I don’t know what Ancient is, but I sure do know what it ain’t!
— Emphatic but wise words (1983) by the late Larry Kron, drummer for the Minutemen of Long Island (founded 1938).
While his words may seem jocular, Kron spoke with dismay, lamenting the lack of a precise definition of “what Ancient is” despite more than 150 years of Ancient fife and drum activity in and around the state of Connecticut. During most of this time, the Ancients had been a happily insular community and had no need to explain “what Ancient is,” especially since for just about any Ancient knowing exactly “what it ain’t” would suffice. However, things began changing just a few years before Kron spoke these words, when the close-knit Ancients were ‘discovered” as the United States Bicentennial approached. This is when towns and cities in Connecticut and throughout the country sought fifers and drummers to enhance their historical pageants and commemorative events. Eventually the Ancients were brought to the attention of scholars who, in view of the folk music revival raging around them, promptly but erroneously labeled them “folk musicians.” As the Bicentennial progressed, the heightened interest in the Ancients and their music coupled with no clear definition of “what Ancient is” resulted in an equally erroneous misidentification of Ancients as re-enactors, a confusion so strong that even today, some 40-50 years later, academicians (minus a few notable exceptions) still use the terms interchangeably.1
So, the question remains, what is Ancient? And what is an Ancient fife and drum corps?
In this context, “Ancient” does not take its meaning from a Roman-tinged “ancient period of American history,” as James M. Clark told readers of The Journal of the British Flute Society in 2008. Instead, the term has a more mundane origin in the American vernacular language of the mid-nineteenth century. Despite its unremarkable origin, the word “ancient” warranted a detailed explanation from Noah Webster, who included it in his magnum opus, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828):
Old; that happened or existed in former times, usually at a great distance of time; as, ancient authors, ancient days…We say, in old times, as well as ancient times; old customs, &c. In general, however, ancient is opposed to modern, and old to new, fresh or recent. When we speak of a thing that existed formerly, which has ceased to exist, we commonly use ancient, as ancient republics, ancient heroes, and not old republics, old heroes. But when the thing which began or existed in former times, is still in existence, we use either ancient or old; as, ancient statues or paintings, or old statues or paintings; ancient authors, or old authors, meaning books. But in these examples ancient seems the most correct, or best authorized [emphasis mine].2
Even today, Merriam-Webster.com indicates that “ancient” has several meanings, one of which is “having the quality of age, long existence as: venerable, old fashioned.”
A perusal of local newspapers confirms that this use and meaning of “ancient” were well-established in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, especially when referencing the American Revolution. For example, in 1877 the Springfield Union reported that musicians at the fifth “annual reunion of fifers and drummers” in Rockville, Connecticut made a “lively old racket” that conjured memories of the “training days of ye ancient times,” that occurred just before the Revolutionary War. The Fourth of July festivities of 1876, the centennial year, were described in the Tolland County Journal in similar terms:
The procession was made up of ancient and modern representations. The music was of the drum and fife order, which hardly could fail of bringing enthusiasm to a heart of stone. . . There was a reduced fac simile of the Mayflower, from [the town of] Somers, with sails furled as when she rode at anchor in the peaceful waters of Cape Cod harbor. Within were seated, dressed in old-time costume, descendants of the sturdy band on board…[also, t]here was a motley throng of ancients [and horribles] in the procession…3
The orations of the day were enlivened by “Rufus Weston and his choir of anciently costumed ladies and gentlemen, whose singing was a prominent feature of the exercises.” “Those grand old tunes,” the reporter stated, “brought tears to the eyes of the gray-haired sires gathered round.” But the highlight of the day was
. . .the exhibitions of ancient relics in the court house [which were] visited by many. The collection was large and contained among other curiosities, the padlock used on the old County Jail, the roll call of revolutionary soldiers of [the town of] Union, flint gun owned by the famous hunter of Willington, Asa Wheeler; a history of the Indian war, dated 1676; a copy of the blue laws; and the New England primer; one book 245 years old, and many other books and papers dated back 100 years and over, Ancient tea pots and household utensils, wearing apparel, saddle bags, snow shoes, flint lock muskets, pistols, sword, etc. of revolutionary fame.4
The earliest designation of “Ancient” corps found thus far is a broadside, now lost, from Winchester, Connecticut, advertising a July 4, 1875 “procession” (parade) that promised to include “Ancient fife and drum corps” among the marchers.5 This would support a definition of Ancient fifers and drummers as musicians who maintain the old and venerable quasi-military fashions in their instrumentation, music, dress, and drill, thus preserving vestiges of their eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century heritage.
Nonetheless, even this definition of the Ancients demands re-clarification of “what it ain’t,” foremost of which are re-enactors. This might be explained, as Webster indicated in 1828, as a case of survival (Ancients) versus revival (re-enactors). Ancients make no effort to conform to historical dictates, even though a cursory inspection of their fifes, drums, music, and clothing might suggest an appearance of accuracy. Instead, the Ancient persona is drawn from several epochs on a timeline that extends continuously from about 1760 to the present day. Ancients don’t rely upon research to define them — theirs is a heritage that has survived in an unbroken line. In contrast, the goal of the re-enactor is to revive historical sights and sounds from a narrow pinpoint in time through discovery, interpretation, and replication of a particular facet of its lifestyle. This requires much period-specific research if re-enactors are to accurately characterize and portray the circumscribed era they choose to represent. Since this involves revival of obscure and sometimes near-extinct historical details, re-enactors assiduously avoid the anachronistic survivals from earlier or later periods of time — which are precisely what the Ancients embrace. It is what makes them uniquely Ancient.
Nor are the Ancients “folk musicians.” While long-established musical traditions govern Ancient practices, there is no indication that any of these arose from an indigenous “folk” culture. Identification and collection of primary source material has begun only in recent decades, but these confirm a historical basis for much of the existing Ancient tradition.
For example, this quote collected by Ed Olsen from “an old swamp Yankee drum major” might be considered folklore, especially when he repeated it for me in 2001, mimicking the original old-fashioned Yankee drawl he had heard back in 1946:
“Drummahs play ‘Golden Slippahs.
Fifahs play what ye hev a mind to.”6
This once-common admonition illustrates the Ancient practice of “stock beats,” long utilized by Ancient drummers. Stock beats are generic drum accompaniments applied to fife tunes whose intended beatings are unknown or do not exist. One such stock beat played in 2/4 time is known as “The Connecticut Halftime;” another common stock beat is Fancy 6/8.” Without verification in credible primary sources, these Ancient “stock beats,” undated and untraceable, might qualify as “folk music.”
However, there is documentation to indicate historical precedent, both for this practice and for these drum beatings. In 1797 Benjamin Clark, a former Revolutionary War drummer residing in Royalston, Massachusetts, wrote out a series of drum beatings into a blank commonplace book. On several pages Clark wrote the title of a tune, writing out the accompanying drum beating on the page’s verso. Beneath the title he listed several others, all of them tunes that can be played to the drum beating indicated by the topmost title. This practice of “stock beats” survived for many decades and is found in print in 1862, when Col. H. C. Hart listed several fife tune titles beneath the “stock beats” he selected for his Instructor for the Drum. Stock beats continued in actual Ancient practice in the early twentieth century, a period where much drumming was taught by rote and for which written sources were largely ignored. Some stock beats were so common that they are identified even in the graphophone recordings made during this time.7
In addition to verifying the practice, the stock beats themselves are documented. Col. H.C. Hart, an instructor of “drum bands,” was quite familiar with the music popular with the Ancients. In fact, legend has it that he recruited drummers from Connecticut for service in the 71st NYSM during the Civil War, so it is no surprise that he attached an untitled but easily recognizable “Connecticut Halftime” to the tune “Rosebud Reel.” Both the Halftime beating and the “Fancy 6/8” were ultimately encoded in print (with their proper titles) in 1934.8
While steeped in tradition, the history of Ancient fife music, too, is easily traced to eighteenth- and early nineteenth century American military musical practices.
During the Revolutionary War, the fife was a functional military instrument, as it had been for several centuries earlier in Britain. In 1678, however, “oboes were introduced into the British service,” according to historian Henry G. Farmer, much to the detriment of its fifers. Music historian Raoul F. Camus notes the abandonment of the fife in the British field music occurring in 1684-85, when by warrant the military allotment of hautboys in the king’s foot regiments increased from 5 to 12. Thus began a hiatus of fifing that would endure until the mid 1740s, since the fife, as Francis Grose noted in 1801, “was not restored till about the year 1745, when the Duke of Cumberland introduced it into the guards; it was not, however, adopted in the marching regiments til the year 1747.”
The return of the fife to the British regiments was completed by 1756, when publication of David Rutherfoord’s Compleat Tutor for the Fife indicated a stable interest in and thus a necessity for learning the mechanics of playing on that instrument. The origin of the American fifers’ repertory, then, might be reliably dated to about 1760, since at that time tutors by Rutherfoord and others were imported and advertised for sale in the colonies.9 However, it was the Revolutionary War and its emotive nineteenth-century aftermath that indelibly marked the military fife and ensured the survival of its march music through a phenomenon that the late music historian Arthur F. Schrader termed “emotional baggage.” He defined this as “a nonmusical factor in our perception of songs or melodies that consciously or unconsciously affects our thinking and rhetoric about them:
Mendelsohn’s and Wagner’s “Wedding Marches” cannot be played in the United States without conveying thoughts of marriage ceremonies, but basically these are nonmusical associations or “emotional baggage.” Furthermore, in the USA, despite parodies and attempts to adapt “Happy Birthday” to other occasions, only one text and tune [spring] instantly to mind when a birthday is announced.10
Much of the fifers’ march music of the Revolution carried a firmly established emotional baggage, but this extended even to the duty music. This is quite apparent in the tune “Peggy Band,” a typical military retreat used in the ceremony that signaled the close of the soldiers’ workday. This tune, though, also carried lyrics that poked fun at the wretchedness of debtor’s prison and was thus known as a song that began, “Welcome welcome Brother Debtor / To this poor but merry place.” So, when the British field music played the standard “Peggy Band” during retreat beating on the evening preceding the Yorktown surrender, it delighted a certain Virginia militia colonel who recognized it as “A Debtor’s Welcome to His Brother.” With this baggage in mind, the otherwise benign military retreat became a sassy repartee to the conquered British, something that the listener, a victorious American, found “by no means disagreeable.” A similar situation occurred more commonly in march music, especially the ubiquitous “Yankee Doodle,” This tune carried significant baggage soon after it was brought to colonial shores on September 29, 1768, when the British arrived to occupy Boston:
“The fleet was brought to anchor at Castle William; that night there was throwing of sky-rockets, and those passing in boats observed great rejoicings, and that the Yankee Doodle Song was the Capital Piece of the band of music.”
The tune was used by the British to insult the colonists, as occurred during a church service in March 1775:
Thursday was observed here as a general fast. An officer, with men from the 4th Regiment in Barracks in West Boston, erected a couple of tents just at the back of Howard’s meeting and conducted a parcell of fifes and drums there which played and beat Yanky Doodle the whole forenoon service time, to the great interruption of the congregation. They intended to repeat the same in the afternoon, but were prevented by orders from the General.11
After the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the British retreated to Boston, harassed by colonial sharpshooters — and, as colonial newspapers reported, with Yankee Doodle. Thereafter both sides taunted each other with the tune However, it enjoyed even more prominence during the surrender of Burgoyne’s army on October 17, 1777. It was, according to one observer who had participated in the event as well as the battles preceding it, “a day never [to be] forgotten:”
[T]he 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 t[w]o 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.12
The same forces were at work during the War of 1812, not only with “Yankee Doodle” but with other tunes as well:
The melody of “John Anderson, My Jo,” a ribald Scottish song about a feeble old man, was chosen to deride the president blamed with starting the [War of 1812] in several new songs called “James Madison, My Jo.” This added level of meaning is often lost to the modern listener, who for the most part doesn’t recognize and therefore doesn’t appreciate the irony. [Thus,] the many settings of the tune ‘Yankee Doodle’ read very differently once one comes to understand the cocky, pseudo-insulting nature of most of the texts written to this melody.13
Emotional baggage could be wry and amusing, but it could also be alarming and frightening, which is probably why Revolutionary War drummers were advised to beat “The Grenadier’s March” to inspire bravery and maintain order during the bayonet charge:
As soon as they have fired, they must come to a recover; and then the commanding officer will give the word, March, upon which the whole battalion advances briskly with a full step, the drummers beating the Grenadiers March. When they have marched about 20 paces, or as far as the commanding officer shall think proper, he will give the word, Charge, upon which the officers and men in the front rank charge their bayonets, and continue advancing briskly; taking great care not to run, nor break, either by closing too much, or opening the files; but preserving their front even, and in exact order. The rear ranks must continue recovered, taking particular care to keep up close. When the commanding officer thinks proper, he will give the word, Halt, upon which the drummers cease beating, and the battalion stands fast and dresses, the front rank coming to a recover; and then they half-cock, shoulder, and shut their pans.”14
Other than its use during the charge, “[The Grenadiers March] should never be beat but with the grenadiers.” These restrictions protected its fearsome connotations since grenadiers, as Camus points out, were “the elite companies of the British infantry regiments” whose men were chosen for their imposing appearance and capacity for courage. At the time of the Revolution, a grenadier was
[a] foot soldier, armed with firelock, bayonet, and in some services with a hanger: grenadiers carry, besides their arms, a cartridge box that will hold 36 rounds. They are clothed differently from the rest of the battalion they belong to, by wearing a high cap, fronted with a plate of brass, on which the king’s arms is generally represented, &c. and a piece of fringed or tufted cloth upon their shoulders, called a wing: in some armies they have more pay than a common soldier. They are always the tallest and stoutest men, consequently the first upon all attacks.15
The beating of “The Grenadiers March,” then, was recognized as a musical warning of serious consequences to come, such as those experienced by Ebenezer Elmer during the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777:
We marched on some distance till we Came in Sight of the Enemy who had Crossed the river and were coming down upon us: we formed abt 4 oClock on an Eminence the right being in ye woods, presently a large Column Came on in front playing ye Grenadiers March & Now the Battle came on wh proved Excessive severe, the Enemy came on with fury…16
American Revolutionary War fifers acquired a sizable march repertory, which they were cautioned to choose carefully:
Whenever the battalion marches in order to perform the firings, advancing or retreating, the fifers are to play some tune to regulate the step. And tunes which have some grandeur and solemnity in them are undoubtedly to be preferred. — The light airs frequently played for a march, would appear to be as unnatural and improper to be used when a battalion is advancing toward an enemy as the church music censured by the poet, is unfit and indecent on those occasions…17
The war itself lent emotional baggage to the tunes that were selected and performed by its fifers which extended to the fifes and eventually the fifers themselves. This may explain why a fifer from the 3rd New Jersey Regiment “mutilated his fife” in the post-war years “in order to prevent its being stolen and that it might be preserved, as a relic of his services in that struggle.”18 Nor was the sentiment lost upon the public, who continued to hold the elderly veterans in high esteem as they passed increasingly liberal pension laws and flocked to watch the parades and ceremonies that featured the old-fashioned fife and drum music. T. S. Wakefield, secretary to the committee planning Boston’s July 4th celebration in 1853, was one such citizen:
We learn that you have secured the services of a band of Music — So of this I need not write — only to Say that I [long?] to hear the old fife & drum which always have a charm for me. Their Spirit-Stirring notes have held our bounding hearts in boyhood & we should love to have that flame rekindled by their Melody.19
Perhaps the epitome of Victorian fondness for music of the fife and drum is represented in the iconic oil painting “Yankee Doodle,” subtitled “Spirit of ’76.” The artist, Archibald M. Willard, was a carriage-painter-turned portrait-artist who served in the 86th Ohio during the Civil War:
Soon after the close of the war, Mr. Willard attempted to portray on canvas some of its more thrilling scenes as he had witnessed and sketched them, making a panorama which was exhibited in several small towns near his home. The venture was not a financial success. The war was too recent, and people’s hearts were too sore. Had the paintings been preserved, they might well afford matter interesting at this day; but the paint was washed out to save the cotton cloth, which in that day of inflated values cost too much to be lost by an artist of slender means.20
His works eventually “felt the pulse of the public” through humorous portrayals of everyday events. Willard soon caught the attention of a local photographer and art dealer, J.F. Ryder. At that time Willard was contemplating creation of a patriotic work. Ryder later recalled that “[f]or weeks it was a problem with the artist how he could represent ‘Yankee Doodle,’ the illustration of the spirit of ’76, in a painting. As the 1875 Centennial celebration approached, “it occurred to him now that a fife and drum band could be made to meet the want.” Willard was familiar with fife and drum music, not only through his Civil War service but also through the postwar performances of the Brighton [Ohio] Fife and Drum Corps:
He remembered a festive fifer whose caperings were marked and unusual, who, to give expression to his exhilaration and enthusiasm, would cut a pigeon-wing to the music of his fife. Among drummers he had seen high steppers, head tossers, and arm threshers. Among the more expert was a certain peculiar character called three-finger Jack, who varied the roll by beating at intervals upon the chine of his drum instead of the head, securing a variety of tone quite effective and sometimes rather startling. He was also in the habit of throwing his sticks into the air, to perform a succession of summersaults and be caught on its way down and driven into the roll again without missing a note, as if nothing had happened.21
Willard engaged Brighton’s lead fifer to pose for a lighthearted comical piece called “The Fourth of July Musicians.” Centered on the canvas were two drummers and a fifer who, despite their blithe appearance, were seriously at work on the march. Hugh Mosher was a perfect model. Like Willard, he was a Civil War veteran, having served as a fifer for Company H, the 43rd Infantry Regiment, Ohio Volunteers. It was said that Mosher was a “celebrated performer on the fife,” perhaps “the best fifer in northern Ohio,” one who “would rather fife than eat.” The two other models are not identified, but one of them, captured in paint performing a stick toss, may have been Willard’s father. It was Ryder who suggested that “The Fourth of July Musicians” be reworked into “Yankee Doodle, the Spirit of ’76.” For this endeavor, Mosher was joined by Willard’s father, who modeled the elder drummer until illness forced him to stop. It was his father’s death midway through the painting that convinced Willard to create a more serious rendition of patriotic fervor than that represented in his earlier work.22 Willard sought a younger model for the second drummer, and after attending a “competitive drill” sponsored by the Brooks Academy in March 1876, he selected a young cadet, Harvey K. Devereaux, to pose as the younger drummer. Fifty years later Devereux remembered how uncomfortable it was to spend hours “stand[ing] on one leg, and that bent, the other advanced, and the foot resting on an inverted box, with the head twisted to one side and the eyes raised and arms outstretched,” but “things progressed rapidly, and by the thirtieth of March, the picture was about finished.” It was an instant success, and soon inexpensive chromolithographs allowed “The Spirit of ‘76” to enter the homes of an adoring Victorian public. At its height of success, the painting was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition:
Contrary to a rather general belief, “The Spirit of ’76” was not painted for exhibition at the Centennial. At that period there was a general and widespread spirit of patriotism and the days of the Revolutionary War were especially before the people of this country. Mr. Ryder had this prominently in mind and for this reason he suggested to Willard the painting of this picture that reproductions therefrom might be made and a large number of these reproductions sold generally throughout the country and particularly at the Centennial. It was not sent to the Centennial until many of these colored reproductions had been distributed, and a large popular interest in the painting had arisen. It was then, on special request made by those in charge of the Centennial, that the original painting itself was sent to the Exposition.23
The painting was known more by its subtitle, “The Spirit of ’76,” but it never lost its connection to “Yankee Doodle.” The tune lent an ambience to the painting that extended to the models who posed for it, especially the fifer:
Perhaps the climax of Mosher’s recognition was realized when he stirred the cheering crowd of listeners as he stood before the huge canvas…He was instantly recognized as the fife player in the painting, and when he started to play Yankee Doodle, the crowd went wild. From a distance, while Willard was in conversation, he picked up the tone of a fife. He stopped suddenly and said, ‘There is no one in Ohio or out of it who can play a fife like that – It’s Hugh Mosher!’24
The emotional baggage carried by the tune ever since the Revolution was now solidified in visual art, lending its distinct aura to the Ancients who had inherited its music.
The Revolutionary War had prompted London music publishers to produce 7 fife tutors in addition to Rutherfoord’s. These contained the camp duties and other functional musical calls as well as a considerable selection of marches. Many of these were pirated by one publisher from another, although by the end of the period attempts were made to improve marketability by augmenting the march selections with tunes from recently performed theater works. Although only one such similar publication, now lost, is known to have been published in America, newspaper advertisements indicate that the British tutors were imported and sold in the colonies with a fair degree of regularity.25
To assume that the American fife repertory was constructed from only those tunes found in instruction books, though, would ignore an impressive part of the surviving repertory replicated in the manuscript tune books kept by American fifers. Using the standard bibliographies, most notably Keller et al, Early American Secular Music and its European Sources,26 supplemented by the necessary genealogical and other research, I have identified 13 manuscripts compiled and/or used by American fifers during the Revolution. While some tunes therein were evidently copied from the published method books, especially the camp duties, a preponderance of the entries represent transcriptions of tunes and airs found in the then-current secular repertory of song, dance, and theater. This body of 465 different tunes, assuming that fifers wrote them out because they needed to know them, formed a significant portion of the march repertory of the eighteenth-century military fifer. Due to the emotional baggage they acquired from use during the Revolution, a large number of these tunes remained in the Civil War repertory nearly 100 years later.
With the onset of the Civil War, however, began the gradual demise of the military field music. As the year 1900 approached, technological advances in fighting tactics and military communications had rendered the field music downright dangerous and eventually obsolete. Although I have found no specific order that officially dissolved the field music, in 1917 the use of drums and/or fifes in the foot troops by regulation was left to the discretion the regimental or district commanders,27 with the remaining field music functions subsumed by the bugler or the military band. By this time, though, a body of specific fife music, much of it rooted in the popular secular music of the eighteenth century, survived as the core march repertory of ex-Civil War fifers. This music now carried emotional baggage from two wars and was fiercely protected by the veteran musicians, who associated specific tunes with their Revolutionary forefathers as well as music that had “saved the Union.” They guaranteed its survival by marching in quasi-military postwar commemorative corps, most of which were sponsored by the Grand Army of the Republic, whose performances were enjoyed by an admiring public. As age and debility forced their retirement, they passed cherished tunes to their sons and grandsons, who had joined hereditary organizations with drum corps of their own. The music was also preserved by the Ancients, who had learned it from their own fathers and grandfathers as well as from the military veterans they hired as drum and fife teachers. With the demise of the GAR in 1946 and the concomitant waning in the musical activity of their hereditary offshoots, the Ancients were the only ones left to perpetuate the martial music that had outlived its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practitioners.
Ancient corps originated amidst a crowded musical milieu of mid-nineteenth century Connecticut. This included brass bands, quadrille bands, and string bands and also corps consisting of piccolo and drum, flute and drum, fife, drum, and bugle, bugle and drum, and even “drums no fifes.” Its community flourished along the Connecticut River Valley, especially in the state’s Valley Shore region, which forms an inverted “T” as the Connecticut River drains from Middletown south into the Long Island Sound, while a smaller branch of Ancients extended into the upriver towns of Windsor, Hartford, Suffield, and Enfield. Following the formation of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps in 1860, similar corps were organized in the lower Valley towns of Chester, Deep River, East Hampton, Killingworth, and Clinton as well as in the more distant shore towns of Branford, New Haven, and Madison. A few towns west and north of the Valley, such as Waterbury, Bristol, Winsted, and Bridgeport, hosted Ancient corps as did other towns in the northeastern part of the state (Rockville, Somers, Coventry, Mansfield, and Willimantic). These corps, however, excepting those comprised of military veterans, tended to postdate the Valley Shore Ancients.
The Connecticut River Valley provided an ideal place for the growth and development of Ancient music. The Ancients were influenced by the same conservative social, political, and religious values that affected the earlier inhabitants of the river towns. The resultant Valley societies were so rigid and unflinching that the entire state was deemed “The Land of Steady Habits.” The relative isolation of the Valley nurtured similar characteristics in Ancient fife and corps, which had accordingly preserved their instrumentation, repertory, drill, and dress long after other types of corps had abandoned them in favor of more progressive practices.28
Little documentation remains for what may have been Connecticut’s earliest Ancient corps, the West Granby Fife and Drum Corps. Genealogist and local historian Carol Laun dates its origin to the 1820s, but this likely represents the date that its founder, A. Hiram Case of Barkhamsted, completed purchase of his first drum. Case had been taking drum lessons since 1819 using a practice pad and, when necessary, a drum borrowed from his tutor, O. Hart Lee. Lee, also of Barkhamsted. Lee was “an old drummer” whose expertise had been established while serving as a drum major during the War of 1812: 29
One bitter cold day in late fall 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.30
Laun states that Case “made another trip to Brown’s factory within a few months’ time and paid for the drum,” but in truth the bill went unsatisfied for more than two years and remained unpaid “a few months” after the death of William Brown on October 25, 1825. William was Eli’s cousin and had participated with him in the drum-making business since 1820. His probate papers list an $8.00 note outstanding since August 23, 1823 against Hiram Case of Barkhamsted; by this time it had accumulated an additional $1.10 interest. It would appear, then, that Hiram’s drum purchase took place in the (unusually cool and stormy?) late summer of 1823, not the late fall, and that the drum that suited him was of William’s make, not Eli’s. Regardless, Case ultimately got quite a bargain when the estate accepted his $ 0.35 payment in satisfaction of the $9.10 due and owing.31
It was sometime after the birth of his sixth child in 1852 that Case moved from Barkhamsted in Litchfield County to the Hartford County town of Granby, at which time he founded the West Granby Fife and Drum Corps with brothers Forrest and Shalor Reed and his own brothers Japbeth and Thomas. The corps underwent three reorganizations, the first as its younger members returned from Civil War service and the last in 1914 shortly before disbanding. By that time its blend of old and new had garnered a good degree of success:
The reorganized drum corps had new uniforms and their drum major, Erwin Huggins, was resplendent in crimson with a high plumed hat. He carried the same baton or mace his grandfather [Shalor Reed] had. His uniform had been handed down in his family for two generations.32
It was Huggins who detailed the circumstances of Case’s drum purchase for Laun. He knew it well, having heard the story recounted many times for the benefit of the corps’ younger members, of which he was one. Huggins joined the West Granby corps following its post-war reorganization and was taught to drum by Hiram Case himself. A member for more than 50 years, he ultimately inherited his teacher’s drum. In 1926 Huggins recounted the particulars for “Friend Shattuck” while contemplating whether to participate in the upcoming Memorial Day services:
[I] have all ways said I should honor this day with my work as long as my old teacher did, if possible, and he died at seventy five, and the 13th of July of 1926 I will be seventy seven (77) and as I think back now I can see him, a lame old man, and as it seems to me now I am in much better condition than he was then, and how well I remember, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he handed his drum to his son George, saying I can do it no longer. And to think, only a very few years later on Memorial Day in the same spot on the rise of ground going up the Hill by the cemetery over there his son George took his drum off and with tears, just the same, and the same identical place, handed it to me, and I finished the same work he finished for his father.33
Another West Granby old-timer, Everett Rozier, had heard the story, too, having joined the corps as a schoolboy (“I don’t recall the year I joined the Drum Corps as a fifer, but I was still going to the old North school”) during its third and final reorganization. His companions, including Huggins, were descendants of the original members: “I knew all of these people well. I also knew Perry Higley [who was related by marriage to the Case family] very well, but he was not in the Corps when I was.” He added, somewhat ruefully, that
Perry Higley, who at one time was a fifer in the Corps, gave me his fife. I did not use it [because] I had a black ebony wood fife, which was the excepted [sic] kind at that time. Over the years the Higley fife I am afraid has become lost. I can’t for the life of me remember what I did with it.34
Rozier’s choice of fifes for use in the corps was limited per order of Drum Major Huggins:
I was pleased to hear that Wilbur had found one of my old fifes. I don’t know where I got that one. I had a mouth piece I used on it. I did not use that one in the drum Corps as Erwin Huggins drum major allowed only the regulation kind, a black ebony wood fife…[which] seems like it was tuned to the key of C. But the one Wilbur found is as old as the other one. Must be now  about seventy years old. I must of got it when I was about fifteen or sixteen.
Rozier left little doubt that West Granby was an Ancient corps:
For practicing the drummers used pads made of a wood base and covered with a thin cover of cowhide leather…Most of the drum sticks were all alike — all but one pair — Carl Weed’s drum sticks were made of snake wood. They sure were pretty, as I remember sort of had rings over a darker background…The snare drums were mostly like the style I would expect to see in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Boy! were they snappy sounding on a clear day. That was the way our drum major Erwin Huggins like to hear them. In fact he refused to go to a drummers convention one time because of the weather.35
Another former member recalled “the distinctive [A]ncient corps snare drums with their deep sides and brilliant designs:”
We played these drums with a 15” stick that measured 3/4” in width. Most of these people did not read music but could accurately “talk” a given part to their colleagues: ‘Flam Flam, Flam Flam Paraddidle, Paradiddle.’ Practice was on a rubber pad glued to a small wooden box so that each beat was clearly identified. In deference to the size of the drum and the girth of the drum stick, the cadence was rarely more than 90 beats per minute. The rolls were 7 or 9 stroke[s] as opposed to the 5 strokes used by modern drum[mer]s. When the air was clear and the weather dry, the noise coming off the West Granby hills was deliciously deafening.36
The fifers, too, learned Ancient tunes in the Ancient manner:
We have seven pieces of music we played. We did not play by notes but memorized them. The seven were as follows: Yankee Doodle, Tramp Tramp Tramp, Marching through Georgia, The Girl I Left Behind Me, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, British Grenadiers, and the Massachusetts March.37
Just when and why the West Granby corps stopped marching is a matter of conjecture. It may have been in 1917, when young Everett Rozier bid his comrades good-bye. The corps may have been victim of the same “[c]hanging times and tastes” that had forced many Pennsylvania corps to disband. Or, maybe death or debility had left the corps leaderless and thus unable to continue, as an elderly Rozier had speculated in 1985: “Perhaps Erwin Huggins died [with] nobody else to take his place.” In any event, “[i]t [the corps] just seems to have faded away,” which was the fate of many other Ancient corps, not just West Granby.38
The West Granby corps may have been Connecticut’s earliest Ancient drum corps, but it preceeded a more important one, the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, by only a few years. While oral histories support both the West Granby and Moodus corps, it is the Moodus corps that is the earliest Connecticut Ancient corps for which contemporary written documentation exists. With its location in the heart of Connecticut’s Valley Shore and its distinctive performance practice traceable in an unbroken line to pre-Ancient military drumming, it was Moodus who set the standards that Ancient corps would emulate for years to come. The first of these was the Chester Fife and Drum Corps (1868), which was soon followed by the Deep River Drum Corps (1873, reorganized 1878), Clinton Drum Corps (1881), Killingworth Drum Corps (1887), East Hampton Ancients (1888), and the Westbrook Drum Corps (1910) as well as a few in the more distant shore towns of Branford (Stony Creek Fife and Drum Corps, 1886), New Haven (Lancraft Ancient Drum Corps, 1888), and Madison (Menuncatuck Drum Corps, 1886). In fact, at least one Moodus-influenced drummer traveled northward along the Connecticut River to establish corps as far away as Warehouse Point (1880). Other Ancient aspirants residing outside the Valley traveled to Moodus seeking assistance in corps-building, as did Waterbury’s Charlie Miller (Mattatuck Drum Band, 1881). While many of these corps survive to the present day, their roots music was gradually lost by the modern touches added by successive generations, unlike the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, which managed not only to survive the passage of time but also to preserve the performance practices and rudimental style embraced by its founders. Thus they are the unique harbingers of the Ancient musical past.
Ancient-music-Moodus-style hearkens back to the post-Revolutionary era, when Hezekiah Percival was taught to drum by Samuel Wilcox (b. 17 June 1798, d. ?) of Middletown’s Upper Houses. It is not known if Wilcox was associated with Captain Partridge’s military academy or with the “drum school of some renown” located in Middletown, but he was certainly qualified to teach drumming, having served as drum major for the 6th Regiment of Militia in 1819 and later as drummer with the acclaimed Hartford-based Putnam Phalanx. In any event, it was Wilcox who signed a certificate on May 15, 1821, attesting to the proficiency of his student. Listed thereon are 14 “Rules for beating on a tenor drum,” all of which have a military connotation and correspond to rudiments practiced by Ancient drummers today. The certificate further lists 22 military-based “Names for the Different Beats” along with directions for playing “Reveille,” the musical ceremony that marked the beginning of the soldier’s workday. After mastering this lengthy and difficult list, Wilcox felt that his student deserved “the approbation of his friends, and the recommendation of his Teacher.”39
The rudiments listed on the Wilcox certificate were utilized by military drummers in performing duty music, where specific drum beatings were coupled with fife tunes for use in camp and shorter ones played on the drum alone for field directions. These “points of war” varied over the years, but by 1779 Baron von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental Line, had standardized nine “beats” of the drum:
The General is to beat only when the whole are to march, and is the signal to strike the tents, and prepare for the march.
The Assembly is the signal to repair to the colours.
The March for the whole to move.
The Reveille is beat at day-break, and is the signal for the soldiers to rise, and the sentries to leave off challenging.
The Troop assembles the soldiers together, for the purpose of calling the roll and assembling the men for duty.
The Retreat is beat at sun-set, for calling the roll, warning the men for duty, and reading the orders of the day.
The Tattoo is for the soldiers to repair to their tents, where they must remain till reveille beating next morning.
To Arms is the signal for getting under arms in case of alarm.
The Parley is to desire a conference with the enemy.40
Although he refers to the camp duties as the “beats of the drum,” the fife tutors produced in London prior to 1783 contain accompanying tunes for all but the Parley. This latter tune did not appear in print until Charles S. Ashworth published his New, Useful, and Complete System of Drum-beating 1812. The Ashworth tutor also contains the drum beatings for all of von Steuben’s beats listed above and the signals, which follow:41
Adjutant’s call — first part of the troop.
First serjeant’s call — one roll and three flams.
All non-commissioned officers call — two rolls and five flams.
To go for wood — poing stroke and ten stroke roll.
water — two strokes and a flam.
provisions — roast beef.
Front to halt — two flams from right to left, and a full drag with the right, a left
hand flam and a right hand full drag.
For the front to advance quicker — the long march.
to march slower — the taps.
For the drummers — the drummer’s call.
For a fatigue party — the pioneers’ march.
For the church call — the parley.42
Additionally, music established and maintained the cadence while on the march. By 1778 soldiers marched at seventy-five 24″ steps per minute in common time and nearly double that (120 steps per minute) when marching in quick time. The prescribed cadence kept the men moving in an orderly and fairly predictable manner. The marches often attracted civilian spectators, such as when Nathan Hale’s regiment traveled through Providence, Rhode Island “with music” early in the war or when Abner Stocking joined the Canadian expedition in 1775, “This morning we got under way with apleasant breeze, our drums beating, fifes playing, and colors flying.” Enoch Anderson, however, described a more serious situation in the aftermath of the Brandywine battle. In a letter to his nephew he described how
The British were on the march, bearing northwardly. We marched on all this day, keeping near the British army. When they marched, we marched; when they stopped, we stopped. Our guide was the beating of the[ir] drum.43
Merry-making with fife and drum was a happy but unofficial ancillary function that was not prescribed by regulation. Nonetheless, the music of fife and drum provided entertainment in times of relaxation and boosted morale in times of need. Thus, in 1781, while on the march northward after the successful conclusion of the Yorktown siege, “[t]he troops halted yesterday an hour to play a number of tunes on ye drum and fife, for some country girls, a dancing same evening.” Similarly, Benjamin Gilbert wrote in his diary how, on October 1, 1779, “…about 12 of the Sixty fourth Brigade went to a House to learn a few Country Dances under the tuition of D[rum] Major Tyler.” The notebook of tunes kept by Fife Major Nathaniel Brown of the 4th Connecticut Regiment while garrisoned at the New York Highlands in 1781 contains 9 tunes identified specifically as country dances, and another fife major, Aaron Thompson of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, wrote directions for country dances beneath 6 of the tunes in his notebook. However, regardless of its official functions, the morale-boosting effect of fife music cannot be understated:
“our people keep a Continual fire in the lower town wich we are very glad to see hoping we shall be redeem’d very soon but [we are] almost ready to give up fearing thay will not come / but we keep up our hearts with a puter fife that we made out of all the button that we could git off our Cloths wich made us some mery”44
Wilcox taught his student 14 rules and 22 “Names for the Different Beats” plus a carefully written-out “Reveille.” Whether he used written or printed materials or mnemonic devices as teaching aids is unknown but given the lack of any surviving documents, it is likely that Percival learned his lessons primarily by rote, especially when in later years he rote-taught his own students.45 In any event, Wilcox’s methods were neither unique nor ephemeral since a similar certificate of proficiency was issued some years later by B.H. Beach to his student, H.J.H. Thompson. Thompson, like Percival, had been “very diligent in attaining a knowledge of the above Rules and Beats, for which he merits the approbation of his friends and the public, and the recommendation of his teacher.”46
Wilcox first taught his students the long roll and then proceeds to 3-, 5-, 7-, and 11-stroke rolls. He indicates the rolls are played “hand to hand;” what he doesn’t say (but what every Ancient drummer knows) is that the roll consists of double strokes save for the last, which is always an accented single. Hence, the 3-stroke roll (also known as a “ruff”) is LRL, the 5-stroke roll LLRRL, and so on. The double strokes were taught by some using the mnemonic rote-learning device of “tow tow pow pow,” an idiom that evolved from the late-sixteenth-century use of the syllables “Tan” and “Tere.” By the eighteenth century, though, they were known as the “mamma daddy,” as referenced in this doggerel advice to military drum majors issued by Francis Grose in 1783: “When you pitch on a place for practice in garrison, let it be as near the town as possible, that the officers may constantly hear the boys at daddy mammy, and thus be convinced that you do not suffer them to be idle.”47
The length of the long roll is not numerically prescribed but instead is dictated by the occasion of its use. Except for the 7-stroke roll, the drummer always ends the roll ready to start the next with the alternate hand. The hand-to-hand concept was so important that Wilcox labeled all the rules, not just the rolls, with either “from hand to hand,” “change hands,” or simply “change.”48
A perusal of surviving contemporary drum instruction books reveals that the long roll is invariably the student’s first lesson and justifiably so, since it allows the drummer to gauge head response and thus adjust the power behind each stroke. It also enables the student to assimilate hand-to-hand technique before approaching more complicated rudiments. With practice, the student gradually increases the speed with which the double strokes are performed, eventually reaching the “sweet spot,” a perfect combination of head response, intention, power, and stick control that results in a smooth, even roll. This is a slow process that involves muscle retraining, and thus a student may spend several weeks to months perfecting the roll before learning other rudiments.
Whether Wilcox used written or printed materials or mnemonic devices as teaching aids is unknown but given the lack of any surviving documents, it is likely that Percival learned his lessons primarily by rote, especially when in later years he rote-taught his own students.49 In any event, Wilcox’s methods were neither unique nor ephemeral since a similar certificate of proficiency was issued some years later by B.H. Beach to his student, H.J.H. Thompson. Thompson, like Percival, had been “very diligent in attaining a knowledge of the above Rules and Beats, for which he merits the approbation of his friends and the public, and the recommendation of his teacher.”50
While just about any Ancient drummer today can play the rules and beats that Percival mastered in 1821, it isn’t until a Moodus drummer plays them that their military nature becomes clear. Played Ancient-style, the “rules” become “rudiments,” each one executed crisply and cleanly on a relatively tight batter head – maybe not tight by modern percussion standards but tight enough to provide stick rebound. The stick literally bounces off the head, such that the first of the double strikes is intentional but the second is not; it results from the stick rebounding from the head. This enables a lighter attack with a thin, lightweight stick while still allowing the drummer to play “open,” a hallmark of the Ancient style. The tighter head responds quickly, which pushes up the tempo; thus, current Ancient street tempos are around 110-120 BPM. Moodus practice is still crisp and clean; however, the drummers avoid stick rebound by beating upon looser heads. Therefore, each blow to the batter head is deliberate, requiring the drummer to retain total control in striking and then lifting the sticks high off the head to avoid buzzing. The descent provides power to the next blow but is controlled to accommodate the full response of the calfskin. This was described in rhyme by an early Moodus drummer:
Each blow was struck distinctly,
For a rebound did not go;
Each hand was raised to the shoulder,
With instructions thus and so.51
In fact, drummers were advised to “beat on a pillow” or a canvas-covered “lapboard” stuffed with pine needles or cotton, so “one could not fake or cheat” in performing the perfect roll:52
After many hours of practice.
the pine needles became pounded to “snuff, the pad got a fine “pungy” feel (sticks would sink into the pad); when transfer was finally made to the drum, after playing on that type of pad it was no trouble at all to play the same roll, the same beats on a partly tightened head…53
The roll resulting therefrom is powerful:
Dr. Cook…always said that the rolls should be heavier than the other blows–another typical[ly] unique thing that made their style unique the longer rolls seem to start “too slowly” or too open, but the roll would end where it should by an accelerando (and usually a crescendo, too) — a group rubato which, again, was typical of the Moodus style and learned by all so that it was done as one man.54
The loose heads lengthen response time and necessarily slow the tempo, which Moodus drummers maintain between 70-90 BPM. This kind of performance practice executed with thick, heavy sticks upon the unmuffled, wide-diameter, “square” drums preferred by Moodus drummers produces a volume of almost unexpected proportions, distinguishing them from their present-day Ancient counterparts. The result is indeed “Thunder in the Valley,” a term that became synonymous with the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps very early in its career, prompting stories about how the drummers caused “crockery fell off the shelves” and confounded any attempt at conversation:
The [Moodus] men plunged at once into “Bruce’s Address” in six-eight time. The men were fresh and beat their drums so vigorously that the six fifers labored in vain so far as hearing was concerned…Suddenly the men stopped, and as suddenly several scores of spectators were informed by a young lady that “Pa and Ma are both out tomorrow night. The remark was addressed to a young man, and it was spoken in a loud voice under the impression that the drummers would not stop. 55
Other stories magnified the powerful “Moodus thunder” into legendary proportions, such as when:
. . .an old Higganum [CT] woman. . .always liked one of the band’s pieces, ‘Village Quickstep.” One Friday night when th 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.56
The volume and slow step that characterize Moodus performance practice are vital features of early American military field music, but they are not the only ones:
Their bass drummers used two (of course) beaters, and some used a smaller stick in the left hand, so that extra beats — to add to the rumbling — could be put in. As on 15 rolls, where most corps have the BD drop out until the last beat, the Moodus BD always puts in three extra eights — to add to the low rumble, and typical of Moodus style.57
Moodus fifers perpetuate many of the jigs, quicksteps, and marches played by military fifers. These tunes worked well for the military fifer because they featured uncomplicated downbeats easily discernible by men possessing various degrees of musical sophistication. They continue to be played at the standard early military tempos, which had been calculated to maintain a comfortable, orderly cadence, and they are accompanied by a style of drumming that once enabled them to be heard over the din of marching men. These features, inherent in functional military drumming and practiced by Moodus fifers and drummers, link the military drumming of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with its progeny in today’s Ancient drummers.
So, how did the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps preserve these now-unique musical practices? The early written record is sparse and not much was added in later years. However, written records and oral tradition both confirm that the Moodus style remained a closely-guarded secret, revealed only to those to those who passed the test of trust. Among the trusted few was Dr. U.S. Cook (b. 1845, d. 1925), who had been taught to drum by Hezekiah Percival himself. Dr. Cook taught strictly by rote, even though he note-read other types of music, since it allowed constant surveillance by a knowledgeable teacher ready to correct the slightest deviation from standard Moodus style, something that book-learning could not guarantee:
My own knowledge of the drum beats and [what] I know was all word of mouth. That is to say, the different rudiments were taught to me, for example, the long roll, 3 roll, 5 roll, 7 roll, flams, etc. were taught to us first of all. Possibly a year was spent on the rudiments to perfection. Dr. Cook or anyone else didn’t know one note from another as far as drumming was taught. Dr. Cook was very good on the violin and knew that kind of [notated] music for dancing, but drum music or notes were not used58
Unfortunately, even Dr. Cook, “a cancer doctor who practiced with herbs,” could not fully protect the Moodus style from those wily enough to coax it from him. Such was the case with the Mattatuck Drum Band, whose leader “did copy [the Moodus] style of uniform, boot-tops and all.”
Some leader of their group. . . came to see Dr. U.S. Cook, drum major for the Moodus Corps, and wanted to borrow one of their new uniforms which were first made up in 1879. Dr. Cook was reluctant to let him have it, so he thought if he asked him for a deposit of $50.00, this man would refuse. But evidently he came prepared and immediately ‘peeled off’ the bills and gave the deposit. $50.00 those days was a lot of money…”
Dr. Cook, the second-generation leader who learned from and marched with the first-generation corpsmen, passed his knowledge on to a selected few from a third generation of drummers. These included youngsters like Pete Mietzner (b. 24 April 1895, d. ? May 1978), Michael J. Barry (b. 11 Sep 1881, d. ? Oct 1962), and Walt Lewis (b. 15 April 1897, d. ? April 1975). As these drummers, too, grew old and feeble, they rested easy knowing they had passed the tradition to the capable hands of yet another set of young ‘uns. In fact, it was Walt Lewis who taught the fourth generation, including “Uncle Jack” Golet (b. 7 Sep 1906, d. 12 Jul 1991), who in turn instructed his sons and a niece in this unique musical survival, now preserved over 5 generations in a direct line from Wilcox and Percival to Amy Armstrong, who at the time of this writing (2018) teaches the Moodus drum line today.
Footnotes available upon request.
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