Running a good drum corps is hard. It was even harder early in the twentieth century when not everybody owned cars or could afford train fare and the only way to share music over long distances was to send handmade copies through the mail. It was this environment that prompted formation of the National Association of Civil War Musicians, a little-known subgroup of the Grand Army of the Republic. The NACWM would organize G.A.R. fifers and drummers into a National Drum Corps to provide martial music at encampments and other events; to accomplish this, they devised a small tune-book called American Veteran Fifer. While there are several period publications still extant that preserve the fife music of the Civil War, this book is unique in that it preserves the fife music of the Civil War veteran.
The origins of the NACWM are and likely will remain unknown, since records prior to 1926 have been destroyed. We thus know very little of the veteran fifers and drummers who met at the earliest encampments of the GAR. With the music of the war still fresh in the collective memory, one might assume that there was no need to standardize the music; indeed, as late as 1897, no musical interest group was listed in the Manual of the Civil War and Key to the Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies (Revised Edition). However, conditions were ripe for change. G.A.R. membership peaked in 1890, and by that time the Civil War music, although endeared to all, had become old-fashioned. What was remembered had no doubt been diluted over time and by the regional isolation that occurred once the veterans had returned to their respective homes across the country and stayed there. As a result, a fifer from Michigan who might remember “Old Rosin the Beau” from his wartime service would play it differently in 1893 than he had in 1863 and differently still than the fifer from Maine, or Oregon, or Pennsylvania, or Nevada. While one version might vary only slightly from another, playing ensemble might produce multiple variants, resulting in more cacophony than melody. This problem compounded when membership rules were relaxed to admit the Sons of Union Veterans to G.A.R. events. The older folks welcomed their assistance, but it nonetheless introduced more confusion into the field music as they pondered what to play and how to play it. Something had to be done. Something was.
Exactly when the National Association of Civil War Musicians was formed is unknown. However, its leaders attended the annual G.A.R. convention in Cleveland (1901), something they continued to do for the next 5 years. It wasn’t until 1906 that the National Association, not just its leaders, attended its first G.A.R. convention which was held in Minneapolis. That’s when the entire second floor of the Jefferson school building was reserved for NACWM meetings and its members asked to attend in “full G.A.R. uniform,” ready to address the “great things that are expected of us.” We might speculate, then, that the National Association of Civil War Musicians was officially established in 1906.
The process of forming a national music committee might have been similar to the departmental process of forming a drum corps: the matter was simply “brought before the Encampment in session,” and once authorized, the new group would be entitled to “a place on the regular program of the encampments.”
It was the “National Fife Major,” A.F. Hopkins of Yellow Springs, Ohio, who sought to coordinate the GAR field music. He did this by assembling 139 tunes, which were arranged on a single 80-page signature measuring 2.75 x 7 inches—large enough for aging eyes to read but small enough to slip inside a pocket. Whether the American Veteran Fifer was given or sold to G.A.R. fifers is unclear, but it proved so successful that even as the first edition was completed, another was “in preparation.” The American Veteran Fifer was issued without apology or explanation. While much of the music has been traced to the war, a careful examination of the tunes, both individually and collectively, demonstrates more of a traditional military repertory that predictably mixes older, familiar marches and quicksteps with more recent ones. The result was a body of popular songs, dances, and other melodies surrounding a stable nucleus of time-honored marches, some dating to the Civil War but others even further back to the War of 1812 and the Revolution. This kind of eclecticism is inherent to an aurally-based traditional repertory, and as such Hopkins made no fuss about it. In fact, he identified only 2 “Civil War” and 3 “historical” tunes, and one of these erroneously. More important to him and his comrades was the emotional investment that rendered each tune meaningful and therefore memorable. Thus, he solicited music directly from those who had played and would be playing it, identifying the contributor (not the tune) by carefully enumerating his Civil War service.
To this music he added a few of his own choices, some of which he claimed as original compositions, and then some camp duties and selections from a well-established repertory of fondly remembered favorites that the others were bound to recognize. He further personalized the music by writing dedications to specific comrades and by devising alliterative tune titles, such as “J.L. Blatchley’s Banter,” “C.E. Larrabee’s Lark,” and “George Brown’s Bonvivant [Pig Town Fling].” Even the “historical” tunes were personalized, so that “Road To Boston,” is described not as a Revolutionary War survival but “as played by The N.A. of C.W.M. leading the G.A.R. Parade at Boston August 16th 1904.” All of this suggests that American Veteran Fifer sought to musically unite G.A.R. fifers through a selection of well-known music drawn from a largely traditional but turn-of-the-century repertory. Historical overlap was nothing more than a happy accident that was briefly noted, if known or suspected.
Evidently, American Veteran Fifer was a several-year effort—although the book is dated 1905, internal evidence suggests that it was not published until at least 1909, more likely 1910. The NACWM lost no time, however, in putting it to its intended use, and in 1911 comrades were advised by postal card of the title, time signature, and page number of the ten selections to be featured at the upcoming national encampment in Rochester, New York.
This encampment exposed another problem, one that had been simmering since at least 1904 and which would ultimately prove fatal. “Comrades of the Civil War Musicians,” another postal card proclaimed, “Its Up To You’uns:”
Say boys it’s up to you’uns to settle this dispute ‘Bout marchin’ at Encampments and all the “GUSH” refute. Who’s getting’ old and feeble an’ totter as they walk; Say wouldn’t that jar yer pension, an’ cause a vet to balk? Just as lief attend camp meetin’ without the prayer an’ shout As to mix in a Reunion with the marchin’ all left out. So we’ll just keep on a marchin’ an’ a passin’ in Review Cause we’ve earned the right to do so ALL IN OUR UNION BLUE.
“The boys” were successful in this endeavor, and the grand parade of veterans remained on the program for this and subsequent encampments despite the yearly thinning of the ranks as the veterans succumbed, one by one, to age and infirmity. However, they were feisty old men and did not go down without a fight. In 1926 the short-term future of the NACWM was ensured when the name was officially changed to the National Association of Civil War Musicians and Sons of Union Veterans. This allowed the younger fifers and drummers to enjoy full membership in the organization founded by their fathers and grandfathers. Author MacKinlay Kantor, who some years later would write the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Andersonville, was one of many Sons who paid the annual $1.00 dues for the privilege of mingling with the old soldiers at encampments and marching with them on parade.
Kantor described the 1922 encampment in an essay entitled “Assembly of the Saints.” Among the hundreds who descended upon Des Moines, Iowa for the event was a non-G.A.R. corps from California who managed to annoy a few old timers (Kantor called them “snobs”) with “those blame fifes in the key of C!” (“Everybody else has got B-flat!”) The snobs were mollified, though, by the extraordinary drumming of Billy Tidswell, a fixture at reunions such as these. Billy was “…a squat, solemn, bearded man—who can beat the Long Roll for a full three minutes without tiring.” Predictably, “[Once] the little bearded man from Michigan has finished his Long Roll, and finished the jig he does along with it[, the] street is resounding with shouted requests from the thickening crowds. “Play Yankee Doodle.” “Hey, mister! Play The Girl I Left Behind Me!” “Play Marching Through Georgia!” “Marching through Georgia,” says one gray-haired raw-boned fifer to another. “They don’t seem to realize that wasn’t written ’till after the War.”
“Girl’s all right, and so’s Yankee Doodle, but they’re chestnuts. Let’s give ’em something regular. Eighteen Twelve or Gilderoy.” But— “Village Quickstep,” calls the Fife Major, and holds his instrument aloft in signal. The music begins. . .” All but one of the tunes mentioned above are in American Veteran Fifer. Although “Marching through Georgia” was indeed “Civil War,” having been filed for copyright on January 9, 1865, to include it would have been superfluous. Whatever its provenance, the G.A.R. realized early on that its stirring words would both excite and incite. By the 1880s, then, it had become its signature tune, well-known to every comrade, and used to promote various G.A.R. political causes.
The expanded NACWM/SUV continued for several years under the leadership of “fat” Bert Child, but by 1936, too old to beat his drum, he led the NACWM at the Washington, D.C. parade as its “National Secretary.” He also served as Secretary-Treasurer and then as “Hon. General Manager.” Child was one of many second-generation NACWM officials who were too young to have ever served in the Civil War but had nonetheless embraced its veterans’ ideals as their own and carried them on. In 1942 there were not enough NACWM members at the national encampment to hold a meeting. The following year Child reported that several state associations had disbanded: “There is now (1943) one Civil War veteran musician in Portland, Oregon. . . the ranks today are made up of sons and grandsons of Civil War Veterans.” With this assistance and with a new name (National Association of Civil War Veterans), the group persisted through the ’40s, even as the parent G.A.R. unofficially folded with its last encampment in 1949. (Of interest to us, Oregon’s lone musical veteran was none other than Comrade Hopkins, who nearly 40 years earlier had worked so hard to preserve G.A.R. music in the American Veteran Fifer.) The revised NACWM continued to exist into the mid-1950s as The National Association of Fife and Drum Corps. Now it was the second- and third-generation friends of veterans such as Bert Child who were the old-timers revered by a younger crowd, and new names appeared as officers, James Diehl as president, and then R. G. Landis. Landis, once vice-president of the Tri-State Association of Martial Bands (a Pennsylvania group founded in 1932), continued with the NAFDC as long as he could, but in 1954 he, too, was elderly, and with his eventual passing so went the hands that had held the hands of America’s veteran fifers, leaving us with a few papers and a small book of tunes as delightful reminders of their glory days.
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