Hammet Achmet, Middletown’s Not-So-Famous Drum Maker

In the early 1800s, Middletown hosted a sizable free black population, a byproduct of the slave trade of the late eighteenth century. “Plan of Main Street, Middletown,” from “Connecticut’s Historical Collections,” Durrie & Peck and J.W. Barber (1836).

On March 17, 1824, the Middlesex Gazette advised “By order of the Court of Probate for the District of Middletown, will be sold at public vendue, (if not previously disposed of by private sale,) all the estate of David Churchill, late of Chatham deceased.  Said vendue will be held at the late dwelling house of said deceased, on Monday the 20th inst. at 10 o’clock, A.M. at the beat of drum.”

The drummer who summoned bidders to this auction and others like it in Middletown was probably Hammet Achmet.   A former slave who sought day-to-day labor to supplement his modest military pension, Achmet was well known to the upper strata of Middletown, Connecticut society and even to such national celebrities as P.T. Barnum, Senator John C. Calhoun, and George Washington.

Hammet Achmet was born in Africa, probably in 1759.  As a young boy he was “captured and shipped to Virginia,” the further specifics of which are unknown.  While still a child he became a servant of George Washington, first tending his horse and later waiting on the General himself.  Achmet never forgot these years and “continually talk[ed] about Massa Washington;” as an old man he would tell “. . . many long stories . . . of the fine dinners and grand company” he witnessed during his service and would display to anyone interested the sword and lock of hair given to him by the General himself.  Achmet had no kind words for Mrs. Washington, though, and “. . . used to call [her] hard names and find fault with her treatment of him which caused him to run away.

Return Jonathan Meigs, a Middletown native, served with distinction during the Revolution. He went west, served in the Indian Wars, and eventually became governor of Ohio . Courtesy Google Images

Perhaps Achmet ran to Middletown, because in 1777 he enlisted there as a drummer in Captain Benjamin Throop’s Company, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs’ Regiment of the First (later the Fourth) Connecticut Regiment.  He was a member of the party that stormed Stoney Point and was wounded during the battle of Germantown.  Achmet was also present at the Yorktown surrender in 1783.  Earlier, he had been at Valley Forge, as another soldier named Samuel Fayerweather told pension officials in 1819.  Achmet, he testified, was “among the crowd assembled around the waggons” which brought specie from France to pay the army.  He also remembered seeing “the little black drummer” in 1779, “ . . .the spring of the year after the army quitted Valley Forge,” when Achmet’s attempts to hoard his allotment of rum had amused Fayerweather and his comrades—but not so Achmet.  In anger, Hammet attacked him with the butt of his head, only to “receive upon it,” Fayerweather recalled, “several strokes of my heel” in return.

After the war, Achmet resided in Middletown with his wife Jane and his daughters.  He eked out a living tending his garden and doing odd jobs about town, such as drumming for the vendue and selling old shoes to the local gun factory (these would be made into polishing leather).

Drumming was important to Achmet, and he drummed not only for the auctions but also at various military events held in town.  More importantly, he began making and selling drums, “large and small,” which he advised were “made and sold by General Washington’s Waiter.”  To Middletown citizenry, he was a favorite son, “held in great respect by the community,” as one resident recalled, “Often did I meet him in his rounds, or proudly performing his office at the head of a military company. . .he might be seen any day marching the streets with a string of little drums over his shoulder, he himself dressed in quaint regimentals.”

Here Hammet is paid for goods or services supplied to the town poorhouse. Courtesy Middlesex County Historical Society, Middletown, CT.

To out-of-towners, though, he was a “strange mortal” who walked around town “with a blue jacket trimmed in decayed military trappings.”  His ever-present drum, which had served him so well during the war and helped him earn a living long after it was over, was to them “almost a nuisance.”

Though poor, Achmet had friends in high places.  One was Jonathan Barnes, a local attorney, who oversaw the distribution of Achmet’s military pension.  Obtaining the pension had been a two-year process that Achmet himself, hindered by his thick African accent and “rapidity of speech,” could not accomplish, but he was successful following intervention by District Court Judge Pierpont Edwards of Bridgeport.  Edwards, son of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, solicited the aid of none other than John C. Calhoun on Achmet’s behalf, reminding him that Achmet had served in the regiment commanded by the father of current Postmaster General and pointing out that Achmet still had his drum and leather cap from the war, “with the distinctive mark of the United States” still on them.   Other friends included the cadets at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy run by Captain Alden Partridge, an institution that continues

Achmet’s first marriage was also rocky at times, as this notice from the “Middlesex Gazette” attests. Still, Achmet was so devastated by Jane’s death in 1827 that he tenderly crafted a wooden gravemarker that he labored upon until it “shone like marble.”

today as Norwich [VT] University.  At one point in 1827, the cadets collected a subscription of ten cents each to give to Hammet, this following the deaths, in close succession, of his wife and daughter.

Hammet soon remarried, this time to a white woman who is reported to have “washed her face and hands in a decoction of mahogany chips” in order to avoid the stigma of a “mixed marriage.”  The marriage was not a happy one:

“Mr. and Mrs. Achmet quarreled sometimes, and once she cut off Hammet’s ringlets as he lay asleep. They were his especial pride . . . , so poor Achmet hid himself til the curls grew again.”

It was Achmet’s service to George Washington that nearly earned him national fame.  According to Emily Stedman, granddaughter of Achmet’s benefactor,

One time when grandfather was attending court in New Haven, a man came to the [Barnes] residence and inquired for grandfather. . . the man. . . was Phineas T. Barnum, and that he was trying to get Hammett Achmet to travel with his “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Judge Pierpont Edwards (b. 1750, d. 1826), one of Achmet’s many friends. He was the younger son of Rev. Jonathan Edwards but nonetheless founded the Toleration Party in 1816. He had the political clout to ensure that Achmet got his military pension.

At that time Barnum was in the midst of the Joyce Heth affair. Heth, an elderly colored woman, had been exhibited in Barnum’s traveling show as the reputed 161-year-old former “servant-woman” who in youth had nursed the infant George Washington.  Heth was a charming addition to Barnum’s show–knarled with arthritis, she delighted audiences by singing hymns–but her death in 1836 sparked a frenzied newspaper scandal accusing Barnum of exploitation and fraud.  Perhaps Barnum sought to downplay the Heth affair by replacing his star exhibition with the more credible Hammet Achmet, but to no avail.  Stedman continues:

Hammet had refused to go unless ‘Massa B—-‘ should say he must.  Not finding it possible to persuade old Achmet, and lawyer B—- not being at home, Barnum hired a horse and carriage (there was no railroad to New Haven then, and the stage went there only every other day), and drove to New Haven to interview ‘Massa B—-.”  Grandfather said he would advise with Hammet, the result being that ‘General Washington’s waiter’ concluded he did not want to be exhibited as one of Barnum’s curiosities; and remained at home.

“Massa B–” took care of Achmet’s finances. Achmet, who could barely write his name, acknowledged his debts by drawing the amounts due, using full circles to represent dollar coins and partial circles to represent portions thereof. Courtesy Middlesex County Historical Society, Middletown, CT

Stedman believed that Achmet lived to be 114, but more likely he was around 83 when he died in 1842.  Within a month his wife “became white again” and was married, this time to “an old sailor and bird fancier” named Andrew P. Folio.  None of Achmet’s drums have been identified, if any have survived, and we don’t know how pervasive his influence was on drumming in Middletown–did he teach drumming, formally or informally?  Was he associated with the “drum school of some celebrity” once located in Middletown Upper Houses?  What were his connections with the A.L.S. & M. Academy?  All we have is the recollection of the old-timers, who agreed in 1893 that “there was real music in old Achmet’s drum.”

Copyright 2011, HistoryoftheAncientDotOrg.  All rights reserved.


Turkey In the Straw, A Poem by MacKinlay Kantor

Courtesy Denver Public Library, http://tiny.cc/located-here Accessed September 12, 2012

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).

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.

Copyright 2011, HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

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.

Middle-brook Order, June 4, 1777: What It Really Says about the Quality of Revolutionary War Field Music

The Middle-brook Order, June 4, 1777:  What It Really Says about the Quality of Revolutionary War Field Music

On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued an order to the American troops stationed at Middlebrook, New Jersey, reading in part:

The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them.

This order has often been quoted to support the theory that American fifers and drummers serving in the Revolution were poor musicians.  In Military Music of the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 1976) Raoul Camus, noted researcher and champion of today’s Ancient community, wrote “The general level of ability of the drummers of the period was not of a high standard,” and when comparing two drum beatings entitled “The Roast Beef,” he designated one a Revolutionary War survival because it is “simpler in execution than the second.”  Mediocrity evidently extended to the fifers as well.  Camus’ examination of orderly books and other military papers reveals that fifers as well as drummers were often required to practice twice daily under the direction of the fife and drum majors, some for as long as 4 hours, and he further tells of the 9 drummers and fifers who in 1777 were “Confined. . .for not doing their Duty beter,” being released only after “they Promised to Doe Beter for the futur.”  However, muster rolls, returns, and lists preserved at the Connecticut State Library indicate that of nearly 28,000 men from that colony who answered the calls to arms issued between 1775 and 1783 approximately 870 were fifers or drummers.  Were these nearly 900 men (and their comrades from 12 other colonies) so inept that they could not play even “simple” music?  To answer that question, let’s examine the status of music in the mid-eighteenth-century society.


Singing and dancing were popular American pastimes prior to the Revolu­tion.  Around 1720 the question of whether to sing “by rule” or “by rote” had become a controversial church issue that led to the establishment of singing schools where students learned note-reading.  McKay and Crawford (William Billings of Boston, Princeton University Press, 1975) attribute the dramatic increase of tunes in the American psalm repertory that occurred between 1760 and 1770 to the success of the singing-masters:  “The increase in the printed repertory indicates that note-reading was no longer a rare skill.”   Singing was not confined to religious occasions, however, for presses on both sides of the Atlantic turned out broadsides with the words and sometimes the music to popular ballads.  As an “old man,” Park Holland (b. 1752) wrote to his “dear nephew,” recalling his youth in rural Petersham, Massachusetts.

Our books of amusement were likewise very few, Aesop’s fables and occasionally some ballads brought us by a strolling pedler. . .they were read with great pleasure, and not read merely but often committed to memory — I recollect even now a few lines of one. . .

Sir William once more pulls off his gloves,
To weed in his garden so dearly he loves,
which threaten the breaking of liberty’s bones
Hurra! my brave boys! Hurra! Hurra!

Ballad opera, beginning with the huge success of The Beggar’s Opera in London in 1728, was another vehicle through which songs were circulated in colonial America.  Theater performances (and attendance) were widely reported, and the accompanying music, if not already familiar, soon became so.  One researcher, writing about the “Disappointment” (1767), identified the 19 songs and one country dance named in therein, one of them being the ubiquitous “Yankee Doodle.”

Dancing, too, required musical knowledge, both for the dancers and the musicians who provided the accompaniment.  American bookstores stocked the London-issued dance collections which contained “Proper Tunes” as well as “Directions to Each Dance.”  These collections were updated annually, some of which contained as many as 200 dance/tune combinations.  Surviving examples include those published by Longman, Lukey, & Broderip and Rutherford, and Skillern; publish­ers who also produced fife instruction books that found an equally ready market in the colonies.

Also available to the amateur musician were printed collections for such instruments as the flute, violin, or keyboard that contained tunes for the fashionable country dances as well as songs from broadsides and ballad operas and other favorite airs.  Modern indexes such as A Bibliography of Early Secular American Music (18th Century) (Sonneck/Upton, Da Capo Press, 1964) and the online Early American Music and Its European Sources (“EASMES,” http://www.colonialdancing.org/Easmes/Index.htm) contain thousands of entries describing eighteenth-century musical survivals gleaned from the original printed and manuscript sources.

By 1775, then, it is likely that most people, even those residing in rural areas, were familiar with music and note-reading, either through the efforts of the local singing-master or their own participation in secular musical activities of singing, dancing, or performing.  This population included those who eventually became fifers and drummers in the Revolutionary War, where the skills and repertory they learned as civilians proved useful in the military environment.


The correct performance of martial music was vital to the proper function of the entire military unit.  Briefly, fifers and drummers were expected to provide music for the several purposes:

1.   Marching Music established the cadence while on the march.  By 1778 soldiers marched at seventy-five 24″ steps per minute in common time and nearly double that (120 steps per minute) when marching in quick time.  Cadence, once established and maintained, kept the men moving in an orderly and fairly predictable manner.  While military marches were published in the British-produced fife method books, examination of handwritten tune books compiled by American fifers reveal a preference for adopting popular dance or song tunes for this purpose.  This was easily and naturally done, since marchers (like dancers) require music with two strong pulses per measure.   The marches often attracted spectators, such as when Nathan Hale’s regiment traveled through Providence, Rhode Island “with music” early in the war or when Abner Stocking joined the Canadian expedition in 1775, “This morning we got under way with apleasant breeze, our drums beating, fifes playing, and colors flying.”   Enoch Anderson, however, described a more serious situation in the aftermath of the Brandywine battle.  In a letter to his nephew he described how

“. . .The British were on the march, bearing northwardly.  We marched on all this day, keeping near the British army.  When they marched, we marched; when they stopped, we stopped.  Our guide was the beating of the[ir] drum.”

2.   Maneuvers Short, easily-recognizable drum beatings were used to give signals o the troops.  These “points of war” varied over the years, but by 1779 nine standard “beats and signals” or “camp duties” were listed by Baron von Steuben:  The General, The Assembly, The March, The Reveille, The Troop, The Retreat, The Tattoo, To Arms, and The Parley.  Although he refers to the camp duties as the “beats of the drum,” fife music has been located in eighteenth-century sources for all but one.

3.   Morale The value of music to lend strength during periods of discour­agement was quickly and easily recognized.  Trooping of the colors, a ceremony used to instill recognition and respect for the regimental standards, was a musical ceremony.   Music of the fife and drum was used to set the solemn tone of funerals and a derisive one for punishments.  Even the retreat, which closed the soldiers’ workday, was associated with specific fife and drum music.

One needs not experience a military ceremony in order to appreci­ate the power of music.  Albigence Waldo, a soldier at Valley Forge on December 14, 1777 observed in his diary,

“See the poor soldier when in health–with what cheerfulness he meets his foes and encounters every hardship.  If barefoot, he labours thro’ the mud and cold with a song in his mouth extolling War and Washington.  If his food be bad he eats it notwithstanding with seeming content–he blesses God for a good stomach and whistles it into digestion.”

Surgeon James Thacher also endured hardships at Valley Forge but wrote several times in his diary of the “favorite music afforded by the drums and fifes.”  An even more dismal situation was that suffered by Jeremiah Greenman while a prisoner in Quebec in April, 1776.  He confided in his diary that

“our people keep a Continual fire in the lower town wich we are very glad to see hoping we shall be redeem’d very soon but [we are] almost ready to give up fearing thay will not come / but we keep up our hearts with a puter fife that we made out of all the button that we could git off our Cloths wich made us some mery”

4.   Merriment During those periods when not threatened by the enemy, field musicians might be requested to supply music just for the fun of it.  While moving northward after the successful conclusion of the Yorktown siege, Lieutenant William Bell Tilden described an episode that occurred on November 17, 1781 while still in Virginia.  “The troops halted yesterday an hour to play a number of tunes on ye drum and fife, for some country girls, a dancing same evening.”  Similarly, Benjamin Gilbert wrote in his diary how, on October 1, 1779, “…about 12 of the Sixty fourth Brigade went to a House to learn a few Country Dances under the tuition of D[rum]. Major Tyler.” The notebook of tunes kept by Fife Major Nathaniel Brown of the 4th Connect­icut Regiment while garrisoned at the New York Highlands in 1781 contains 9 tunes identified specifically as country dances, and another fife major, Aaron Thompson of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, wrote directions for country dances beneath 6 of the tunes in his notebook.

It is clear, then, music served essential military functions and would require some talent and training of the fifers and drummers who performed it.


There is evidence that at least some American fifers were musically competent and able to perform their duties to the satisfaction of their companions.  Letters such as the one written by Robert Lattimer from New London to Connecticut’s Captain Nathan Hale at the Boston siege on March 6, 1775 confirm this.  “You write sr that you have got another fifer, & a very good one too, as I hear.”  Other evidence is found in the handwritten tune books compiled by American fifers during this time.  Henry Blake, a fifer for a different Captain Hale in Colonel Stark’s New Hampshire Regiment early in the war, wrote out nineteen tunes on blank pages in his diary during the retreat from Canada.  All are written in the proper register for the fife rather than the customary one octave down, even though this required the use of 3 or more ledger lines.  Further examination of his tune book reveals not only his sophisticated writing skills but also his good ear for the music he played.  Giles Gibbs, 17-year-old fifer for the Ellington [CT] Parish Train Band in 1777, was not as skilled a writer but apparently had a similarly good ear.  He often had trouble barring the measures in the tunes he wrote out, sometimes omitting the bar lines entirely, and his manuscript is rife with quarter- and eighth-notes improperly joined.  But closer scrutiny reveals that what appear to be beaming errors are actually phrasing indications, vitally important to the proper performance of tunes like “Morning Are [Air].”  Still more clues to musical profi­ciency are evidenced by the amount of tunes in these notebooks.  Nathaniel Brown’s fife book, which contains tunes in two- and three-part harmony, has 88 tunes.  Massachusetts fifer Thomas Nixon also wrote out harmonies for some of the tunes.  He was only 13 years old in 1775 when he joined David Moore’s militia company from Sudbury for the march to Boston.  Three years later while in Danbury, CT, he acquired Joseph Long’s fife book and eventually enlarged it to contain 140 different tunes.  Aaron Thompson wrote out melodies for 99 tunes (some with harmonies) as well as three song texts, including the 16 verses to Hopkinson’s “Battle of the Kegs.”

Unfortunately, information concerning military drummers is not so easily found.  No American drum instruction book printed at the time of the Revolu­tionary War has been discovered, although two were known to have been pub­lished in London, one c. 1758 or 1768 and another c. 1785; only the latter survives and in a single known copy.  Nor have any Revolu­tionary War manuscript collections for the drum been identified, although one was compiled in 1797 by a former Revolutionary War drummer named Benjamin Clark.  Twenty-two of the tunes associated with Clark’s 36 drum beatings are found in the tune books kept by American military fifers from 1772-1781. Two of these fife manuscripts are especially important, however, for an extra bit of information they provide about the drummers.  Nathaniel Brown entitled several tunes simply “Double Drag” as did fifer Aaron Thompson.  These generic titles suggest that the double drag beatings, despite their technical difficul­ty, were played by American drummers during the Revolution, so much so that the beatings were readily recognized by the fifers.  Both single and double drag arrangements are found in Clark’s 1797 manuscript, but whether the specific beatings found in Benjamin Clark’s Drum Book can traced back to the Revolutionary War depends upon discovery of appropriate documents which, at this point, have not been found.

What do survive, however, are testimonials to the competency of the military drummer.  Chaplain Ammi Robbins of Colonel Burrall’s Litchfield Regiment heard fife and drum music while serving in the Canadian expedition in 1776. He wrote in his diary that “Sometimes Tibbals, who strikes the drum admirably, gives it a touch at the right time when we are singing.  It is beautiful harmony.”  Thomas Tibbals was a Connecticut drummer in Captain Woodbridge’s company and received 16 shillings for his Canadian service.  George Hulbert wrote to Connecticut’s Nathan Hale at Winter Hill in January, 1776, frustrated at his inability to enlist a good drummer since another recruiter had already filled the position with a mediocre one.  “I have Inlisted a Fifer and Could have Inlisted a Genteel Drummer if it had not have been for Remblington   I wisht Chapman further of[f] for Inlisting of him. . .” Despite his bad humor, he ends the letter optimistically, “. . .I am in hopes Remblington will Learn the Ravilee yet–”  The poor drummer, Remmenton Sears, completed his term of enlistment with Hale’s company and served further with Colonel McClellen’s [CT] militia in 1778.  I have not discovered whether he ever did learn the reveille.

Once completing their military service, drummers as well as fifers profited from their musical proficiency.  On March 14, 1780, Roger Manning placed the following advertisement in a local newspaper,

ROGER MANNING PROPOSES (provided suitable encouragement offers) to instruct young gentlemen in every rule appertaining to the DRUM.–He flatters himself that such as have a genius suited to music, will, in a very short time, be instructed to beat almost any tune or march, with exactness and propriety, that is now in vogue in the Continental Army.–He has acted as Drum-Major, for several years, in the service of the United states. . .

This service began at the siege of Boston and continued in General Huntington’s 1st Connecticut Regiment in 1777.  Manning eventually became a drummer in Washington’s Life Guards.  Twenty-six-year-old Benjamin Clark drummed at the Battle of Bunker Hill and was one of the six-weeks men present at the Battle of Trenton “when ten-hundred Hessians were taken prisoner.”  After his term of enlistment was over, he made his home in Royalston, Massa­chusetts, where he gained local renown as the singing-master.  Timothy Olmstead served as fife major in the Suffield, CT militia and later in the band associated Samuel Webb’s Regiment.  His post war accomplishments extended into both the secular and sacred musical realm.  In 1807 he compiled Martial Music or a Collection of Marches, Harmonized for Field Bands. . .


If a sizeable number of the field musicians were able to play their instruments well, some so well that they utilized their musical talents to earn money once their military affiliations were over, then why did Washington chastise the drum and fife majors in the summer of 1777 and threaten them with loss of pay?   The answer lies in reading more of the Middle-brook order.  After establishing practice times, it reads:

The reveille to be beaten at day-break — the troop at 8 o clock in the morning, and retreat at sunset.  For the sake of regulari­ty, the drum of the regiment, on the right of the line, to give three taps, allowing a sufficient equal space between each, as a warning to the drum of the one next on the left; which is to do the same, and so on, through the whole — the second line taking it by the right from the regiment in front, and the advanced Brigades, by the right from the regiment in the rear — These taps over, and a proper interval allowed for the warning to become general, the drummers’ call must be given as a signal for what is to follow; and then the whole music of the line begin in concert — the reveille, troop, or retreat, as it may happen.”

Thus, it wasn’t bad musicianship that angered General Washington, it was bad timing.   The drum and fife majors had failed to coordinate the proper sequence of playing the signals, a necessary task if one was to maintain military order but a difficult one when up to 20 musicians were scattered throughout the camp.   The cacaphony and confusion resulting therefrom had annoyed the General as early as the siege of Boston when he complained in general orders, “Certain Drums. . .very improperly beat the Reveille this morning before day. . .The Reveille is to beat when a Centry can see clearly one thousand Yards around him, and not before.”  The 1777 order lists specific times for the performance of three of the camp duties and then designates a coordinating signal, the “Three Taps” in an attempt to prevent the chaos caused by improperly timed signals.  Less than a year later Washington changed the taps to rolls, and the coordinating signal became “Three Rolls,” the title Nathaniel Brown applied to the harmonized fife accompaniment he wrote in his notebook in 1781.

But something else was making the music “very bad,” and that was insufficient instruments.  Drums and fifes were in short supply, even very early in the war, and what was available wasn’t always very good.  Jonathan Twiss, a drummer from Woodbury, CT records August 15, 1775 as the date he “Went to Whathersfie­ld and Drawd a New drum,” but the next day “we Marcht into Colches­ter Where We dinde and where I brok my Drum head.” Appar­ently he was still without a serviceable instrument three months later, for on November 8 he describes a skirmish that occurred at Lechmere’s Point “. . .and I haveing no drum that was fit to go I Went to Prospect Hill and had a fare site of the Enemeys fireing.”

The passage of time did not allay the situation.  On August 19, 1778 Washing­ton appointed John Hiwell from Crane’s Regiment of Artillery as Inspector of Music.  Camus notes that the order creating this position does not specify Hiwell’s duties, but as Inspector he no doubt tackled the problem of insufficient instruments.  His efforts to procure an adequate supply were hampered by military bureaucracy and rampant inflation and reveal yet a third factor contributing to the army’s “very bad” music.  In August of 1780, following the arrival of a major shipment of drums and fifes, they were distributed to the fife and drum majors at the Park of Artillery, but not before the fifes had been “. . .properly sorted to the same keys.”  A=440 being a relatively modern convention, the pitches of the fifes varied according to maker and/or whim, and acquiring enough fifes made in identical pitch was a very real obstacle to improving the military music.

In our endeavors to accurately portray the field musicians of the Revolution­ary War, let’s strive to become the best fifers and drummers that we can be.  Authenticity is no justification for mediocrity.  Our efforts will be rewarded by the only sentence that we haven’t examined from that important Middle-brook order:  “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

Paper read at School of the Musician, Brigade of the American Revolution, April 4, 1989.  Revised February 12, 2011
Copyright 1989, 2011 HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

Book Review, “One of His Many Uniforms: Ed Olsen, Noah Webster, and CT’s Ancient Fife and Drum Tradition.

This image of Moodus Drum and Fife Corps predates  what author James Clark believes could be “…the oldest image of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps” (p. 122).   Dr. U.S. Cook, back row, center, was heavier, mustachioed, and older when he posed about 10 years later with his bass drum for the photograph featured on p. 112.  Copy in Author’s Collection, original currently unlocated.

Not much has been written about Ancient fife and drum corps, so I am always hopeful when something new surfaces.  The latest of these is Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition (Wesleyan University Press, 2011).  It’s a nice little book that speaks of some history but essentially chronicles the author’s Ancient exploits, beginning with his early days in a hometown corps and progressing through his fascination with local competitions and the corps/drummers who participated in them.  Unfortunately, the documentation is disappointing; in lieu of footnotes, there are just a few in-text references (and not all of them correct) culled from a short and mostly unimpressive bibliography.  This probably won’t trouble the casual reader but will frustrate those bound to question the unusual hypotheses left unproved.   For example, the author devotes too many pages inter alia linking the “Dionysian tumult” of the Ancients (which, he says, angered Shakespeare AND the Puritans) to a lofty but unlikely heritage derived from Elizabethan England, Playford’s Dancing Master, and Othar Turner.  If the author is onto something here, we need supportive citations; otherwise, his arguments are pretentious.  And pretensions run rampant in this book, beginning with the “purple-inked bureaucratic form” (the rest of us call it a mimeograph) in the very first sentence of the introduction.  Elsewhere, you have to look carefully for the good stuff (he found Samuel G. Wilcox, an important figure in Ancient history, listed as a military drum major in 1819), because it’s too easily lost amongst other stuff that is just plain wrong (“Yankee Doodle” did not originate in 1745).  Nonetheless, it’s a fair read you can get through in about an hour-and-a-half, longer if you take notes (a necessity, since there is no index).

“Ed Olsen in one of his many uniforms.”  Actually, it was never his.  Olsen wore it only once, in October 1946 (see below), after which it was packed up by its real owner and taken to South Dakota.  Image from Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

The illustrations come from a similarly mixed bag.  Overall the  copy photography is not very good, but scattered amongst pictures of hand-rendered  musical scales and “digitally enhanced” second- and third-generation photocopies are some worth looking at.  There are a few of the early Moodus corps and a dark, hazy Sherm Carpenter working on a drum, but the best one, in my opinion, is a rather grainy photo of a young Ed Olsen “in one of his many uniforms.”  Despite its poor quality and bland caption, the photo presages a captivating story that the author couldn’t or wouldn’t tell, starring not Ed Olsen but a gifted self-taught artist who was destined to carve a mountain.

Korczak Ziolkowski was born in Boston in 1908 and moved to West Hartford, Connecticut in 1937.  There, from the workshop at his Sedgwick Street home, he produced a prize-winning sculpture, Paderewski, Study of An Immortal, that was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

“Paderewski.” http://www.bronzesbykorczak.com/paderewski.shtml “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” –Korczak Ziolkowski

Meanwhile, Ziolkowski wished to sculpt a memorial to Noah Webster, who was born in West Hartford on October 16, 1758.  A Time Magazine article dated October 27, 1941 tells us what happened when the artist:

“… said he would create one if West Hartford would raise $16,519 to pay expenses. When public-spirited West Hartfordians kicked in a mere $3,700, Sculptor Ziolkowski was hurt, but agreed to carry on.  Saying that the money would not provide him a shed to work in, Ziolkowski borrowed a trailer and carted a 32-ton block of Tennessee marble onto the lawn in front of West Hartford’s prim Town Hall. There, stripped to the waist, Sculptor Ziolkowski hacked and chiseled. He turned night into day with glaring floodlights [and] rang West Hartford’s rural welkin with an electric drill. When the West Hartford clergy protested his working on the Sabbath, bushy-headed Ziolkowski snorted: “There seems to be no objection to golfing, tennis, motoring and sports in general on the Sabbath, so why the rumpus over the creation of a masterpiece of art?” As months passed, Sculptor Ziolkowski’s marble cutting became the biggest show in West Hartford. Crowds gathered daily, and tourists parked their cars to have a look. Hawkers sold peanuts and soda pop. To his audience, Sculptor Ziolkowski sold marble chips, at 60¢ to $2, to be used as doorstops and book ends.”

In the midst of this hoopla, Ziolkowski created a musical tribute to his hero in the form of the Noah Webster Fife and Drum Corps.  He recruited members from the local schools and asked Charles S. Miller, founder of the Mattatuck Drum Band, to teach the drummers.   Miller agreed, driving regularly from Waterbury to West Hartford to fulfill his commitment.  This was no mean feat back then…

Noah Webster Ancients, 1946. Ed Olsen is the fifer on the right. Author’s collection

…when 30 MPH was considered speeding.  Miller was rewarded, though, by a long friendship with the artist and his corps that included a ceremonious unveiling of a bronze bust on his 80th birthday, enjoying “drum corps parties” (a precursor to musters) at Korczak’s home, holding drum-making sessions  in Miller’s barn, and a surprise serenade on a cold, rainy day in 1942 to celebrate yet another birthday (his 84th).   The  boys and girls in the corps were devoted to its founder, raising funds for the Webster statue by selling  miniature models door-to-door and performing otherwise-neglected household chores.

Korczak Ziolkowski’s gift to West Hartford, http://en.wikipedia.org/

Finally, on Noah Webster’s 183rd birthday, the statue was dedicated, even though it was not yet completed.  The Mattatuck Drum Band provided appropriate music, and local officials dressed in costume to accept the gift.  Still, the townspeople were unhappy, especially when they read the artist’s carved inscription:

“For you I labored, not for my own day,
that by the Word men should know brotherhood.
My fellow men! You have not understood,
Since each of you would go his separate way.”

When pressed, Ziolkowski claimed it was a quote from Webster’s writings and not a personal reproach to an ungrateful citizenry.

Ziolkowski finished the statue.  Although massive at 13-1/2 feet, it is intentionally shorter than Michelangelo’s David since, as Ziolkowski once told Olsen, “No one should outdo the master.”

Like Ed, Korczak volunteered for duty during World War II, and upon his return the Noah Webster corps resumed activity, marching in events such as Manhattan’s Pulaski Day parade on October 11, 1946, where Ed’s  picture was taken “in one of his many uniforms.”   However, very soon thereafter Korczak removed to South Dakota to work on a new project, a mountain sculpture of Crazy Horse.  Aware that he would not live long enough to complete an artwork 4 times the size of Mount Rushmore, he nonetheless took his tools, treasures, and most of his corps  to the Black Hills.  Renamed the Hill City Ancients, the corps continued for another few years before disbanding.  As of this writing, the old corps drums are still displayed at the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Friends left behind in West Hartford didn’t forget Ziolkowski, and in 1947 his supporters traveled to South Dakota to help him set up camp.  One of them, a drummer named Ruth Ross, never returned.  She stayed with Korczak, had 2 of his children, and then married him in 1950 and had 8 more.   But as he predicted, Korczak’s work was unfinished when death overtook him in 1982.  He is buried on the site in a grave that he and his sons had blasted out of the mountain.  He wrote his own epitaph:

Storyteller in Stone
May His Remains Be Left Unknown

“Crazy Horse” attracts thousands of visitors each year. http://tinyurl.com/asg5wf3

At age 84, Ruth continues running the Crazy Horse Memorial, assisted by numerous children and grandchildren.  They are completing Ziolkowski’s magnum opus, the ultimate tribute, both to the artist and the American Indian.

Back in West Hartford, Ziolkowski’s masterpiece continued to irritate the residents.  The anonymous blogger, “Nutmeg Grater,” learned the details firsthand from a friend:

“It seems his mother was part of a women’s group in town that was none too pleased with the final rendition of the statue [because] if you drove around from Memorial Drive taking a right onto Main Street, you would see Noah’s hand down by his side with his index finger extended.  However, it didn’t LOOK like his index finger; it looked like good old Noah had a [description withheld but I think you can figure it out].  Again, the way I heard it was Mr. Ziolkowski was pissed at the fine citizenry of the charming town of West Hartford (as I am MOST of the time), and to get them back for all of their complaining and whining, he redesigned the arm and finger of the statue just a bit.”

Here I must interrupt, having heard a similar story many times from Ed Olsen.   There is no question that an insult was perceived, but “Korczak was too much of an artist,” according to Olsen (and I agree), to compromise his work in such a manner.   In any event,

The fine citizenry of the charming burg of West Hartford (well,  a group of babes, at any rate) decided to do something about it.  By the cover of night, they snuck into the center (no Radio Shack and no Max’s or Grant’s back then) and armed with only their wits, stealth, and a ball peen hammer, they whacked (so to speak) off Mr. Webster’s appendaged appendage—never, may I add, to be replaced!”

The blogger continues:

“If you don’t believe this is true, all you have to do is get in your car and drive from Memorial to Main (of course, you can’t do that now because they are working on Blue Back [another story for another day]) and see for yourself.

Blue Back Square, a sprawling commercial complex located around the corner from “West Hartford’s prim town hall,” caused more controversy than Ziolkowski ever did.  Its name commemorates Webster’s “blue-back speller,” a schoolbook he authored in 1783 that was customarily bound in inexpensive blue-papered boards.   Construction began in 2003, its completion delayed, however, by several years of lawsuits and political wrangling.

Happily, West Hartford has made peace with both the Square and their mammoth Noah.  Blue Back opened in 2008, the same year that Noah’s finger was replaced.  (It wasn’t there but a few weeks, though, before some prankster put a condom on it.)

(For another perspective, see the review of Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition in Notes, Journal of the American Library Association, Volume 69, Number 3, March 2013, pp. 547-551 by Raoul F. Camus.)

Ruth Ross Ziolkowski died on May 21, 2014, at the age of 87.  http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/27/ruth-ziolkowski

Copyright 2011, August 2012 HistoryoftheAncientsDotOrg, All Rights Reserved.

Book Review: Music of the War of 1812, Kate Van Winkle Keller and David Hildebrand

2011, The Colonial Music Institute, ISBN 978-0-9818759-8-9
For more information, including how to order your own copy, go to http://www.1812music.org/

“History is about people,” writes musician-historian David K. Hildebrand, and what better way is there to explore the thoughts and attitudes of people than through the songs they sing.   Music of the War of 1812 in America allows us to do just that.  Noted dance historian Kate van Winkle Keller has selected more than 50 songs and song-texts (plus 16 additional partial texts), through  which we glimpse a variety of reactions to the unsettling events of the Second War with Britain.   Some songs express approval and admiration for the war and the people who fought it; others not so much, but all are clearly presented in modern  transcription for those who wish to re-create the various musical sentiments of these tumultuous years.

The songs refer to specific war-time events, but the focus is not the where or when of what happened.  Rather, they reveal how the writer (and ultimately, the singer) felt about what happened.  Thus, the textual burden of the “Siege of Plattsburgh” is not so much to proclaim the American victory—that’s a given—but instead to flaunt it in the face of the defeated British.  To reinforce its impertinence, the text is set to the well-known “Boyne Water,” a tune that heretofore had celebrated English military victory; to add impudence, performers were directed to sing “in the Character [and dialect] of a Black Sailor” (p. 132).  The song was an instant hit, locking tune and text together so that ultimately the tune “Boyne Water”  lost its title to a new one, “Back Side of Albany,” adopted from the opening phrase of the “Siege” text.

Illustration from Music of the War of 1812 in America, page 132.

This illustrates a phenomenon that the late music historian Arthur Schrader called “emotional baggage.”  Songs are comprised of two distinct parts (text plus melody), and a successful parody like “Siege of Plattsburgh” melds them together inextricably, partly because of the lively topical nature of the text and partly because of the familiar nature of the tune.  The emotional baggage results when the tune absorbs specific characterizations from a closely associated text, so much so that even without the words the tune retains the singular nature textually imparted to it.  This is what happened with the tune “Peggy Band,” a typical military retreat used in the ceremony that signaled the close of the soldiers’ workday.  It carried emotional baggage from its widespread use as a theatre song, which pokes fun at the wretchedness of debtor’s prison.  So, when the British field music played the standard “Peggy Band” on the evening of the Yorktown surrender in 1781, it delighted a certain Virginia militia colonel who recognized it as “A Debtor’s Welcome to His Brother.”  With this baggage, the otherwise benign military retreat became a sassy repartee to the conquered British, something that the listener, a victorious American, found “by no means disagreeable.”  Similarly, Dr. Hildebrand points out,

The melody of “John Anderson, My Jo,” a ribald Scottish song about a feeble old man, was chosen to deride the president blamed with starting the [War of 1812] in several new songs called “James Madison, My Jo.”  This added level of meaning is often lost to the modern listener, who for the most part doesn’t recognize and therefore doesn’t appreciate the irony.  [Thus,] the many settings of the tune ‘Yankee Doodle’ read very differently once one comes to understand the cocky, pseudo-insulting nature of most of the texts written to this melody.

In fact, “Yankee Doodle” is ubiquitous throughout Music of the War of 1812 in America with more texts set to it than any other tune in the book.  Thanks to Keller’s meticulous scholarship “Yankee” and all of the other texts and tunes featured in this collection are fully identified so that readers (and singers) can enjoy them today exactly as they were intended  200 years ago.

 Music of the War of 1812 in America is not limited to songs.  There is also a section on dances, with several medleys “inspired by places, events, and people” related to the war.  Of importance to fifers and drummers, though, is “Set IV,” consisting of 12 original tunes composed by John Carroll while serving at Fort Niagara, NY.  Apparently Carroll had an affinity for both “music and whiskey,” with the latter sometimes inspiring the former.  In fact, one of the tunes, “Carroll’s Thoughts on Eternity,” was composed during a “frightful night [spent] in the black hole,” a punishment warranted by his attendance to duty in a state of inebriation:

 “Here in the middle of the night, in answer to his yells, he was found in a piteous condition of fright, declaring all the hobgoblins and devils in existence had visited him, and begged for a light, a fife, and pen, ink, and paper, which were granted him.  In the morning he presented to the other musicians the notes of a tune he had composed in the dungeon. . .”

Arguably, the Carroll compositions is the most important part of this book for what they reveal about the composer, fifers, and fifing during the War of 1812:

1.  Fifers at this time were notorious musical thieves.  Rather than compose music specifically for the fife, they merely adopted (or adapted) songs or dance tunes that were currently in the air.  Even the music published as part of the fife instruction books (“tutors”), was largely ignored, save for the camp duties, because Carroll and his fellow fifers preferred to fill their copybooks with favorite songs, theater pieces, and dance tunes to use for specific military functions, including marching.  The 12 original Carroll compositions, therefore, are a welcome but unusual find.

2.  The number and excellence of Carroll’s works belie the tacit scholarly belief that fifers in general were poor musicians.  Military orders complaining of the “bad musick” of the fifers (and drummers) exist as early as the Revolution and as late as the Civil War.  In addition, the compilers of several instructional tutors published in the early 19th century clearly express in their prefatory remarks a desire to improve the field music.  This type of negative commentary has been cited so frequently that very little scholarly effort has been directed to disproving or at least contextualizing it, although supportive primary evidence does indeed exist (see, for example “Revolutionary Music, Good or Bad?,” https://historyoftheancients.wordpress.com/153-2/).  The fact that Carroll, even while at times under the influence of alcohol (or delirium tremens), could compose and notate 12 tunes of such quality, using a fife to assist him, demonstrates that a) he was a fifer with sophisticated musical skills who could compose and notate good music and b) he served among other talented fifers capable of playing it.

“Hull’s Victory,” from copybook kept by Ebenezer Bevans, ca 1820. Courtesy Museum of Fife and Drum, Ivoryton, CT

A check of the period literature reveals that there are other fife tunes dispersed in the song portion of the Music of the War of 1812 in America.  Of course, “Yankee Doodle” and “Girl I Left Behind Me” need no introduction, but some lesser-known others, such as “America, Commerce, and Freedom,” “Jackson’s Welcome Home,” ” Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Hull’s Victory,” “Adams and Liberty” [“Star-Spangled Banner”], and “Tid-Re-I” all found their way to the early 19th century fifer, either in manuscript or print. But it’s the Carroll tunes, which provide a rare glimpse into the musical mind of a talented military fifer, that are especially interesting to this writer.

Music of the War of 1812 in America is spiral bound for easy use and printed on good stock with durable, wipe-clean covers.  Consult the companion website, http://www.1812music.org/downloads.htm, for even more information, including audio tracks of the music in the book.

Copyright 2011, HistoryoftheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

A Tale of Two Fifes: The War of 1812

“Mr. Madison’s War.” From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_1812, accessed August 3, 2012.

To some Americans, it was a fiery necessity, the Second War for Independence.  To others, it was “Mr. Madison’s War,” a terrible inconvenience that disrupted profitable New England trade.  To the British, it was just another military headache; they were already fully involved in the Napoleonic Wars.  No matter who called it what, men from both sides of the Atlantic were summoned to fight this war, and once the regiments were assembled they marched off to it with music from  their own fifers and drummers.

Some American fifers – probably a large number of them – were equipped with fifes made by Heinrich Christian Eisenbrandt (b. 1790, Gottengen, d. 1860), a young German immigrant who at age 18 had fled his native Germany and the wars raging there.  He arrived in New Perth [DE] and shortly thereafter made his way to Philadelphia, where he taught flute-playing and also made woodwinds, a trade he had learned from his father in Gottengen.  Heinrich’s son, Henry, recalled how so many fifers ended up with Eisenbrandt fifes during the war:

. . . At this time (1811) America was preparing for war & Father immediately got work at good wages at making fifes.  He was a quick worker, but worked in the old German way & could only make 1/2 doz each day, whereas an American alongside of him made a doz.  Papa bored his from 2 sides; figuring this too slow, he studied out a plan to bore them from one.  Soon equaled the Americans & determined to succeed, surpassed [them] and made 2 doz a day. . .

Fife rather carelessly marked “H.E.,” likely Heinrich Eisenbrandt, Philadelphia, ca 1811. Author’s Collection.

It is not clear whether “Papa” and the “Americans working alongside him” were employed by any one of the Philadelphia instrument makers active at that time or in Eisenbrandt’s own shop, which he later claimed to have founded in 1811, but in any event, Eisenbrandt did not stay in Philadelphia very long.  His biographer tells us of a short stint in Baltimore and another in New York before returning to Germany in 1816. He worked in the family woodwind business before winning appointment as “court instrument maker in Hanover.”  However, in 1819 he was back in Baltimore and this time established a musical instrument business that would flourish for 130 years.

Metzler fife, London, 1788-1815 (top), Eisenbrandt fife, Philadelphia, ca 1811 (bottom). According to The New Langwill, Eisenbrandt was in Baltimore (at the battle of North Point) in 1812 and in New York in 1815. Author’s Collection.

The British side of the story is also dominated by a German whose woodwind-making enterprise lasted even longer than Eisenbrandt’s.  Valentine Metzler (b.?, Bingen am Rhein, d. 1833) began his career in London in 1788 and eventually opened a “music warehouse” as well.  When his son, George (b. 1797, d. 1867) joined the business in 1816, the name was changed to Metzler & Son.  It then became Metzler & Co. in 1833, upon the death of the elder Metzler.  In 1931 Metzler & Co. was assumed by J.B. Cramer, under whose name and leadership the company continued until about 1950.

Despite their German heritage, both Metzler and Eisenbrandt turned fifes that were characteristic of their adopted countries.  In fact, were it not for their brand marks, they would be nearly identical to any other contemporary British- and American-made fife respectively, less so in the case of Eisenbrandt, though, because the outstanding feature that distinguishes his work from any other is his use of rosewood.

Throughout the eighteenth century and extending well into the nineteenth, the tonewood of choice in both London and America was boxwood. Turkish boxwood was preferred, as it was thought that the dry climate might produce wood less susceptible to warping, but in truth, all boxwood, unless perfectly seasoned and used in extremely short pieces, tends to warp.  The dark, dense hardwoods did not, and by the 1820s-30s American makers had virtually abandoned the use of boxwood in favor of the tropical tonewoods.  However, British makers continued to use it (for fifes, at least) even as they produced flutes, clarinets, oboes, and other woodwinds from rosewood, cocus wood, cocobolo, and ebony.   Eisenbrandt was unique in his use of rosewood a full 10-15 years before its adoption by other woodwind makers.  In fact, according to Henry, his father’s skill in producing fine rosewood instruments guaranteed the success of his second Baltimore venture in 1819:

. . . he became famous for his work.  The Americans at that time knew nothing of polishing hard woods & he often received double the amount of his price when a piece of work was completed; this in fact had been the case frequently, from the very first, in Phila[delphia]. . .

Foot end of Metzler fife (left) compared to foot end of Eisenbrandt fife (right). The bores are well centered. Enlarging the image demonstrates loosened areas of the Metzler ferrule. Author’s Collection.

Otherwise, the straight, narrow bore and the thin-walled, tapered body with upper body swell found on Eisenbrandt fifes were typical of American fife design.  Eisenbrandt drilled the bore and turned his fife with care, probably on a foot-powered lathe.  The small, even tone holes are also typical of the time period.  Of note, though, is Eisenbrandt’s careful undercutting of only some of the tone holes.  Undercutting was a subtle way of enlarging the tone hole on the inside of the body without disturbing its appearance on the outside.  When left uncovered by the fifer’s finger (“open”), the widened tone hole would effectively shorten the sounding length of any pitch dependent upon that open hole, resulting in slightly sharper intonation.  By choosing which tone holes to undercut, Eisenbrandt improved specific pitches that, on other fifes, were noticeably flat.

Ferrule, foot end of Eisenbrandt fife. A pincer device was used to make two equidistant indentations that would prevent ferrule loss should it loosen from its seating. However, these ferrules are so well toleranced that they show no sign of loosening even now, 200 years later. Author’s Collection.

Certain other characteristics, however, show where Eisenbrandt cut corners in order to complete his 2 dozen fifes per day.  The brass ferrules are nicely fitted but without decoration.  He snipped them from seamless metal tubing, which took a lot less time than cutting up brass sheets, hand-rolling each ferrule to fit the fife, and then finishing with a burnished seam, which is what other makers did.  Both ferrules are the same size (3/4”), thus eliminating the necessity of turning different seating lengths at each end of the fife, even though it was standard practice at this time to apply a longer ferrule at the foot end.   On this particular instrument, his brand mark, a seriffed “H.E.,” missed the midline entirely and is only partially visible despite being double-struck.  Perhaps he excused his haste or inattention to such details, which did not affect either intonation or gross appearance, because it allowed him to tend more carefully to other characteristics that did, the overall result being a well-constructed instrument that exceeds the standards of its day.

Brand mark used by Valentine Metzler, 1788-1815. Author’s Collection.

The Valentine Metzler fife is a typical British instrument.  He, too, was a talented woodwind maker, but unlike Eisenbrandt, whose fifes equaled the quality of his other woodwinds, Metzler viewed fifes as a secondary product.  Rather than improve upon them, his fifes were simply “little flutes” that were hastily assembled from leftover pieces of boxwood.  They feature a thick-walled, straight body with a slightly conical bore.  In this particular fife, there is an obvious warp running up the middle portion of the body which, combined with a large knot in the upper lateral area, rendered this piece of wood unsuitable for use in flutes or other woodwinds.  Metzler, too, utilized small, even tone holes that were somewhat larger than Eisenbrandt’s but not as carefully placed.  They are smoothed but do not appear to be undercut, although the embouchure is (this improves volume, an important feature of the military fife).  The ferrules are made from sheet brass, each decorated with two sets of scored parallel lines.  Both are loose; while this can occur with age as the wood dries out, it can also result from a poorly rolled ferrule.  Metzler evidently doubted the integrity of these ferrules, as he pinced the upper ferrule twice (4 indentations) and the lower 3 times (6 indentations), thus doubly and triply ensuring that a loosened ferrule would not slip off (Eisenbrandt pinced his only once).  The foot ferrule measures a full inch, the head ferrule an 1/8” less.  The brand mark, “V METZLER / LONDON” is  inscribed within a customized banner and carefully placed low on the body in the midline.  It is this mark that verifies construction well within the period of the War of 1812, before the company became Metzler & Son and thus dropped the “V” from the maker’s mark.

While well constructed according to the standards of its day, the Metzler fife, with its inferior wood, loosened ferrules, and indifferently placed tone holes, reveals the London makers’ typical disdain for the fife as a true musical instrument worthy of their time and trouble; to them, fifes were simply military signal instruments whose small market held little profit potential.  Therefore, they conducted fife-making with only minimal professional investment, often using damaged wood pieces that would otherwise be discarded.  Things began to change, though, around mid-century with the development of the keyed fife, this in response to a larger and more profitable demand for a more flute-like fife from the “corps of ‘drums” market.  In America, where professional woodwind makers were joined by cabinetmakers and just about anybody else with a lathe in making fifes, the disdain was less intense but present nonetheless.  Here the military fife remained the flute’s poor relation until about 1880, when Geo Cloos, Inc of Brooklyn, NY introduced the Crosby Model fife.

The Metzler fife, left compared to an unmarked British fife, ca 1775-1800, possibly Longman & Broderip, London. Both instruments lack the quality of the flutes, clarinets, and other woodwinds produced by these makers. Author’s Collection.

The value of the Metzler and Eisenbrandt fifes lies not only in their presumed use during the War of 1812.  Their brand marks allow us to date them as definitive examples from this specific period with equally specific construction characteristics that can be compared to other, unmarked instruments so that these, too, might be dated with a fair degree of certainty.

Copyright, August 2012,  History of the Ancients Dot Org.  All rights reserved.