It was some years ago that I last spoke with Willie, bass drummer for the Charles W. Dickerson Field Music. Even then Willie was an old-timer, a Jaybird in Ancient parlance. As we walked off the field at the Westbrook Muster with the robust strains of the Dickerson standpiece still ringing in our ears, we discussed just what makes Ancients tick. We agreed that it wasn’t being born into the hobby, and it wasn’t necessarily talent or skill, but neither of us could come up with much else—that is, not until Willie put down his drum, clasped his hands to his heart, and said, “It’s right here. To be a good Ancient, you have to feel it right here.”
I was struck by his statement. Willie was right. In fact, that’s exactly how the Ancients came to be. Those who fifed and drummed in the American Revolution felt a similar sentiment as they passed down a large body of emotionally charged marches and quicksteps to their sons and grandsons and they in turn to theirs, so much so that Civil War fifers played many of the same tunes with the same vigor during that conflict as well. And because they, too, felt it “right here,” the music persisted long after that war, both in the GAR field music and in the repertory and performance practices of Connecticut’s Ancient fifes and drums.
MacKinlay Kantor, while never an Ancient, nonetheless knew that feeling. Born in Webster City, Iowa in 1904, he developed an interest in the Civil War. “As a boy and teenager in Iowa,” his Wiki biographer tells us, “Kantor had spent hours listening to the stories of Civil War veterans, and he was an avid collector of first-hand narratives.” As a young man, he joined the local Sons of Union Veterans and then the National Association of Civil War Musicians (but not until its hereditary requirement was relaxed, thus extending NACWM membership to qualified Sons). Kantor attended GAR encampments, listened to even more stories of the old-timers, fifed with them at parades, and eventually wrote about his experiences in several novels and poems.
Turkey-In-The-Straw (1935), a self-described anthology of “American ballads and primitive verse,” consists of a series of poems that Kantor had submitted to various newspapers and magazines over the previous decade. None of the 35 entries rise to the level of literary greatness, but all reveal how intensely the old veterans’ stories had affected the author. There are 8 poems that deal with the Civil War; this one, entitled “The Twenty-Ninth of May,” presents a poignant juxtaposition of mortality and immortality.
Tomorrow, "The Jaybird" would clatter and cry Like the echo of cannister cleaving the sky. . . And he knew that thin hands with their stiffness and pain Would prod the bull-drums to a battered refrain. Ah, boot-toes were bright, and the faded eyes glared Up at heaven, Tomorrow, my music is blared. Blue elves, army elves in a frenzy of age Tore the grace-notes from bars on a rheumatic page. . . O, pin me my ribbons and fetch me my drums, I'm ninety years old, and my fingers are thumbs. And it's "Hell on the Wabash" or Kellogg's Q.S." I'm the last of my line--and the bravest, I guess. "He's sleepin'," they murmured. "Let's git him away," And, Jesus! They guided him into a day Where the burnt banners brushed him as lips of the gods. The Seventh Wisconsin! Up, up through the sods They were springing like birds in the haunt of a dream. Still linger the eagles. Tomorrow, they scream.
However, this one about another otherwise forgotten Memorial Day is my favorite. (For the uninitiated, it was and remains customary to play a dirge when entering a cemetery; a quickstep would be in bad taste, hence Judge Wright’s complaint).
Turkey-In-The-Straw Judge Wright said, "It's contrary to law. They shouldn't be playin' Turkey-in-the-straw!" But all the old vets in the Potters' field Mumbled and laughed as our bad hands wheeled Through the powdered smoke, the muttering stammer— Talking so fierce in 'Sixty-one grammar!" And Perc Knowles nodded in his deep grave: "The best martial tune those boys ever gave." And Park Banks stirred in his old blue coat, Close by the field of budding oat— "The boys are beating. I hear—I see. . . Next tune they play'll be 'Jefferson and Liberty.'" Clatter-patter, clatter-patter, crowds went by And they only saw a mild May sky. With us standing under it, beating like hell A maudlin chorus the graves knew well. Joe Mead whispered up through the sod, "Hope they play 'Tallewan' too, by God! Hope their fingers are wire and steel; Hope they make the cedar trees kneel." And unseen eagles yelled on a ridge Over beyond the Deer Creek bridge. Clatter-clack-clack. The crowds went past. . . And we were tired and done, at last. But the cedars whistled that dancing sound In the slow night breeze of the burying-ground. And some say the little flags snapped like stars To the drum, drum, drum of those redskin bars; And I saw Yankee men pushing up their stones, And dancing to our fifes on splinter-new bones!
It’s possible Kantor was working with a copy of American Veteran Fifer on his desk; more likely, it was his memories of any number of its contributors that enabled him to write with such simple elegance.
Kantor attended the Deep River Ancient Muster in 1959, coming up to Connecticut from his home in Sarasota, Florida. He died in 1977, having immortalized the Civil War veteran in several of his many novels, anthologies, and film scripts and no doubt comforted by the realization that the legacy of the Civil War fifer and drummer will be carried on by the Ancient community for years to come.
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