Probably What He Says It Is, but No Maker’s Mark:

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10 thoughts on “Probably What He Says It Is, but No Maker’s Mark:

  1. quite a lovely site. My question is with such great historic material on the fife and the drum, why is there not one example of this tradition expressed within the African-American community? It has a long and large legacy…

    • Thank you, Scott, for your kind words.

      There is a little bit of scholarship available in the African-American tradition, mostly the southern tradition carried on by Othar Turner (and the Rising Star Band). Their is (or was, Othar died in 2003 at the age of 95 and Bernice, his daughter, the same day, so sad) more of a Memphis Blues tradition rather than one that arose from historic military musical traditions. Some years ago they used to perform occasionally on Beale Street in Memphis, and I had the pleasure of getting to know Bernice (everyone was very protective of Othar, who was approaching his 90s at the time), and I did get invited to the barbecue (They used to hold one each June on Othar’s birthday). We exchanged fifes–he couldn’t play mine, and I couldn’t really play his, because there are really a lot of differences, both in construction and style. But we have a great time (I didn’t eat, it really was a goat barbecue) but left with a cane fife and promises to try to get them up north to a muster. If you are interested, there was an article done some years ago in the journal American Music, which you can search for on line (I have it somewhere but it will probably take you less time to find it on line than I can in this mess called “my files.” πŸ™‚ Also, take a look at the several Wiki articles, not so much for content but for their list of primary sources at the end, which will lead to to present-day scholars.

      Of course, there are African-American versions of the British-American military-based tradition, which are mostly defunct. I wrote about Tony Smith and his Dred-Nots (Wallingford, CT 1872) and the Boldon corps (Hartford, CT not sure of the year but going strong by 1906), but these corps participated in the “white” community, so I suspect their music was “white,” too.

      There is today (they have a facebook page, so they are still around) the Charles W. Dickerson Fife, Drum, and Bugle Corps who are all-African American. However, their style is a specific kind of “ancient,” that is, as taught to them by one Sanford “Gus” Moeller, who was a drummer in the 7th Regt NYSM. Gus taught what he knew best, which was the 7th Regt style of ancient drums paired with fifes and alternating with bugle solos. It is a fascinating style, which many think is “black,” but it goes straight back to Gus, who started teaching the Dickerson kids back in 1929, when they were a boy scout corps in New Rochelle, and continued teaching until he died ( I believe that was in 1957). If you ever get to CT for a muster, do try to get to Westbrook because I understand that Dickerson still attends that one, and they are definitely worth the trip.

      I’m afraid this turned out to be a long answer, and I really didn’t answer your question about why there is not one example of this expressed within the African-American community? I can only guess why. . . I would have to guess at this one, but perhaps they are so busy establishing other aspects of their history that they just haven’t reached this far yet. Let’s face it, secular musical activities have not always been the subject of academic attention until the advent of the “new” social history, so it hasn’t garnered as much attention as political history, which still reigns supreme in the golden college halls. And much of the readily available history on this music is not “pure” African but borrowed, molded, and melded from white culture, so it just might have to wait its turn before it finds someone interested enough in it to study it. And (I think this is an important reason since it affects “white” history as well as “black history”) lots of this stuff is found in aural tradition and thus falls under the auspices of “folk music” (how I hate that term!) And that scares away a lot of academics, unfortunately, who have the training to bring this very important stuff to the forefront of scholarship.

      Just my 2, er, well, I think we’re up to 4 cents now. Thank you for your kind words and your questions. If you do end up writing about African-American fife and drum music, I would love to hear about it!

      • I will think about my answer, but in brief I knew Othar and have peripherally followed his granddaughter ShardΓ©. I want to say that in the NY Historical Society exhibit a few years back they included some ancillary materials on fife and drum/along with sound samples. I will more closely read your text and up the ante, if I can. Writing about the tradition would be swell. Currently, I am on a big field project in Brazil in my primary research area foodways and commensal traditions within the African Diaspora in the Americas. I will keep in touch and take your suggestion to heart. peace & happy/merry.

      • Gus came to Troop 16 ( before it was Maceo Bacon VFW Post 2882 and then Dickerson) in 1935. He died in 1960. They’re still in existence. They’re also other African-American corps such as The Posse and Samuel H. Dow.

      • Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of them in a few years now. The Posse was actually a spin-off from Dickerson, IIRC. All three corps are very fine, as are the people in them.

        There is a cute story about how the Boy Scouts came to have a drum corps, oft told by the late, great Dave Boddy.

  2. I think Sharde is the only one left with the tradition in her head. I hope she finds a way to carry it on.

    Good luck to you, and I do hope to hear from you again. . . however long it takes. . . sounds like you have some important business to do first.

    • This is a really informative and interesting site. I’m doing research on African Americans as field musicians in the Revolutionary, Mexican and Civil Wars. My research follows that tradition into the antibellum period, Northern Mississippi, Frank Butler’s Brass Band, James Reese Europe and others. While visiting the Fife and Drum Museum in Ct. I was given some information on the Bolden Drum Corps, specifically the uncrowned champion of the snare drum, Sidney Basney, who in 7 competitions with CFDA, came in second place, 7 times. Yet, in the process, he beat out the leading drummers of the time. Go figure. Would you have additional information on Basney and/or the Bolden Drum Corps. Thanks.

      • Thank you for your comments.

        Yes, Sidney Basney was indeed a member of the Bolden corps, which as you probably know, was comprised of drums-no-fifes, the category in which they usually competed. While it very well may be racism that caused Basney to take so many second-prize medals, remember that he did so while competing in the Ancient class, which is stylistically much different from the more modern drumming that prevailed in the drums-no-fifes class. So we really don’t know if he earned so many second places simply because he wasn’t as adept in the Ancient style. Also, competing was taken very seriously and could get quite fierce. Contests were lost and won sometimes by a single point or even a fraction of a point. Because of this, rules governing how complaints and protests would be handled were established early on. In fact, the first one I know of was indeed a case of an African-American corps (called “The City of Hartford”) protesting the awarding of the first-place trophy to the all-white Allen Drum Corps, also from Hartford. The City corps cited no racial issues but argued that “the judges were not properly informed as to the rules which were to govern the [1887] contest.”

        I was always suspect of the racial prejudice theory. Not that prejudice wasn’t rampant in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, but the fact that blacks and whites marched in events together and competed together makes me think that it was not very important on the competition field. Dan Silliman, the (white) founder of the Chester [Ancient] Drum Corps in 1868, remembered being taught to drum by “a freed slave.” Also, consider that old man Bolden (he was actually known as Major George L. Bolden), served side-by-side with white members of the executive committee of the Connecticut Fifers and Drummers Association during its formative years. So, it would appear that African-Americans were more than just tolerated by the fife-and-drum community at this time.

        Not sure exactly when the Bolden corps was started, but by 1887 they were competing in CF&DA competitions. The picture that The Company has is probably ca. 1906. They continued competing until at least 1914, which is when I lose track of the corps.

        I have some genealogy on both Basney and Bolden if you need it. I also have contest results for the years that the corps competed. There are also several other African-American drum corps that figure into the history of the Ancients, most notably several “juvenile” corps and one called the “Wallingford Dread-Nots,” founded by Tony Smith, who served in the 54th Regiment during the Civil War. Smith also played bass drum for the (white) National Band of Wallingford. And, while not a member of a drum corps, Hammett Achmet deserves more than mention since his service as a drummer during the Revolution is well documented, and he spent his years after the war inter alia making and selling drums and profiting from his war-time experience as a drummer as well.

        Finally, if we are talking about discrimination, I feel compelled to mention the intentional exclusion of women from all sorts of drum corps activity until the 1920s, when all-female corps began to appear (“mixed” corps would take even more time) and competition classes were established to accommodate them. Just sayin’ πŸ˜‰

        Thanks again for your interest, and if you ever feel like writing up some of your research I would be happy to post it here.

  3. Thank you so much for this information. Youβ€˜ve certainly given me a lot to think on. I did research on “Tony” Smith and the DredNots”. According to an old Wallingford News article he was responsible for the first “unofficial” CFDA convention. It actually started as him wanting to get together with some of his Black friends, fifers and drummers. It was the initial get together of fifing drumming and partying. The convention later took on a more official tone. I was extremely interested in Hammet Achmet. I was able to trace him to the last decisive battle of the Revolutionary War–Yorktown, Virginia, where I was born and raised. I found the bio on him, written by Emilie T. Stedman, in the Library of Congress. When I relocated to Graz, Austria, much of my research was lost, including my copy of that book. I’ve since found much of that stuff, including Achmet’s bio online. I do agree with your overall theory on racial prejudice in the fife and drum community. As an African American who marched, competed and was fairly insulated from overt racial divides while I was with the Colonial Williamsburg corps as a kid, I was never personally confronted with any of that nonsense. I always felt that my White comrades had my back! Besides, the final words uttered within our culturally tinged conversations always concluded with “shut up and play”. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and it has provided me with a life long interest in this area of American music, so much so that I continuously barrel through with freequent bouts of frustration, depression and exhaustion with this research. I would totally be interested in any info you have on Basney and Bolden, just let me know how to begin that process. I was given some Connecticut Fifers and Drummers Assc. state convention results from the great, late snare drum champion, Bob Redican, who was a completely gracious gentleman, very generous with his time and possessing an unfathomable capacity for information. Ditto, Ed Olsen, a great fifer. The year 1893 always comes to mind, the competition in New Haven, Ct. where Basney (although he did not win) beat out J. Burns Moore, and by your afore mentioned strict adherence to scoring, Basney bested Moore (considered THE authority on the down east style of rudimental drumming)by 3 points, 25 to 22,which even by today’s corps competition standard is a considerable margin. Moore, who marched with the 2nd Company, Governor’s Foot Guard, also authored, The Art of Rudimental Drumming, long considered the seminal treatise on the Ancient style. Moore was also a contemporary and colleague of Gus Moeller, thus, in my view was a stellar exemplar of the traditional style, Yet, still beat out by Basney, who, if only considered by contest results ,had to have been an amazing drummer, irrespective of the style. After all,with in contest standards, a rudimental breakdown, that long held barometer of stick control, is a rudimental breakdown, be it, traditional, or contemporary, excellence of technique not withstanding. I would take some exception, to the point of being resigned to consideration of race being something of a factor, a social nuisance, if you will, where this uncrowned champion is concerned.
    Thanks again, and I look forward to contact info on the best way to get additional information on Sidney Basney and Major Bolden.

    Best, HC

    • “shut up and play, how often have I heard that one. . . ! That’s how this blog was born πŸ˜‰

      Howard, I have a lot more I could share with you, but you’d probably best contact me offline. CT-Fifer@hotmail.com should work.

      Regarding the Dread-Not’s field day, it preceded the Association field days, but it wasn’t the first. That honor goes to the Tolland County Veteran Field Music, who held several fife-and-drum “parties” beginning in 1873. And the TCVFM was way outside of the CT River Valley Shore, which is thought to be the place where it all began, which my research indicates was “yes, sorta.” πŸ™‚

      Bobby was a dear friend of mine, Ed even dearer. I think of them all the time and owe them both so much. I have an extra copy of the Stedman piece (not only is it available in a booklet form, it was also published in a newspaper), so let me know if I can send it to you.

      Predjudice, unfortunately is a part of our past, and the 19th c fife and drum community was no exception. However, research has turned up some great examples of how they crossed the color barrier at times. Hopefully we will find more examples of that.

      I’m not sure if even Burns Moore was all that predjudiced. . . when you read more about his life of drum corps and competition, I think that he was not really angry that he lost to an African American, he was mad-as-hell simply because he lost. πŸ™‚

      Do get in touch so we can swap stories. In the meantime, let’s both get to writing so we can update this blog. πŸ˜‰

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