Roots music, what is it? A quickie-Wiki answer would be “the earliest of the genre, a precursor,” containing basic elements that persist despite subtle and not-so-subtle interpretations garnered over several generations of survival. Jazz musicians find their roots in blues, percussionists find theirs in the Ancients. But what are “Ancient” roots? What did the music sound like? How was it performed? How has it changed? And why? The answers lie in both the written record and in Connecticut’s Moodus Drum and Fife Corps.
The Moodus Drum and Fife Corps was founded in 1860 by brothers Hezekiah (b. 18 April 1801, d. 25 May 1888) and Orville (b.1808, d. 1899) Percival. At first they joined with friends to play at picnics and other informal gatherings but the Civil War years found them at the local train station providing a rousing patriotic send-off for volunteer soldiers. Soon thereafter the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps became official, setting the standard for other corps that sprang up in the nearby towns of Chester (1868), Deep River (1876 and 1878), East Hampton (1886), and Westbrook (1910), to name a few.
So why Moodus? What makes them the unique harbingers of the Ancient musical past? They probably weren’t the first drum corps in Connecticut – that claim, yet to be proved, may lie with Hiram Case’s West Granby Drum Corps. But West Granby disbanded long before it could make a lasting Ancient impression. Other early corps survived over decades, some (like Moodus) even to the present day, but their musical roots were gradually subsumed by the modern touches added to them by successive generations. Thus, it is the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps who managed not only to survive the passage of time but also to preserve the performance practices and rudimental style embraced by its founders.
Roots-music-Moodus-style harkens back to the post Revolutionary era, when Hezekiah Percival was taught to drum by one Samuel Wilcox (b. 17 June 1798, d. ?) of Middletown’s Upper Houses. It is not known if Wilcox was associated with Captain Partridge’s military academy or the “drum school of some renown” located in Middletown, but he was certainly qualified to teach drumming, having served as the drum major for the 6th Regiment of Militia in 1819 and later as drummer with the Hartford-based Putnam Phalanx. In any event, it was Wilcox who signed a certificate on May 15, 1821, attesting to the proficiency of his student. Listed thereon are 14 “Rules for beating on a tenor drum,” all of which have a military connotation and correspond to rudiments practiced by Ancient drummers today. The certificate further lists 22 military-based “Names for the Different Beats” along with directions for playing “Reveille,” the military ceremony that marked the beginning of the soldier’s workday. After mastering this lengthy and difficult list, we must agree with Wilcox, that his student deserved “the approbation of his friends, and the recommendation of his Teacher.” What is striking, though, is how firmly Wilcox’s certificate links the functional military music of the late 18th and early 19th century to the secular social music that evolved in Ancient fife and drum corps some 50-80 years later.
While just about any Ancient drummer today can play the rules and beats that Percival mastered in 1821, it isn’t until a Moodus drummer plays them that their roots nature becomes clear. Played Ancient-style, the “rules” become “rudiments,” each one executed crisply and cleanly on a relatively tight batter head – maybe not by modern percussion standards but tight enough to provide rebound. The stick literally bounces off the head, which enables a lighter attack while still allowing the drummer to play “open,” a hallmark of the Ancient style. The tighter head responds quickly, which pushes up the tempo; thus, current Ancient street tempos are around 110-120 BPM. Moodus style, however, is devoid of bounce, and the rudiments are played far more open. The snare heads are only loosely tensioned, even by Ancient standards. Each blow to the batter head is deliberate, requiring the drummer to maintain total control in striking, then lifting the sticks high off the head to avoid buzzing. The descent provides power to the next blow but is controlled to accommodate the full response of the calfskin. This necessarily slows the tempo, which Moodus drummers maintain between 70-90 BPM. This kind of performance practice executed upon the unmuffled, wide-diameter, “square” drums preferred by Moodus drummers produces a volume of almost unexpected proportions, distinguishing them from their Ancient counterparts. The result is indeed “Thunder in the Valley.”
The functional nature of early American military field music would be well served by the Moodus style of drumming, since its characteristics were much the same. Field musicians were not recruited to entertain the soldiery (or the citizenry who overheard them) with light, fanciful airs played in syncopated, ornamented, multipart harmony – that was pleasure music, the realm of the military wind band. Nor were they shepherded before the massed companies just before the battle or marched across the sunset to inspire the troops with stirring patriotic tunes as movies like “Glory” or “Gettysburg” would have us believe. Instead, the music provided by the fifers and drummers was purely functional – it regulated the soldiers’ workday in camp or garrison, relayed orders while in the field, and assisted in maintaining order and cadence while on the march, the morale-boosting component being a happy but unofficial ancillary function (while the morale-boosting effect of this music cannot be understated, its importance was magnified in postwar veteran memoirs and romanticized by an adoring secular public). Therefore, the field music repertory featured jigs, quicksteps, and marches whose uncomplicated downbeats were easily discernible by men possessing various degrees of musical sophistication. It had to be played at standard military tempos, which were designed to maintain a comfortable, orderly cadence, and it had to be loud enough to be heard over the din of marching men. These features, inherent in functional military drumming, also represent classic Moodus style.
So, how did the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps preserve its unique musical practices? The early written record is sparse, save for the certificate signed by Wilcox and a few treasured pages of music and titles, and not much was added in later years. Therefore, preservation could not have occurred without well-placed trust combined with a tenacious resistance to change, the latter bordering on stubborn. This notorious feature of the historically isolated Valley earned Connecticut the sobriquet “Land of Steady Habits” long before the Percivals even thought of bringing fifes, drums, and like-minded friends to a picnic on July 4, 1860. Written records and oral tradition both tell us that the Moodus style remained a closely-guarded secret, revealed only to those who passed the test of trust. One such was Dr. U.S. Cook (b. 1845, d. 1925), who was taught by Hezekiah himself. It was Dr. Cook, “a cancer doctor who practiced with herbs,” who was the second-generation leader, passing his knowledge on to a selected few from a third generation of drummers. These included youngsters like Pete Mietzner (b. 24 April 1895, d. ? May 1978), Michael J. Barry (b. 11 Sep 1881, d. ? Oct 1962), and Walt Lewis (b. 15 April 1897, d. ? April 1975). As these drummers, too, grew old and feeble, they rested easy knowing that the tradition was in the capable hands of yet another set of young ‘uns. In fact, it was Walt Lewis who taught the fourth generation, including “Uncle Jack” Golet (b. 7 Sep 1906, d. 12 Jul 1991), who in turn instructed his sons and a niece in this unique musical survival, now preserved over 5 generations in a direct line from Wilcox and Percival to Amy Armstrong, who teaches the Moodus drum line today.
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