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!),, but I am sure an emailed request,, 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,

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,  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,
  • 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.” “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,

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.

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.

Copyright 2011, August 2012 HistoryoftheAncientsDotOrg, All Rights Reserved.

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

2011, The Colonial Music Institute, ISBN 978-0-9818759-8-9
For more information, including how to order your own copy, go to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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