Historiography is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the writing of history, especially the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” While I have every hope that this paper will conform to these high standards, I will not attempt to accomplish this through statistical measurements of historical artifacts or comparative examination to contemporary drums, although this could easily be done, since I have identified about 100 drums “of Brown’s manufature” either in public collections or private hands. Rather, I will instead focus upon how Brown drums, a product of Connecticut Valley craftsmen, were welcomed by the drum-playing public as the best vehicle with which to perfect and perpetuate another Connecticut Valley product, the unique craft of “Ancient” drumming, which flourishes in this area today as a truly “living history.”i

Elias Brown, descendant of Peter Brown of Duxbury, MA, began making drums around 1810. He worked in partnership with an uncle, two cousins, and eventually his son in Wintonbury Parish, a section of Windsor, CT that in 1835 became the independent town of Bloomfield. Although the business faced competition from another shop just a couple of days’ journey or so to the northwest, the Browns nonetheless established a widespread and loyal clientele who eagerly sought their product.ii


The degenerative effect of heavy use on the shim joint of an oak food storage container, ca. 1840. The row of iron nails (center of the photo) once secured the joint.

Eli (b. 1781) and Moses Brown (b. 1778) were not-too-distant cousins, the respective sons of an earlier generation of cousins, Zadock and Benjamin Brown. In 1810 Moses and Eli were husbands with young families who worked as farmers as well as drum-makers. Both Zadock and Benjamin were listed on local tax records in 1781 as coopers, a craft whose special skills were akin to the ones necessary to produce drums. In fashioning barrels from wooden slats, coopers were familiar with the behavior of wood subjected to varying degrees of moisture, something that drum-makers also needed to know. Moreover, it is possible that a practicing cooper might make round wooden containers as well as staved barrels. The shaping and joining methods used to produce these small containers, known popularly today as “pantry” and “cheese” boxes, would necessarily be applied to the shaping and joining of drum hoops and shells (fig 1). Benjamin the cooper, then, was likely the second Benjamin (b. 1748, d. 1833) who may have taught his sons Moses and later William the woodworking skills necessary to produce drums, skills that Eli may have learned from his own father. iii


William Brown snare drum, ca. 1825. Windsor Historical Society collections, 2015.56.

The Browns made snare drums in various sizes that were considered “square;” that is, the depth of the shell equaled (or very nearly equaled) the dimension of its diame­ter. Except for the very earliest drums and those produced as toys, sizes range from 17″ to 19.5″ in surviving examples. Bass drums were also square (“barrel” basses); those extant range from 24″ to 29″. The basses were “double-strung;” that is, tightened by two opposing sets of braces pulled toward the center of the drum rather than with one set placed unilaterally and tugged to the opposite side, as is commonly practiced today. Printed labels were pasted in the shells opposite the vent hole that identified the makers as simply “B. E. & M. Brown, Drum Manufacturers,” with a three-digit number and date written on each label. Although the numbers were issued chronologically, they did not necessarily indicate the date of sale, as one might expect; rather, they more likely referred to the maker and the date that the shell was completed. Since several of the drums were apparently roped, headed and then sold out of numerical sequence, the numbering system is useful in determining how long the unfinished shells remained shelved in the shop. This could be as long as two and even four years.iv


Label inside the William Brown Drum, above

Despite its success, the partnership lasted only until 1815. That year Moses moved west with his wife, Eliza (Frisbie )Brown, and their four children, settling in Columbus, Ohio where he died sometime before 1833. The drum making continued back in Wintonbury Parish, however, as Eli attempted alliances with other family members, first with Benjamin and later with Moses’ younger brother William. The business was carried on as a loose partnership with the makers using up the supply of old labels simply by writing over the previously printed information before investing in new printed labels identifying Benjamin, William, and Eli as individual makers. Benjamin continued using the old three-digit numbering system established in 1810, but William’s drums sometimes contained a two-digit number. In 1820 Eli began marking his drums with a four-digit number. As in the earlier partnership, the numbers were issued sequentially as the shells were completed; however, the drums were not always assembled and sold in sequence, and it wasn’t until about 1825 that the numbers became reliably chronologic with sales.v

Business continued in this manner for five more years. During this time Eli added tambourines to his line, and William advised that he also made “toy drums of every description.” These were sold to individuals as well as merchants, some as far away as upstate New York. A common snare drum, according to later tradition and a penciled note on the label of one drum (dated 1834), sold for $8.00.vi

A hiram case

Hiram Case and wife, Eunice Higley. As a young man, Case got his first drum from Eli Brown himself.

In 1914 Erwin Huggins recalled how one customer obtained a drum, ostensibly from Eli himself. It was re-told in 1986 by Carol Laun, then curator of the Salmon Brook Historical Society, for The Hartford Courant. It seems that one Hiram Case (b. 1804, Barkhamsted, CT) needed a drum and decided to get one from the Brown shop in Wintonbury.

One bitter cold day in late fall [more likely late summer in 1823, see below], Case borrowed a horse from his father and set out on the rough roads to Windsor [where] Eli Brown had a drum factory…known worldwide for the quality of drums produced. When Case arrived at the factory, he asked Brown if he would make a drum for him. Brown said he would, but that he had drums on hand that might please his customer. Case then admitted he had no money but promised to pay with the first money he earned. Brown looked the young man over and said, “if you want a drum bad enough to ride such a day as this from Barkhamsted on horseback down here, you are good enough to pay for it. You can take the drum.” Case picked out the style drum he wanted, had it strapped to his back, and mounted his horse for the long journey home.vii

Under the tutelage of Hart Lee, also from Barkhamsted, Case became an expert drummer, and we are told both by Huggins and Laun that Case “made another trip to Brown’s factory and paid for the drum” within a few months’ time. Case ultimately founded what became the West Granby Fife and Drum Corps, where his story was recounted many times for the benefit of its younger members.


Fourteenth page of Maj. John Gaylord’s Book. Watkinson Library at Trinity College. Hartford, CT.

While making drums, the Browns also were making music. William owned a violin and a fife, both valuable enough to be cited in his probate inventory, although any books of music he may have owned are unknown to this writer. Cousin Eli’s musical interests, however, are preserved in writing – but not his own. He apparently shared some favorite tunes with a friend, John Gaylord, also of Windsor. Gaylord wrote out “Elias Brown’s Quickstep” on the fourteenth page of a tunebook he began keeping around 1816, possibly for use in the field music of the local militia (fig 2). Later, on page 35, he wrote out a “Quickstep” that he got “from Brown of Wintonbury.” Another tune, “William’s Quickstep,” may refer to the drum maker or to a third friend, William F. Tudor, of neighboring East Windsor.viii


Benjamin Brown drum, ca. 1812. Lacking original label, painted decoration not original. https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/so-esmerian-n09106/lot.641.html

Tragedy struck on 25 October 1825 when William died. He was newly married and only 23 years old. The inventory of his modest estate reveals he had been living off the income he earned from the drum-making business, which had probably been conducted from a workbench in his barn. His father still worked with him, as the executors listed 13 of Benjamin’s drum shells on William’s inventory, an error that was subsequently corrected. Eli, William’s colleague, cousin and caring friend, submitted “expences of [William’s] last sickness” for which the estate eventually paid him $1.24. No farming tools were listed on the inventory, even though a variety of household goods, clothing, and a horse and wagon were. However, a miscellany of drum-making materiel such as cord, brass nails, and several types of skins were counted along with 59 drums in various stages of construction. This amounted to almost 30% of the entire estate, including the house, barn, and 11¾ acres of land, whose total worth was just under $500.00.

William had lent money to his friends and family, and when he died they owed the estate more than $150.00. Of special interest is an $8.00 note in the estate against one Hiram Case of Barkhamsted dated 23 August 1823, which having gone unpaid for more than two years, now showed an additional $1.10 interest. It would appear, then, that Hiram’s prior business took place in the (unusually cool and stormy?) late summer of that year, not the late fall, and that the drum that suited him was of William’s make, not Eli’s. Another of William’s customers was reimbursed for expenses paid on drums that could not be completed, and two others owed the estate nearly $100.00 for drums and drum heads that William had supplied. Interestingly, Case (spurred by a guilty conscience, perhaps? or prodded by the executors?) did pay the estate a portion of his long-standing debt, but only in the amount of $0.35.ix

In the years following William’s death both Benjamin and Eli continued making drums, with Eli by far the more prolific maker. Of approximately 100 surviving Brown drums located to date, 44 were made by Eli and most of these between 1820 and 1835. He continued working despite Benjamin’s death in 1833 and after 1835 did so in partnership with his son. By 1837 Eli, Jr. was making the larger portion of drums.


From Picturesque America or the Land We Live In (D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1872).

The Browns were not simply drum makers. They were also valued members of the local community. Their civic prominence, however, was not inherited but earned, the result of sociopolitical changes that were a long time coming in the Valley. Founded in 1633, Windsor is one of Connecticut’s oldest settlements and was home to some of the state’s most prominent families. During the late eighteenth century these “River Gods” had established sizable wealth and prominence from a lucrative West Indies trade. Supporting them was an artisan citizenry who supplied the goods and materials necessary for mercantile shipping and who also built the Gods their fashionable homes along the riverbank, filling them with cupboards, clocks, and other respectable furnishings. Over the years as the artisan population increased, however, they ultimately outnumbered the River Gods and toppled their sociopolitical dynasty by becoming politically active themselves. As the nineteenth century progressed, they formed new, self-governed towns, all carved from the original settlement at Windsor but in areas more outlying and away from the river.x

Bloomfield was one of these towns and the Brown family part of these changes. Descendants of seventeenth-century Puritan émigrés, the drum-making Browns were artisan-farmers of the second and third generations living on former common lands lying beyond the riverfront. They witnessed and participated in Windsor’s growth and the eventual social and political sectioning of Wintonbury Parish into the town of Bloomfield. At its first town meeting in 1835, Benjamin’s son (also Benjamin) was appointed sealer of measures, Eli as hayward and Eli Jr. as highway surveyor, an office the elder Benjamin had held years earlier under the old Windsor jurisdiction. Eventually both the elder and younger Eli would assume more important positions, including selectman, assessor, grand juror, and tax collector, all the while maintaining their farms and working their chosen craft.xi


From the Middlesex Gazette, 1831

As in the earlier years of the partnership, the Browns’ market for drums remained limited to fulfilling military needs, supplemented by a small but growing demand from civilian bandsmen. Civilian wind bands were often hired by militia companies to participate with them in training days and the parades (“processions”) and other public commemorations held periodically throughout the year, especially the 4th of July.xii In the absence of surviving shop records or other business accountings, an examination of local newspaper advertising suggests that among the Browns’ customers were dealers in military goods such as Middletown’s Smith & Sill, who retailed “swords, pistols, sashes” and such alongside “drums of Brown’s manufacture” in their store. While other customers, such as Hartford’s Thomas Williams, operated retail music shops featuring musical instruments with a more general public appeal, they, too, recognized the importance of the military market by strategically advertising their stock of Brown drums in the spring and fall, just prior to Connecticut’s training day and general muster, when they would be most needed.xiii

The Browns did sell drums beyond the confines of Connecticut and were successful to some degree, as evidenced by the New York debts to William’s estate in 1825;xiv however, the market remained largely local. This permitted painless competition from another drum-making facility located in Pittsfield, MA, about 75 miles northwest of Bloomfield. This enterprise, also a family business, had much in common with the Browns’. Its proprietor was Abner Stevens, son of Eliphet Stevens, formerly of Old Saybrook (now Killingworth), CT. Like the Browns, Stevens was an artisan whose “industry and economy” earned him a “moderate fortune” that enabled him to become a business if not civic leader. He began making drums in Hancock, MA, apparently as early as 1791, removing to Pittsfield in 1809. His thrifty habits plus the proceeds of his drum-making business allowed him to acquire a large tract of property on North Street in Pittsfield that included The Exchange Hotel. His commercial ventures, drum shop included, were transferred to his son, Moseley W. Stevens, in 1840. (By this time “The Exchange” had become “The United States Hotel,” a local landmark.) To date, I have found evidence of two drums bearing the M. W. Stevens label, indicating that some attempt was made to continue the drum-making activities until at least 1845, three years following Abner’s death.xv

Like the Browns, Stevens made drums “in the best manner,” featuring more or less square dimensions. Although both shops enjoyed cheap transportation routes offered by nearby rivers, the proximity of the Pittsfield factory to the Albany road offered Stevens relatively easy land access to markets in New York State. However, he did not ignore the local wholesale market potential. Stevens pursued and eventually obtained at least one large contract from the Massachusetts state militia. Although “Mr. Dalton” and E.W. Ripleyxvi also endeavored to supply the militia with the 600 drums it needed in 1811, Stevens was selected to provide them. His efforts to complete the order, however, were fraught with difficulties that were evident only two months later, when he could not locate suitable construction materials. He addressed his concerns directly to Amasa Davis, Quartermaster General of the Massachusetts militia, in a letter dated May 24, 1811:

Capt Allen wrote to me April 17th. . . to have me make the Snares a little larger and the earse narowded. . . Since I have seen the Contract & it says catgut for S[nares] & Horsehide for Brasirs [probably “bracers” or “braces,” another term for “ears”] – I have ben atalking with a gentleman in this town that purchases catgut every year & the Largeist he can find in Albany or New york. . . is not so large as the Snares in the Drum [sample] I Sent & I think not so good. As for Horsehide for Brasin it is not Suiteable at all. . . xvii

This problem was apparently resolved, but another, more burdensome one soon arose in its stead:

I have Drawn an order on you for three hundred Dollars a few Days ago in favor of Mr. Granger (Boston). Mr. Williams of this town let me have the money & took the order. that money was considerable help to me but I am still in grate want of about four hundred & fifty Dollars more. . . If I could have all this money that is now acomeing [due] for the first hundred Drums soon[,] I think I could make out to get along thorable [tolerable?] well for the preasant. . . xviii

The urgency of Stevens’s plea was compounded by the fact that he already had “. . . fifty Drums which now are remaining on hand” promised to the government but not yet paid for. “I could [have] sold several of them in days past for the money (in this State and other States),” Stevens told Davis, “but I still keep them.” Despite his loyalty, one might conclude that the venture ended badly, since only six months later Davis was searching for a new supplier.xix Business continued well for Stevens, notwithstanding the reluctance of the Massachusetts militia to pay its bills; in 1813, he advertised his shop as “The American Drum Factory,” and five years later added brass drums, fifes, flutes and violin bows to his product line.xx

There is no indication that the Browns solicited such large-scale business or experienced similar cash-flow problems. They, did, however, achieve a local reputation for excellence that effectively dismissed any threat of competition from Stevens, at least amongst their Connecticut customers, none of whom featured drums “of Stevens’s manufacture” in their advertising. The Browns continued producing drums only slightly longer (1846) than did the Stevenses (1845), although popular legend has the Brown shop active until the elder Eli’s death in 1855.

Eli Brown’s probate records reveal that, like Abner Stevens, the drum shop was not its proprietor’s sole business venture. The inventory acknowledged Brown’s half-interest in the drum shop, Eli Jr. being vested in the other half, but also listed a large farming enterprise that included dairying and tobacco production. The value of the drum shop was only $62.00, less than the value of the cow house and only slight­ly more valuable than the tobacco shed, and this on an estate appraised at nearly $18,000. The estate was ultimately probated according to Eli’s will utilizing the custom of the time to divide the property amongst his wife and children.xxi

Actually, both shops succumbed to causes larger than the loss of their founders. During the early nineteenth century new socioeconomic pressures affected the upper and lower Valley, an area long recognized for its impermeability and resistance to change. Problems began with the arrival of the industrial revolution, whose benign origins at the Springfield [MA] armory began about the same time Abner Stevens produced his first drum and only a few years before the Browns produced theirs. The subsequent “market revolution” that followed in its wake ensured the demise of cottage-based artisanry as consumer markets were flooded with cheaper, mass-produced goods.xxii Even locally important craftsmen like Brown and Stevens could no longer attract skilled workmen willing to settle for lower-than-factory wages or consumers willing to pay for goods that were now considered old-fashioned. A label on a drum produced by Thomas McGann suggests an attempt at reviving the Brown drum business in Albany, NY, but this was short lived (1866-1868).xxiii Other than the family itself, probably no one noticed the demise of the Stevens shop, and except for the handful of disappointed drummers from the ancient corps in Connecticut, the demise of the Brown manufactory was equally unnoticed.


Author’s Collection

It was the Connecticut drummers’ realization that their traditional musical practices could not survive without a dependable supply of older drums, specifically those “of Brown’s manufacture,” that triggered panic among the state’s Ancient-style corps. The old West Granby corps wasn’t the only one using these instruments; nearly all the corps flourishing in Connecticut’s Valley Shore preferred Brown drums; the list is impressive and includes the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps (founded 1860), Chester Drum Corps (1868), Deep River Ancient Drum Corps (1876-78), East Hampton Drum Corps (1887), Killingworth Drum Corps (1887) and the Westbrook Drum Corps (1910) along with Waterbury’s Mattatuck Drum Band (1881). The East Hampton men were the first to guarantee their own supply of “Brown” drums when Elias, Jr.’s granddaughter distributed shells and other parts to the fledgling corps upon dismantling the old workshop, probably in 1892 when the home was sold outside the family. This was facilitated, no doubt, by Dan Burns, a former Moodus drummer and drum-maker who had defected from his old corps to organize and teach the new one in East Hampton, lured by the promise of a job at the local silk mill and “boarding round” the homes of the drum corps members.xxiv One comrade of these old-timers, Robert von Deck, recalled in horror how the granddaughter reserved one of the bass drum shells for herself, to cut in half for use as plant borders at her West Hartford home.xxv

East Hampton’s newly assembled “Brown” drums were the first of a spate of imitations produced by ancient corpsmen in the years following the shop’s closure, the above-mentioned Erwin Huggins among them. As late as the 1930s, a drummer with the old Chester Drum Corps, Clayt Holmes, copied the Brown drums in that corps’ collection, sometimes carving romantic figures in bas-relief opposite the drum’s vent hole.xxvi While Huggins, Holmes and other makers produced serviceable and sometimes superior instruments, the most perfect replication had already been achieved in the years following 1914 by a Moodus drummer known as “Grump” [Elmer] Ventres. Utilizing his own Brown drum as a model, Ventres meticulously re-created every detail of construction used by the Browns including the paper labels, which were prepared for him by fellow Moodus drummer and printer, Michael J. Barry (fig 3).

997 - CSM Bust 1942-02-15

Charlie Miller, founder of the Mattatuck Drum Band.  Sculpture by Korzak Ziolkowski, who would later move west and carve the Crazy Horse Mountain.

The execution and style of these old-time traditionalists survive in today’s Moodus Drum Corps and Mattatuck Drum Band, which still use Brown drums, some inherited from their musical forebears and others acquired by purchase from antique dealers. The history of these corps exemplifies the early customs that gave birth to the style of Ancient drumming currently practiced in the Valley and also demonstrates the how important the large, square drums “of Brown’s make” were in its creation and perpetuation.xxvii Their drumming practices can be traced in an unbroken line of aural transmission from both corps’ founders. Hezekiah Percival, co-founder of the Moodus corps, and Charlie Miller, founder of the Mattatucks, practiced and passed along methods they had learned long ago from military-style rudimental drummers.xxviii The few lesson books, manuscripts, and other evidence of “book learning” descendant from both founders and their respective corps suggest that Miller and Percival were taught their rudiments by rote, although their teachers may have had some benefit from books. Percival’s instructor was Samuel Wilcox of Middletown’s Upper Houses (now Cromwell, CT), and Miller learned to drum from Louvane Fox of the Wolcott Drum Band. The rudimental background of these teachers is apparent not only in the practices that have survived them but also in the few documents they left behind. Wilcox listed essential rudiments and beatings on a certificate of proficiency he signed for his student in 1821, and Fox owned a copy of Col H. C. Hart’s New and Improved Instructor for the Drum. . . [1862] and apparently subscribed to its theory (fig 4).xxix

bildeStylistically, Moodus and Mattatuck drumming differs from current Ancient method in several ways. Wilcox and Fox both taught functional military drumming, in which performance was subservient to purpose; that is, the drumming was intended less as music and more as an adjunct to “assist troops in marching correctly” and to produce a beat that could be heard over the din of marching men.xxx The result was a slow, heavy execution of the rudiments with a necessarily pronounced inflection restricted to the downbeat. Drumming proficiency, therefore, was measured as much by volume as it was by accurate performance of the rudiments; as late as 1946, old-timers evaluating the performance of early ancient corps did so primarily on the basis of the volume of their drumming.xxxi The Brown-made snare and bass drums in the Moodus and Mattatuck corps enable this practice to continue today. The drums are still maintained with unmuffled calfskin heads, which are only minimally tensioned, even by today’s ancient standards, and the drummers play with heavy downstrokes that effect a strong, uncluttered downbeat, the result of which was described even by the old-timers as “thunderous.”xxxii In executing the rolls, the strokes are deliberate and devoid of bounce. The drummers employ little contrast between accented and unaccented strokes, something especially apparent in the bass drummers’ flamacue, a five-beat rudiment that has no accenting at all.xxxiii These remain such important features of the drumming that new Moodus students are advised to practice on pillows instead of rubber-coated drum pads, much as their counterparts did in the early days of the corps. As an example, Moodus’ Pete Mietzner learned to drum this way in 1900, recalling in rhyme that, unlike today’s Ancient practices, “each blow was struck distinctly, for a rebound did not go.” This lack of rebound was not only a musical necessity but also a point of honor, as Mietzner tells us.

[the] rudiments were known as rules

and a piece was called a beat;

A soft pad used while learning,

Where one could not fake or cheat

In 1975, John Golet recalled similar training “way back, 52 years ago when I joined the Moodus outfit:”

. . . it took at least a year to develop a snare drummer. . . If at the end of a year they could not roll properly or execute their blows, they were given a choice, either to quit or [to] practice until they could master the art. To-day many drummers are given a drum to “practice” on after a couple of months. We keep our youngsters on a soft pad for a year at least and longer if necessary.xxxiv


Mattatuck Drum Band, 1961

Beating on a soft pad produces absolutely no rebound, thus requiring the student to fully control both the attack and the lift rather than rely upon the stick bouncing back up after its strike.  The soft pad is what prepares the Moodus drummer to control both action and reaction of the stick with each blow.  Loosely tensioned heads reverberate slowly, which necessarily slows the beat. So, the preferred Moodus cadence, then, hovers between 70 and 90 beats per minute.

In contrast, today’s Ancient drummers choose from a variety of drum styles and sizes, and they prefer a tighter bracing of the heads. Some Ancients continue to use natural skin, others prefer synthetic heads; even so, typical Ancient practice requires muffling by placing a strip of cloth beneath the batter head to modify its reverberation and eliminate an otherwise audible “ring.” The rolls are played open, much more so than in modern drumming but much less so than in the Moodus or Mattatuck style, and the sticks are controlled to effectively utilize rebound from the relatively tight batter head and response from tautly strung snares.  The sticks themselves are thinner and lighter to accommodate the faster tempo, and the accents are more pronounced, requiring about 80% more effort than unaccented strokes. Tempo is generally 110, although ranges between 100-120 are not uncommon.

This stylistic divergence both caused and was caused by the changes that occurred in drum construction in the years following the demise of the old Brown shop. For example, in extant Brown drums the shells are constructed from a single wood ply. The later factory-made drum shells, however, utilized machined cross-grain laminates. Just how the laminate shells affect timbre and tone quality remains a matter of musical debate; historically, the more important effect was their ability to withstand increased tension. The tighter, more responsive heads thus produced enabled drummers to execute crisp rudiments without waiting for batter head and snare response; this in turn encouraged faster tempos and a different type of stick attack.


Tight tensioning in a drum emblazoned with the logo of the National Association of Rudimental Drummers.

The demand for more tension and better control of it spurred further advances in drum-making technology. Laminate shells notwithstanding, the response of even the newer drums remained limited due to the natural substances that continued to comprise the majority of the instrument. The catgut snares, skin heads, and natural ropes found on the early drums will sag and stretch under pressure, necessitating frequent adjustments to remain in playing condition. Nor could they withstand the rigors of damp or humid weather. Homemade remedies were available for some of these problems, most notably cloth batter head mufflers, but in general these were shunned by traditionalists, who accepted ringing heads as inherent to the traditional style and found no reason to correct them. Accordingly, they rejected factory-promoted solutions that were more readily accepted by their fellow Ancients, such as changing the length of the shell or substituting metal for the traditional wood construction, because they found it difficult to play “Moodus style” on the new instruments. Certain other changes, however, were accepted as “improvements” and did find a market among the traditionalists in the Moodus and Mattatuck corps. These include a variety of snare-tensioning devices, some of which are found on later Brown drums and with which some earlier Brown drums were retrofitted. They continue to reject other modernizations, though, such as weather-resistant synthetic ropes, heads, and snares that were accepted long ago by other Ancients as advances in the developing plastics industries made them available. These changes in drum making, which occurred alongside evolutionary changes in fife construction, were heartily endorsed by instructors who had no military drumming background but who were professional percussionists. This served as a dual-pronged attack on the old Ancient repertory and inspired in fifers and well as drummers to respond in kind with modernized music and accompaniments played at increased tempos.xxxv


Sanford “Gus” Moeller posing in 1955 with a “deep Revolutionary War type drum” of his own make.

Eventually, and certainly by the 1930s, the evolution of Ancient drums and drumming had created its own ancestry in the old-fashioned ways that remained standard practice for the Moodus and Mattatuck drummers. In addition, both the Brown drum and the style of playing it were rapidly acquiring a legendary mystique that misidentified them as relics from the American Revolution. This heightened the demand for Brown drums and artificially inflated their prices. As late as 1960, newspapers described the “deep Revolutionary War type drums” used by the Moodus and Mattatuck drummers, made by “their crony Billy Brown,” and embellished earlier stories about how “crockery fell off the shelves” whenever these corps marched by.xxxvi Other stories magnified the intensity of this precursor to Ancient drumming, resulting in an even more powerful “Moodus thunder:”

. . .an old Higganum woman. . . always liked one of the band’s pieces, ‘Village Quickstep.’ One Friday night when the band was practicing in Moodus she heard her favorite piece played—eight miles away, and thereafter listened from the same spot each Friday night. Earlier in the history of the band the corps was giving a concert at the Middletown depot and the concert was heard at Lake Bashan, 19 miles away. xxxvii

Stories like these prevailed whereas primary research did not, and their repetition waxed poetic in the public memory. This is represented most notably by the larger-than-life “drummer-boy” monument erected in Bloomfield [CT] center during the Bicentennial of 1976, commemorating The ‘Brown Drum’ made in Bloomfield in the late 1700’s and carried by troops in the Revolutionary war,” which was further sanctified as the instrument “sound[ing] the call to arms in the struggle for liberty and justice against the shackles of tyranny.xxxviii

The fact that the continued evolution of Ancient-style drums was departing further from the Moodus/Brown model and thus threatening the existence of the original performance practices of Ancient drummers was recognized early on. At their second convention in 1887, the competitive Connecticut Fifers and Drummers Association established a specific class for Ancients that respected their slower tempo and unique repertory and judged them accordingly. Even so, it failed to attract as many contestants as did the variety of fife and drum; fife, drum and bugle; piccolo and drum, flute and drum, and even the “drums no fifes” categories offered by the Association. The absence of such prestigious Ancient corps as the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps from these events was glaringly obvious, even though the corps was a dues-paying member. This prompted the Association to direct a personal invitation to the Moodus corps for the 1889 convention,

“Mr. Edward Clark, Prest of the Asso~ wished me to write you and urge you to prevail upon Moodus to be with us this year[. I]n the large Bills I have inserted a line as an especial attraction Moodus will be there. I hope I have not stretched it in [so] saying. . .”

Although the writer, Major Allen of Allen Drum Corps, concluded with hopes “you will favor us with your presence this year,” it was to no avail; the newspapers reported the event in detail, noting the absence of the Moodus men. Major Allen went even further in 1891 in attempting to hire a Moodus contingent “in Continental uniform” to accompany the Commandery of the Loyal Legion on a two-day trip to Manchester, NH, which promised to be a “rattling good time.” Written on the letterhead of the Connecticut Fife and Drum Corps Association, of which he was secretary and treasurer, Allen added a postscript urging the Moodus men once more to attend to the Association, “. . . old Mattatuck has joined again & we want Moodus represented to make the Convention complete.” There is no indication how the corps responded, if at all, to this entreaty.xxxix


The Charles T. Kirk Drum and Bugle Corps, home to both J. Frank Martin and George “Pop” Ripperger — until Martin quit over the “band and bump” Ancient question.

The dilemma was not confined to Connecticut. In New York, some complained that Ancient drumming was nothing more than “bang and bump,” a “strictly Connecticut style” that should remain confined within its borders. Others regretted that they did not hear enough Ancient music. J. Frank Martin, a drummer, was one of the former, fifer “Pop” Ripperger one of the latter. Both were members of the Charles T. Kirk Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps until Martin quit, disdaining his fellow drummers’ increasing fondness for Ancient playing (“it never fitted the music the Kirks played”).xl A fifer who appreciated Ancient drumming, Ripperger fumed at the proliferation of “modern” music that threatened the existence of the Ancient style, and he appreciated any opportunity of hearing (and participating in making) Ancient music. One such opportunity arose just prior to a contest in Beacon, NY in 1943, which ultimately proved disappointing; Pop described it in detail for a young GI serving in China. “There wasn’t a quickstep played all evening,” he complained; moreover, “one senior Amer. Legion corps tried to play ‘The Thunderer March’ by Sousa, and it sounded more like ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama.’” Despite the crackerjack corps present at the event, he was shocked by their lackluster performance. Again referring to “The Thunderer March,” Pop proclaimed he had “never heard it butchered up so badly, and if Mr. Sousa ever heard that he would turn over in his grave.” This was all the more distressing since Pop had spent the several preceding hours making grand music, Ancient-style:

. . .I had the old fife out and Dave Johnson’s brother. . .had a pair of drum sticks and a pad ready—and by the way, he was the Drum Major of the old 14th Regiment of Brooklyn for years and is a rudimental drummer—and for a man 69 years old you should see the way he handles the sticks. Well, I had to play the Duties, in fact the whole Reveille, not once but twice, and I think I played all the quicksteps, reel[s], jigs, etc that I knew. . . we hammered out the old tunes until after 6 o’clock xli

An examination of business records of the Moodus and Mattatuck corps suggests that the old-Ancient-versus-new-Ancient argument did not extend to the public at large. Over the years each corps acquired a long list of public performances, most of which commemorated historically significant events. Following its humble beginning “playing off soldiers from the train station” during the Civil War, Moodus took their Brown drums with them to New York City in 1883 to celebrate Evacuation Day and again in 1896 for the Sound Money Parade. One member recalled how they declined “lead[ing] the Newspapermen’s contingent” at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, even though the invitation was urgently telegraphed by Joseph Pulitzer himself, because “the notice was too short.” In 1891 they were in Bennington, VT for commemorative ceremonies that featured a review by President Harrison. They participated in several GAR reunions, including the mammoth convention and parade held in Boston (1890). At another GAR event held in Portland, ME, one newspaper reported the presence of the Moodus corps along with “several other bands attending this national gathering,” and the “keen rivalry [that] existed between each organization.” This prompted an incident of “bearing on,” from which only a skilled and enthusiastic Ancient drummer rightly equipped with a Brown drum could emerge triumphant:

It was considered great sport to attempt to drown out all other opposition bands or drum corps. The Moodus Corps were overwhelmingly victorious upon this occasion. It appears that the Portland Regimental Band was playing before General Headquarters as the Moodus Corps arrived and marched alongside of them. With their big powerful instruments the Moodus Corps were so dominant that the Portland Band was unable to hear themselves play.

The losers did not take their “derision and defeat” lightly. They protested with “one blast with their horns in the ears of the Moodus players” before breaking ranks.xlii

The Moodus men played for other momentous occasions, one such being the dedication of the Washington Monument on February 21, 1885. The weather that day was so cold that the brass band’s valve instruments froze, and by default the Moodus corps became the featured music at the outdoor event. Following that performance President Chester Arthur requested a personal White House concert, which the corps declined, fearing the effect of the drums’ reverberations upon delicate White House glassware. Ultimately the president’s wishes prevailed, albeit cautiously—he stationed an aide near the china in the East Room who was later purported to insist that during the concert “it actually swayed back and forth.”xliii

The Mattatuck Drum Band was in equal demand. Some of the men who would later become Mattatuck drummers saw service during the Civil War. At one point, their “bang and bump” Ancient drumming attracted the attention of a New York recruiter:

Early in 1862 Quartermaster George W. Roosevelt of the 71st Regt NY State Militia, then organizing, employed Col. H.C. Hart to organize the Regimental Drum Corps. Mr. Hart came to Connecticut looking for drummers and fifers, but met with little success, until one evening after he had arrived at Southington, and was sitting on the veranda of the hotel, chatting, when he heard drums in the distant. On inquiry he learned that it was the Wolcott Drum Band practicing on the center of town, six miles distant. He immediately hired a team and hastened to Wolcott. . . .xliv

Three Wolcott musicians were persuaded to leave for the war with Col. Hart, and the corps recruited more members as they traveled to New York. One of the Wolcott drummers, Henry Chatfield, was appointed leader and instructor. By the time they “. . . marched down Broadway leaving for the war, the Corps attracted much attention by their fine playing. They were attached to the Army of the Potomac, and it was said that the 71st Regt N.Y.S.M. has one of the best Drum Corps in the Army.” At one point during their service, their slow and thunderously distinctive Ancient drumming drew wry commentary from none other than Ulysses S. Grant himself. Chatfield told a friend about the incident, recalling it thusly,

When General Grant took command of the Army [at Petersburg] he reviewed all the troops. As he and his staff passed the 71st Regt. the Corps played Hail to the Chief. He paused in front of the players, and when they had finished he remarked, ‘Well, boys, I never heard such a hell of a racket from so few drums in my life.” He then passed on.xlv

Following formal organization of the Mattatuck Drum Band in November 1881, it compiled a remarkable list of appearances. Undaunted by an earlier gig in New York when the “concussions” of the drummers caused a plate glass window to shatter as they marched by, the corps returned to the city for the 1886 Independence Day parade. A drummer who was present that day likened their playing to “a shower of big firecrackers that were exploded in our ranks.” This excited the onlookers so much that “At times so much ticker tape was showered on us that it tangled in our sticks.”xlvi About 40 years later at yet another July 4th commemoration, the drum major described a more drastic effect of the drums upon an unlucky horse and rider:

We had been at parade rest for several minutes and at the time we were given the “forward march” command there was a girl on horse back just overtaking us – as is our practice, every drum, it beat on the cadence as we step[ped] off – Well, it is an absolute fact that when our 10 snares and 8 bass hit that first beat, the horse reared up on his hind legs and then dropped to the ground—dead.xlvii


The Putnam Phalanx decorated their Armory home for CT’s Battle Flag Day, September 17, 1879. https://hartfordpreservation.org/battle-flag-day-2014/1999-battle-flag-day-1879-265-main-putnam-phalanx-armory-compressed/

Both Moodus and Mattatuck were in high demand within the state of Connecticut as well. They participated with other Ancient corps in the many centennial, bicentennial and even tercentennial events that dotted Connecticut’s city streets onward from the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps none so dramatic than on September 17, 1879, when Hartford hosted Connecticut’s Battle-Flag Day. A large procession was held as the state ceremoniously deposited the military flags and colors used during the Civil War in a newly prepared display at the State Capitol. A book of nearly 300 pages was just enough to describe the festivities and the parade, which included a variety of civic and veterans’ organizations along with many brass bands including the famous New York Seventh Regiment Band and Connecticut’s own Colt’s Armory Band. Several drum corps participated as well, only the more renowned identified by name. These included the Putnam Phalanx, a drum corps that was also a member of the legendary Centennial Legion, as well as the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps (15 pieces), which marched in the third division behind the Phalanx. They were followed shortly thereafter by the 22 Wolcott men, some of whom would soon become members of the Mattatuck Drum Band. That day the Moodus corps wore their new continental-style uniforms (probably obtained through friends in New Hampshire’s Amoskeag Veterans), and no doubt both the Moodus and Wolcott drummers carried their now famous Brown drums.xlviii

Today the Moodus and Mattatuck corps are active members of the Ancient community. Both are frequent participants at musters, the social event most associated with the Ancients, and both maintain an impressive practice and performance schedule. The Moodus and Mattatuck drums constitute two of the largest known collections of Brown drums, two others being those at the Museum of Fife and Drum in Ivoryton, Connecticut and the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Footnotes available upon request.  Copyright 2021, History Of The Ancients DotOrg.  All rights reserved. 


Book Review: Field Music Revisited, Ten Years in the Ranks and Drum Taps in Dixie

Delevan S. Miller, author of Drum Taps in Dixie (1905)  Fontispiece, "A Wartime Photograph."  Author's collection.

Delevan S. Miller, author of Drum Taps in Dixie (1905) Frontispiece, “A Wartime Photograph.” Author’s collection.

Although contemporary first-person accounts are preferred over memoirs when it comes to accuracy, detail, and reliability, Ten Years in the Ranks U.S. Army and Drum Taps in Dixie are two candidates for the exception to this rule.  The authors, Augustus Meyers and Delavan Miller respectively, penned their memoirs early in the twentieth century, when leaders of the Grand Army of the Republic thought it wise to preserve memories of the Civil War by encouraging veterans to publish them.  Miller, himself a G.A.R. official who had served in the New York Second Heavy Artillery, was 55 when he authored Drum Taps in 1904.  He also wrote A Drum’s Story and Other Tales (1909), a lesser-known series of anecdotes that, while interesting, lack the charm of his earlier work.  Meyers’ Civil War experiences were predated by several years of service on the western frontier, but the most fascinating part of the story he told in Ten Years (1914) is of his antebellum training at the army’s music school on Governor’s Island.  He wrote about this at age 72, some 60 years after the fact, but did so with amazing clarity nonetheless.


Augustus Meyers, author of Ten Years in the Ranks (1914).  Image taken in 1856 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Augustus_civil1 _war_02_001.jpg

The appeal of both Ten Years and Drum Taps arises from the candid recounting of what it was like for a couple of boys from New York to train for and serve in the Yankee army — not so much as fighting men but as musicians.  Because of their youth (they were just over 12 years old), both Meyers and Miller ended up in the field music.  Since fifers and drummers seldom saw actual field service (they had “nothing to shoot back with,” Drum Taps p. 83), musicians were seldom on the field, although there was the occasional “fight in which it was all “front” and no chance for the musicians to get to the rear”(Drum Taps, p. 142).  In any event, immediately upon enlisting Meyers was directed to the music school:

We reported to Sergeant Hanke, who was in charge of all the non-commissioned offices and music boys in that battery. . .Sergeant Hanke, after looking me over, asked whether I desired to be a drummer or a fifer. When I expressed a preference for the former, he made some remarks about my slim and very youthful appearance and advised me to think it over for a day or two (Ten Years, p. 1).

This proved to be sage advice:

I watched the boys practicing and noted how difficult it seemed to be for some to hold the drum-sticks properly and beat the first exercise, called “Mammy-Daddy,” without hitting the rim of the drum as often as the drum-head, which would bring down upon them a reprimand from the instructor or in some cases a rap across the knuckles of some persistently awkward boy. When I took note of the exceeding large and heavy drums used in the service at that time, which the drummers were obliged to carry, I resolved to become a fifer. . . (Ten Years, p. 6).


The training Meyers received utilized both note reading (he reports struggling to “understand the meaning of the notes in my music book”) as well as rote learning.  He found that Sergeant Henke

had a habit of taking a boy’s fife out of his hands and playing part of the piece for him to show him how it should be done. As he was an inveterate tobacco-chewer this was very disagreeable. Wiping the fife on the sleeve of the jacket did not remove the strong odor. In my case I used soap and water as soon as I had the opportunity to do so (Ten Years, p. 11).


accessed from http://www.nationalcivilwar brassmusic.org/GovernorsIsland.html

Otherwise, Meyers remembered his instructor fondly, “He often listened painstakingly to our complaints and forgave us for many minor transgressions,” such as when he noticed “a pipe stem protruding between the buttons of [Meyers’s] jacket” (Ten Years, pp. 11, 14).  He had no such memories, unfortunately, of Michael “Daddy” Moore, the drum instructor:

I once threw a basin full of dirty water out of a window and inadvertently dashed it over Sergeant Moore, who was passing. He saw me and immediately got his rattan and gave me a good whipping (Ten Years, p. 14).


Miller, too, was destined for the field music.  His enlistment in New York’s Second Heavy occurred at a pivotal time:

. . .only one company [had] got their guns and horses when it was decided that no more light batteries were wanted.  So the balance of the regiment was turned into heavy artillery (heavy infantry). This change called for fifers and drummers. . . (Drum Taps, p. 19).

from Drum Taps in Dixie (Author's collection)

Illustration of the drum corps of NY 2nd Heavy, from Drum Taps in Dixie (Author’s Collection)

Miller “was the first drummer the regiment had” and recalled with pride how his drum was “a present from the officers at Forth Worth” (Drum Taps, p. 19).

Evidently Miller was already a proficient drummer, since his first assignment, participating in dress parade, occurred the day after he received his instrument.  Not so for Meyers, however.  His first dress parade was still weeks away while he toiled with the other “music boys” at the Island in learning the basics:

I was handed a “B” fife, the kind that was used at that time, and was shown how to hold it and place my fingers over the holes and my lips over the embouchure. I found it difficult to make a sound at first, but after a time I managed to produce some noise. I struggled with the gamut for a week or more and spent another in trying to play a bar or two of music correctly. After that I got along faster and commenced to learn some of the more simple calls and to understand the meaning of the notes in my music book. . .after about two months I had made sufficient progress to take my part in playing the reveille, retreat and tattoo. After that, I learned to play marches and other pieces  (Ten Years, p. 11).


Both authors recounted the particulars of their military service, which extended beyond learning and playing music.  Meyers’s 10-year career began in 1854 with his assignment to Carlisle Barracks.  This was followed by several stints at various forts on the western frontier before the outbreak of the Civil War forced his unit’s return to the east.  They were attached to the Army of the Potomac, where Meyers set aside his fife to serve in the commissary department.  He described either witnessing or participating in a number of battles including the bloody Seven Days of the Peninsula Campaign.  One instance in particular “made such an impression. . .that I had no difficulty in recognizing it many years afterward when I revisited the scene.”  We can almost feel his terror as he recalled that day.

I noticed a great cloud of dust which seemed to be approaching, and when it neared the gap I could make out that there were horses, but was not sure whether it was cavalry or artillery. . . My doubts about this were dispelled in a few minutes when I saw a sudden puff of smoke and heard the familiar sound of a shell passing over our heads.  We heard the command to lie down and obeyed it promptly. . . Each time I heard the scream of a shell coming our way, I hugged the ground so close that I broke the crystal and hands of an open-faced watch which I carried in my pocket. . . (Ten Years, pp. 228-229).

Miller’s record with the Second Heavy is less clear as he wrote in a more random, spontaneous fashion.  His story is admittedly anecdotal (“[m]emory awakened furnished material. . .each article recalling faces, forms, scenes and incidents from out of the misty past” Drum Taps, p. vi).  He remained a musician throughout his service with Grant’s army at Fredericksburg (1862), Cold Harbor (1864), and during the Petersburg siege (1864-65).  The carnage of war so clearly described by Meyers is sometimes lost, since Miller recalled soldiering as a secondary duty.  He was, first and foremost, a musician.

. . .my precious drum was put out of action by a piece of a rebel shell at Bull Run and was among the trophies gathered up by the Confederates in the stampede that followed.  Its loss I regretted exceedingly, for its equal in tone and other good qualities I never tapped the sticks to again.  It was a beauty, too, and was my first drum (Drum Taps, p. 20).


Card found in Author's copy of A Drum's Tale and Other Stories (1909).

Card found in Author’s copy of A Drum’s Tale and Other Stories (1909).

These memoirs are important for several reasons.  The historian can rely upon them because so much of what the authors remembered is confirmed by genealogy, military records, and published chronologies.  Additionally, both the academic and amateur scholar of historic military studies, especially those interested in field music, will find an accounting of just how the fifes, drums, and those who played them related to the overall function of the mid-nineteenth century army, proving how closely the dictates of the period military manuals were followed — or not.  Using standard music bibliographies, they can prove that tunes cited by Miller, such as “Yankee Doodle,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Rory O’More,” and “The Campbells Are Coming,” remain part and parcel of the Ancient core repertory. It is perhaps these latter interests that resulted in both Drum Taps and Ten Years being reissued by modern presses long after they had been out of print.

What this writer found most important, though, is their empiricism.  The authors clearly define an additional, emotional connection to the music.  This is not something that can be easily detected, much less verified, in other historical sources, and it takes a close reading of both Drum Taps and Ten Years to discover it as an underlying theme. It is more obvious perhaps in Miller’s work — it is, in this writer’s opinion, what makes Drum Taps so charismatic.  Both Miller and Meyers internalized the music they played, making it a part of their own personal identity.  Because other fifers and drummers did the same, the field music was more than a functional military necessity; it was also a social community, binding its members together with an affinity for the music that rose above its physical nature and thereby enabled its survival long after it had been deemed old-fashioned by others.  A like assimilation occurs with Ancient fifers and drummers; maybe that is why so many remain in the community lifelong.  It also accounts for why the core repertory, although old, is never stale.  It is a bit surprising to discover, via Meyers and Miller, that this identity was not created by the Ancients but was inherited by them.


Souvenir pinback from G.A.R. convention held in Buffalo, NY (1892).  For sale by Military Antiques and Memorabilia, September 7, 2014, http://www.milantique.com/misc%20GAR1.htm

Souvenir pinback from G.A.R. convention held in Buffalo, NY (1892). For sale by Military Antiques and Memorabilia, September 7, 2014, http://www.milantique.com/misc%20GAR1.htm

This phenomenon might be partly explained by the power that music attains from its emotional baggage.  Briefly, “emotional baggage” is what the late music historian Arthur Schrader identified as “a nonmusical factor in our perception of songs or melodies that consciously or unconsciously affects our thinking and rhetoric about them.”[2]  Certainly Miller recognized the intensely patriotic baggage carried by the old military music when he declared, “there is nothing like martial music of the good old-fashioned kind, such as inspired the continental heroes at Lexington, Yorktown and Bunker Hill, and rallied the boys of ’61, and later led them in all the marches through the South” (Drum Taps, p. 23).  Emotional baggage is what makes parade-goers “go wild” whenever the Ancients play “Yankee Doodle” while marching up Monument Street in Boston toward the Bunker Hill Memorial on the Fourth of July, much as the old veterans did when they heard it played by a continental-styled drum corps at the 1892 G.A.R. convention (Drum Taps, p. 24)

Drum Corps Family (and Friend) at Deep River Ancient Muster, 2012.  Author's Collection.

Drum Corps Family (and Friend) at Deep River Ancient Muster, 2012. Author’s Collection.

Emotional baggage notwithstanding, there are other ways that Ancients “feel” the music just as Miller and Meyers did.  Much of this is an unconscious process that is seldom articulated, only sensed.  However, it is the reason Ancients plan weddings and vacations so as not to interfere with muster season.  It explains the communal satisfaction of playing music together, which allows for friendships to develop while new players improve their skills and more experienced players indulge in theirs.  It also explains the muster etiquette that demands, as a mark of respect, no spontaneous playing while others are “on stand” and mandates enthusiastic applause for both the experienced player and the newbie, simply because both are fellow Ancients who deserve accolades for doing what they can to perpetuate the craft.  It is why Ancients preface their signatures with the phrase, “In the Ancient Spirit.”

"My drummer was a tall, haggard man with a sallow face.  I was still a few inches short of attaining five feet, and when my tall drummer and I marched at the head of our company we were called the "long and the short of it," which greatly annoyed me. . . (p. 38).  Apparently the old joke stuck around for many years, judging from this whimsical postcard dated 1905.  Author's Collection.

“My drummer was a tall, haggard man with a sallow face. I was still a few inches short of attaining five feet, and when my tall drummer and I marched at the head of the company we were called the “long and the short of it,” which greatly annoyed me. . . (Ten Years, p. 38). Apparently the old joke stuck around for many years, judging from this whimsical postcard dated 1905. Author’s Collection.


Meyers demonstrates this kind of feeling but with subtle understatement.  He laments that his first companion was not “a drummer-boy of about my own age, with whom I could chum” (Ten Years, p. 38).  Worse, he could hardly hope to enjoy sharing music with him since “he was not a very good drummer, and would not take the trouble to learn any new and fancy pieces” (ibid.).  Like the Ancient who suspends his-or-her own musical interests in favor of playing pieces that all can enjoy, Meyers’ drumming companion forced him to “content myself with the old repertoire” (Ten Years, p. 39).  Later, while serving on the frontier, Meyers found other ways to share music with others of like abilities, such as when he

. . . bought a flute from a member of the band, and took lessons from him. As I understood something about music and played on the fife, I made rapid progress on the flute and had become a fair player when Lieutenant Curtis asked me to come to his lonely cabin and play duets with him. He was an excellent player, and had a lot of music books. . .[and oftentimes] we played music until tattoo. . . (Ten Years, pp. 101-102).

The East Hampton Ancients, [ca. 1922?]  Author's Collection.

The East Hampton Ancients, [ca. 1922?] Author’s Collection.

Meyers also encountered what would become an Ancient custom — but in reverse. He relished how, as a fifer, he called the musical shots, since “the fifer was considered to [out]rank the drummer and in the absence of special instructions could order the drummer to play such tunes or marches as he chose” (Ten Years, p. 38).  This would change in Ancient practice, as tune control was, in the absence of the drum major, relegated to the drummer, who now was considered to outrank the fifer.  So it was that the fifers remained silent while old Ed Palmer, drummer and then drum major of Connecticut’s East Hampton Ancients called the tunes, something he was overheard to do at a field day in 1946 in his inimical, “swamp Yankee” way:

Drummahs play Golden Slippahs, Fifahs play whut ye hev a mind to.[3]


Miller was much more ebullient than Meyers in his recollections, perhaps feeling the musical emotional connection more keenly.  His fondness for the old-fashioned military drum corps of his youth jaded his later view of anything contemporary:

 Martial music seems to have gone out of fashion in these up-to-date days, and what little there is, is but a poor apology, with the bugle blasts interjected between the rub-a-dub-dubs of the drummers who hardly know their a b c’s about snare drumming (Drum Taps, p. 23).

Perhaps what was missing was as much psychological as it was musical:

[R]ight here it may be proper to say that an old army drum corps in the sixties could make music.  A boy would not “pass muster” in those days unless he could do the double and single drag with variations, execute the “long roll,” imitate the rattle of musketry, besides various other accomplishments with the sticks.  And when a dozen or more of the lads, with their caps set saucily on the sides of their heads, led a regiment in a review with their get-out-of-the-way-Old-Dan-Tuckerish style of music, it made the men in the ranks step off as though they were bound for Donnybrook fair or some other pleasure excursion (Drum Taps, p. 19).

Miller, too, experienced a musical custom that was destined for the Ancient community:

The first two years of the war we were brigaded with a certain Massachusetts regiment…Their drum corps was a good one, too, but of course the boys of the Second New York thought they were a little better than the Bay State fellows, consequently quite a little rivalry existed between the organizations, and when the regiments were out for a review or brigade drill the stalwart drummers from down East would always try to drown out the lads of the Second Heavy (Drum Taps, p. 26).

Camp Grant, Portland [ME] G.A.R. Convention, 1885.  Accessed from https://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/1937/page/3186/display?use_mmn=1

Camp Grant, Portland [ME] G.A.R. Convention, 1885. Accessed from https://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/1937/page/3186/display?use_mmn=1

What the Massachusetts men were doing became, in Ancient parlance, “bearing on.”  The purpose of bearing on was to play with enough vigor and volume to confuse the target corps until their music became disorganized, forcing them to stop.  Bearing on continued in Ancient practice until at least 1885, when one newspaper reported an incident that occurred between the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps and the Portland Regimental Band, both of whom had attended a G.A.R. event in Maine.  “The keen rivalry [that] existed between each organization” resulted in a contest from which only a skilled and enthusiastic Ancient drummer could emerge triumphant:

It was considered great sport to attempt to drown out all other opposition bands or drum corps.  The Moodus Corps were overwhelmingly victorious upon this occasion.  It appears that the Portland Regimental Band was playing before General Headquarters as the Moodus Corps arrived and marched alongside of them.  With their big powerful instruments the Moodus Corps were so dominant that the Portland Band was unable to hear themselves play.[4]

The losers did not take their “derision and defeat” lightly.  They protested with “one blast with their horns in the ears of the Moodus players” before breaking ranks.[5]

The antique drums (and drummers!) of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, 2009 (Author's Collection).

The antique drums (and drummers!) of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, 2009 (Author’s Collection).

The Moodus Drum and Fife Corps continue to carry the “big powerful instruments” that they did in both 1885 and 1935, when the incident was reported.  Nearly all of these, which date between 1818 and 1846, were produced by the Brown family of Bloomfield, Connecticut.  They are “square” drums; that is, their width equals or nearly equals their length, and are perfect for performing in the thunderous, slow-tempoed manner that was once common throughout New England but is now uniquely preserved by Moodus drummers.  Miller referred to this style as “chunks of pudding and pieces of pie” but attributed it to age, not region:

[The Massachusetts regimental drum corps] were all full grown men while our drum corps was made up of boys all under eighteen years of age.  Their music was always of the “When the Springtime Comes, Gentle Annie,” and “Chunks of Pudding and Pieces of Pie,” style, played in 6/8 time, just suited to the stalwart men in their ranks; while ours was more of the “Rory OMore,” “Garry Owen,” and “Get-out-of-the-way-Old-Dan-Tucker” sort, which we played 2-4 time, better adapted to the quick-stepping New Yorkers behind us (Drum Taps, p. 26).

At the time of this writing, an online search yielded no findings for Ten Years and only two copies of Drum Taps in original issue.  However, inexpensive modern reprints were located in quantity.   Drum Taps in Dixie is also available through several online book sites, including the Smithsonian (https://archive.org/details/drumtapsindixiem01mill) and The Gutenberg Project (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41608/41608-h/41608-h.htm/0, as is Ten Years in the Ranks U.S. Army (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45949 and https://archive.org/details/tenyearsinranksu00meyerich).

[1] Augustus Meyers, Ten Years in the Ranks U. S. Army.  New York:  The Stirling Press, 1914.  Hereinafter Ten Years.  Delavan S. Miller, Drum Taps in Dixie.  Watertown [NY]:  Hungerford-Holbrook Co., 1905.  Hereinafter Drum Taps.
[2]Arthur Schrader, “Emotional Baggage and Two National Anthems,” The Bulletin of the Society of American Music Founded in Honor of Oscar G.T. Sonneck.  Vol 28, No 2, Spring 2002, p.17.
[3] Edmond Palmer, “Interview with Ed Palmer,” Edward Olsen, ed.  Collected September 24, 1952.
[4] “New England Traditions Fostered by Village Drum Corps.”  New Haven Register, September 17, 1935.
[5] Ibid.


Copyright, History of the Ancient, 2014.  All rights reserved.

Contra Dances from New Hampshire, 1783


Available from The Colonial Music Institute. See text for URL.

Contra Dances from New Hampshire 1783 by Kate van Winkle Keller and George A. Fogg (October 2012) is the latest from The Colonial Music Institute press.  This book is an interpretation of the fifty-five dances written down by one Clement Weeks, a 33-year-old schoolteacher in Greenland, New Hampshire.  In February 1783, just a few months before the Treaty of Paris would end the Revolutionary War, Weeks began writing out “Figures for Contra Dances,” thirty-five of them, the authors point out, “from a collection from a friend named Smith” and another twenty chosen by Weeks himself.  Keller and Fogg, both expert dance historians, interpreted each set of dance figures and, using the titles in the Weeks manuscript, located the music intended for them.  Thus, each dance, is written out in modern notation and coupled with its facsimile from Weeks’ manuscript.  Facsimiles are provided for most of the tunes as well.  That plus the front matter, comprising a history of Weeks and his manuscript and an explanation of “Contra Vs Country,” plus the back matter (“Formation,” glossary, and bibliography), makes for a book packed with information – and not just for dancers, either.

One of the "Top Ten Tunes of the Revolution."  In fact, it is tied with "Haste to the Wedding" ("Rural Felicity," another Weeks' dance) for the most number of times it was copied by American fifers into their personal notebooks.

One of the “Top Ten Tunes of the Revolution,” p. 35.  In fact, it is tied with “Haste to the Wedding” (“Rural Felicity,” another of Weeks’ dances) for the most number of times it appears in the surviving personal notebooks of American fifers.

For those of us with an interest in Ancient history, the Contra Dances from New Hampshire demonstrates how easily dance music could become march music.  At this time, both fifers and dancers required uncluttered music with two strong pulsations per measure in order to know which foot should be where at each musical measure.  These indications of foot placement were just as important to soldiers marching in formation as they were to the ladies and gentlemen footing it on the dance floor, proven by the fact that about half of  Weeks’ dance music is also found in the manuscript march collections kept by fifers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Bleedthrough, p. 34.

Bleedthrough, p. 34.  Other problems might be ink smears and blobbed ink from worn-out pen nibs.   The worst, though, has got to be ink so faded that it can hardly be seen. . . that does not appear to be a problem, though, in the Weeks manuscript.

The liberal use of facsimiles in Contra Dances from New Hampshire deserves more than casual interest.  These provide readers who have not had the opportunity to visit museums and research libraries a unique glimpse into the past, when frugal Yankees like Weeks preferred to write down dance figures in a homemade book rather than purchase the latest London publication which, if not available from a local merchant, might require a trip to Exeter or maybe even Portland [Maine].  Also, the facsimiles reveal the problems that Keller and Fogg faced when working with old handwriting on old paper.  While the construction features of a clearly dated book like Weeks’ gives us clues useful when working with other, undated manuscripts, the closely spaced writing and sometimes heavy bleedthrough make interpretation difficult, especially when deciphering the phrase marks (is it a dot? Or bleedthrough from the page behind?).

Also, the authors note that “in many of the dances in this collection, [the phrase marks] are not correctly applied” (p.12).  This simple statement is hardly dismissive; it is one made only after painstakingly working out a literal interpretation and spending hours in libraries and at the computer, comparing it to as many similar others that may be found, both in manuscript and printed form.  That is the only way to separate an intentional deviation from a true mistake.  And sometimes there is nothing comparable, at which time one must admit being stymied (“This dance was a puzzle,” p. 52).

I don’t see Contra Dances from New Hampshire in the Colonial Music Institute catalog yet (it’s that new!), http://www.colonialmusic.org/RetailCatalog.pdf, but I am sure an emailed request, info@colonialmusic.org, would be honored.  It certainly is worth the extra effort to get a copy now and use these winter months to learn the dances (or the music, depending on your personal interests) to have them ready for springtime performances.

Copyright January 2013, History of the Ancients Dot Org. All rights reserved.

Book Review (sort of): The Company Books as a Source of Reenacment Music

Musical Selections for Fife and Drum, Historical, Traditional, and Contemporary was published in two volumes by the Company of Fifers and Drummers in the mid 1970s.  Known simply as the “Company Books,” they were prepared by a specially appointed Music Committee, who faced a daunting task during the tumultuous years of the Bicentennial–how to standardize a largely aural body of music to accommodate an unprecedented swelling in the ranks of Ancient fifers and drummers.   The committee consisted of Arthur “Doc” Ferrante and “Duke” Terreri, who immediately set to work:

“The method for selecting the music was to conduct a survey of all the corps and individuals in the Company of Fifers and Drummers to determine which songs have survived over the years and which songs were most ‘favored.’ “

The Doc and The Duke in later years. Photo courtesy of Bob Castillo, http://www.bobcastillo.com/duke.htm.

Each tune in the Company Books is matched with a drum beating collected from “men who have devoted a lifetime to the art of rudimental drumming.”  It is no wonder, then, that the Company Books are so popular as sources of music for musters, parades, and jollifications.  But what about the Revolutionary War reenactor?  Drummers frequently use Company selections without guilt, since a significant body of march beatings from the eighteenth century is presently unlocated.  But that is not the case with fife tunes.  How useful are the Company Books to fifers wishing to re-create music of the Revolution?

In order to answer this question, the music played by the fifers who served with the military during the Revolutionary War must first be identified in the extant literature.   This was gathered from Keller and Rabson’s The National Tune Index Part 1 (New York: University Music Editions, 1980), now updated as Early American Secular Music and its European Sources, (EASMES, http://www.colonialdancing.org/Easmes/Index.htm).  Of the several handwritten tune collections cited therein, seven are positively identified as fife tunebooks compiled during the years 1775-1783.  Two others were not included in the NTI , and three more were discovered subsequently (one each in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Tennessee) and are listed in EASMES.  If one also counts the flyleaf that survives from a Rhode Island fifer’s book and a published report (including photographs) of two tunes from a now-lost Connecticut manuscript, this brings the total to 13, collectively representing 468 different tunes.

Printed sources for Revolutionary War era music, unfortunately, are even more scarce.  We know of just one fife instruction book that was produced in America during the war, but a copy of it has not been found; musicologists, however, believe it closely approximates one printed in London in 1767.  By 1780 a total of seven fife method books had been published, all in London.  Some of these were advertised in American newspapers as imports for sale and thus available to American fifers, despite the hostilities with the mother country that began in the late 1760’s.

In determining which of these period fife tunes were captured by the Company Book compilers, I compared the music found in these printed and manuscript sources with the tunes contained in Volumes I and II.  Although I found many eighteenth-century melodies, only twenty-four were found in the fife literature described above and thus become candidates for the reenactment field.

Fife Tunes Found in Revolutionary War Sources and in the Company Books:

  • Chester
  • Road to Boston
  • White Cockade
  • Seven Stars
  • Baltimore
  • Stony Point
  • Welcome Here Again
  • Rakes of Mallow
  • Sailor’s Hornpipe
  • Successful Campaign
  • St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning
  • Paddy Whack
  • Haste to the Wedding
  • Essex March
  • Fifer’s Masterpiece
  • Duke of York’s March
  • Duke of York’s Favorite Troop
  • Fifer’s Delight
  • Janizarie’s March
  • Redcoat Fifer
  • Guilderoy
  • York Fusiliers
  • Over the Hills and Far Away
  • Soldier’s Joy

This short list raised some serious questions.  For instance, there were two “Yankee Doodle” tunes, one entitled “Ancient Yankee” and the other a more “modern” version.  The “Ancient Yankee” found in the Company Book I shows up only once in the fife literature, in a manuscript from Connecticut that was  written out between 1777 and 1780.  The tune, however, does not appear in print until the war had long been over, the Constitution had been adopted, and Washington had completed nearly two terms as president, when it is found in Benjamin Carr’s Evening Amusement (Baltimore, 1796).  Variants of the “modern” version, however, also appear in the period literature but only slightly more often (three of the 13 compilers wrote it down).   So, it would appear that both versions were circulating, largely by ear and less so in writing, at the time of the Revolution.

A landmark that once catered to Yalies but attracted lots of attention from the well-known and the unknown, The Doodle has been closed since 2008.

There is no doubt, though, that fifers played some version of “Yankee Doodle” throughout the Revolution.  A check of American colonial newspapers up to and including 1783 reveals reports of the tune starting in 1768; the frequency of the citations and indeed some of the reports themselves allude to a tune that was highly popular throughout the War.  Newspapers reported that, much to colonial delight, “Yankee Doodle” was played during the Yorktown surrender ceremonies in 1781, but one soldier, equally delighted, recalled hearing it years earlier during another surrender, that of the “Convention troops” at Saratoga in 1777:

The 17th of October a day never forgotten  by one present, the British army marched out of camp and surrendered themselves  as prisoners of war.  This was a glorious day to us.  The tories through the country had tauntingly told us for months before when Burgoynes army reached Albany they    would teach us to play Yankee Doodle in a way we should never forget — When all was arranged for Burgoynes surrender —our army in to lines that we might have a fine view   The music was ordered to strike up which began with Yankee Doodle: Gen. Gates could not refrain from smiling as he ordered a British march to be played.

Diary of Park Holland (Bangor [Me] Historical Society)

Another problem occurs with “British Grenadiers.”   Three fifers wrote it into their notebooks, and two examples are included in Volume I; unfortunately, only the first bears some resemblance to the Revolutionary War fifers’ versions. The second differs markedly (and actually turns up in the post war repertory of the 1790s).  The problem was solved, however, by searching the contents of The American Veteran Fifer; both Company versions are identical to the ones found in this early twentieth-century publication and were likely copied from there.

I also found some tunes with eighteenth-century titles that were coupled with much later melodies,  “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Hare in the Corn” being two such examples.

“Paddy on a Handcar” (p. 19, Volume I) presents still another problem.  The tune’s second strain is strikingly similar to that of “Fifer’s Masterpiece” (p. 6, Volume II), although the first strains of these tunes are different.  An earlier Company publication (1968) contains “Paddy” along with this note:  “Paddy on the Hand Car was also known as ‘The Fifers’ Masterpiece[‘] and was played at the time of Shea’s [Shays’] Rebellion in the late 18th Century,” but the Company version of “Paddy” can be traced only as far as Winner’s Primary School [for the Fife] (1874).  The “Masterpiece” tune found in Book I does indeed survive in a notebook kept by a Massachusetts fifer in 1778, but only further research will prove whether it can be connected to the western Massachusetts tax revolt led by Daniel Shays in 1787.

Perhaps the most difficult problem is posed by the tune “World Turned Upsidedown,” so commonly associated with the Yorktown surrender of Cornwallis in 1781.  Studies by the late Arthur Schrader have established that it was not.  The only tune associated with this title in the Revolutionary War fife literature was written down by a fife major serving in the New York Highlands with the 4th Connecticut Regiment in 1781; however, it bears no resemblance to the Company Book version.   Furthermore, while the 4th did send a contingent of soldiers to Yorktown, the writer was not among them, so there is nothing here to connect this tune, despite its tantalizing title, to the surrender ceremonies there.  Given all this, there is currently no indication that this tune or any other entitled “World Turned Upsidedown” was played at Yorktown or any other surrender during the Revolution.

In truth, the Company Book “World” turns out to be a much older tune known as “When the King Enjoys His Own Again.”  The ballad bearing this title was written, says Claude M. Simpson in The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music (New Jersey:  Rutgers University Press, 1966) in the 1640s by Martin Parker “to bolster the fortunes of Charles I and a Cavalier use that was seriously pressed in the several campaigns of 1643.”   Simpson describes several uses of the tune, none of which involve the events at Yorktown and only one of which invokes the “World” title.  A similar tune with a similar title “When the King Comes Home In Peace Again’ is one of several handwritten tunes bound behind a 1750 copy of Compleat Tutor for the Flute, but likely refers to the Jacobite Rebellion, not the American one (which, at that time, had yet to occur).  The tune is not found in the British-produced fife books, and none of the Revolutionary War fifers wrote it into their notebooks.  It was submitted to the Music Committee by a researcher who had included it in his own publication after mistakenly interpreting a discussion of the “King” tune found in William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time (1859).

The repertoire of the Company Books contains more eighteenth-century tunes than the twenty-four located in the Revolutionary War manuscripts, but many of these, like “Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Captain MacIntosh,” “Downfall of Paris,” and “Devil’s Dream,” do not show up until the 1790s, beyond our period of interest.  Others like the “World/King” melody and “Rondeau” predate the War but by that time had likely dropped out of popular musical memory, if indeed (as in the case of “Rondeau”) they had ever been a significant part of it (“Rondeau” was included because it was a personal favorite of the Doc, who heard it as the opening theme for PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre while watching the series “Upstairs Downstairs”).  Even if the later eighteenth-century examples were added to the list of known Revolutionary War fife tunes, the eighteenth-century content is 54 tunes, less than 25% of the total number in both Company Books.

Still, the Company Books are vital to Revolutionary War simulation for three important reasons:

  • They are inexpensive, easily obtained, and if not owned by nearly every fifer who participates in reenactment are otherwise available to them on the World Wide Web, http://fifedrum.org/resources/music/gif/.
  • Although they offer only a limited selection of appropriate tunes, this situation may change as new information is obtained from the existing literature base and new resources are discovered that augment it.
  • “They ain’t that many and they ain’t that hard,” as Ed Classey used to say, so all fifers, no matter where they reside, should be able to master all twenty-four.

And that’s an impressive number of march tunes upon which to build a basic repertoire for Revolutionary War simulation.

The Company books are useful to the Civil War reenactor, too:

Fife Tunes Found in Civil War Sources and in the Company Books:

  • Rally ‘Round the Flag
  • Belle of the Mohawk Vale
  • Tramp, Tramp, Tramp
  • Strube’s 6/8
  • Red, White and Blue
  • Hell on the Wabash
  • Biddy Oats
  • Downfall of Paris
  • Hail to the Chief
  • Wrecker’s Daughter
  • Turkey in the Straw
  • Arkansas Traveler
  • Colonel Robertson’s Welcome
  • Downshire
  • Kenderbeck’s
  • Just Before the Battle
  • Owl Creek
  • Marching through Georgia
  • Nellie Bly
  • Tenting Tonight
  • When this Cruel War is Over
  • Rory O’More
  • Sgt. O’Leary
  • House of Duncan
  • Tatterjack
  • Rochester Schottishe

This list, however, raises two issues of import to the Civil War reenactor.   The “penny press” was in full swing by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the combination of industrialism, urbanization, and consumerism that permeated society at this time.  Publishers intent on making maximal profit on minimal investment often recycled their printing plates, so that books for just about any treble instrument, such as violin, “clarionet,” flute, and fife, all featured the same repertory, making it difficult for us, 150 years later, to determine just which of these myriad tunes attracted the attention of fifers — something made even more difficult in the mammoth “omnibus” collections that contained hundreds of tunes drawn from innumerable repertories.  Since printing was so cheap and readily available, even to the most rural farmer, there was less reliance upon handwritten collections, which in the past had revealed so  much about regional preferences and which tunes were fifers’ favorites.   Although the listing above seems short, it is limited to what was most likely, by comparison with diaries, period fife music books, and other contemporary evidence, to have been played by fifers in a military context.

And what of the music that was not printed and sold?  This traditional music, which passed by rote from grandfather and father to son and grandson, comprised a large portion of the fifer’s repertory, despite the many modern compositions that also attracted his ear.   This was recognized by publishers who catered specifically to fifers, whose books contained a hefty dose of the old Rev War tunes — “Haste to the Wedding,” “St. Paddy’s Day in the Morning,” “Road to Boston,” and maybe even “Yankee Doodle” — and other favorites that emerged after the war — Jefferson and Liberty,” “1812,” or perhaps “Paddy on a Handcar” — among a lesser but important number of the latest minstrel tunes, patriotic songs, and operatic airs.   Civil War reenactors, therefore, should not ignore these older tunes as they thumb through The Company Books looking for something to play at their next reenactment.

Intentionally excluded are tunes copied from The American Veteran Fifer (1905, 1927).  While AVF does indeed contain some Civil War era tunes, it served another purpose for the GAR fifers for whom it was published (see “National Association of Civil War Musicians: American Veteran Fifers,” another posting on this blog, for more information).

Copyright 2001, 2011, 2012  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.