

Title-page, original edition (from private collection)

What he wrote for Draper’s Fife Melodies is bright and lively.  Some of the the tunes push the limitations of the traditional fife, but they all reveal that their composer was familiar with the style, form, and construction of the quicksteps, jigs, hornpipes, and marches that dominated the contemporary fife repertory.  The book soon caught the eye of Boston’s music publishing mogul, Oliver Ditson, who reissued it in 1857, this time as Draper’s Fife without a Master.  Perhaps it was Ditson who suggested that Draper increase the market appeal and practicality of his book by dropping his claims of original composition and enlarging it to include a series of lessons, an “Explanation of Musical Terms” and a few camp duties.

Unfortunately, it appears that none of these marketing ploys worked.  Had either Draper’s Fife Melodies or Fife without a Master enjoyed a significant distribution, some fragment of that popularity might be evident today, either in the number of extant issues or by any number of these tunes published in competing fife tutors, copied by fifers into their personal tune books, or surviving in today’s traditional “ancient” repertory.   None of this occurred, and we are left to speculate that Draper’s talent attracted little interest and few dollars.  It is much more likely that fifers marching off to the Civil war stuffed copies of Howe’s Army and Navy Instructor or Winner’s Perfect Guide into their haversacks, leaving the Draper books on the shelves at Oliver Ditson’s store on Washington Street in Boston.

If Draper produced any other fife books before his death in 1862, they remain to be found.  His association with Boston-area military bands is yet to be explored.  We are fortunate, though, to have the opportunity to revitalize these otherwise-lost tunes through the few copies of his books that have survived.

Copyright 2008, 2011 HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

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