GEORGE BRUCE, DAN EMMETT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF FIFING AND DRUMMING
Many have called the era of the Civil War “the golden age of fifing and drumming.” Certainly the war inspired a large number of publications (and re-publications) of music for fifers and/or drummers, even as the improved technology of warfare would soon eliminate the fife and drum from the field music and eventually from military use altogether. One handbook in particular, The Drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide by George B. Bruce and Daniel D. Emmett, is often cited as the best example of military music of the period. But was it? And if so, why? What made this book different from other period publications? What does it reveal about contemporary repertory and performance practice? And, most importantly, how does it help present-day musicians understand fifing and drumming as it was practiced in during the Civil War? Comparison of the Guide with 13 other instruction books dating from 1851 to about 1865 goes beyond “golden age” rhetoric and gives some surprising answers to these questions. What we find is that Bruce and Emmett’s music was more singular than it was representative and that a substantial portion of the arrangements do not address the functional requirements of military musicians. In fact, the reasons that made it largely unsuitable for the mid-century military market were the ones that attracted a substantial civilian-based market long after the war was over. Therefore, we must appreciate the music collected by Bruce and Emmett for its own sake and not as a representative example of the music and practices of Civil War-era fifers and drummers.
George Bruce Barrett signed for his second enlistment as George Bruce, the name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. Old-time Ancients from the 1920s knew nothing of Bruce’s sordid military past and instead speculated that he had been running from an irate wife. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.
The two compilers were unlikely affiliates. George B. Bruce, whose real name was George B. Barrett, was born about 1815-16 in (or near) Baltimore, MD. He was taught by “Drum Major George Riggs,” who later recalled Bruce as the best of his students. Bruce’s skill as a drummer is further revealed in his prewar service with New York’s 69th Regiment (“Fighting Irish”), but these activities far overshadow his otherwise dubious military accomplishments. A printer by trade, the 21-year-old Barrett enlisted in Maryland’s 2nd Regiment of Dragoons on November 18, 1836. Within seven months, however, he had deserted. Two years later, this time as “George Bruce, silversmith,” he enlisted once more. He managed to serve for nearly 4 years before he was recognized as a deserter from the Dragoons and summarily discharged. Bruce made no mention of these unhappy events in his prefatory remarks in the Guide, nor did he cite a short but legitimate enlistment as a drummer in the 22nd NYSM. Instead, he claimed service as “late principal instructor at the army music schools on Bedloe’s and Governor’s Islands,” even though it is highly unlikely that a known deserter would be chosen to fill this (or any other military) post. Besides, that position had been held continuously since 1841 by somebody else, who would continue to hold it until his retirement in 1869. More reliable is Bruce’s claimed connection with the 7th New York regimental band. This is indeed confirmed in surviving records, albeit for only a brief, six-week enlistment.
Dan Emmett in blackface, ca. 1860. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Daniel Emmett, who assembled the fife portion of the Guide, enjoyed an equally brief but somewhat more illustrious military career. At age 15 he had enlisted in the army as a fifer, only to be discharged the following year “by reason of minority.” Emmett worked as a printer for a while in Cincinnati, but he much preferred playing the fiddle for traveling circuses, something he was doing full time by at least 1840. He retained his fondness for fifing, though, and at one time aspired to publish an instruction book, Emmett’s Standard Drummer; however, this endeavor was either unsuccessful or abandoned, and no copies exist beyond a single manuscript prototype. In 1843 he founded the Virginia Minstrels, whose musical sketches performed in blackface spawned a popular and long-lasting entertainment genre. His many original minstrel tunes, especially “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” (1859), earned him international fame as a composer.
What was the catalyst for the unlikely pairing of Bruce and Emmett? We don’t know for sure. It is possible that Bruce, a printer, might have worked at the trade while in New York, where his affinity for drumming may have attracted the attention of music publishers, but it may have been through the efforts of William Hall. Years earlier Hall had partnered with his brother-in-law, John Firth, and they with a third man, hymnist Sylvanus Pond, in a highly successful music publishing/retailing venture, but he left in 1847 to establish his own firm, Hall & Son, nearby. Over the years the multifaceted Hall sponsored local musical events, was active in Fifth Ward politics, and also served as an officer in the state militia. As such, he had not only the occasion to hear regimental music but also had the ability to anticipate and supply its musical needs. It is possible, then, that he recognized a lucrative publishing opportunity when he saw one and may have put Bruce in touch with his former partners, who were still profiting from their association with Dan Emmett. In any event, the two-part Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide was issued by Firth, Pond & Co. in 1862 and subsequently reissued by its successor, Wm A. Pond (1865, 1880, and1885).
The differing musical background of the compilers is evident throughout the book. A former soldier, Bruce recognized the significance of an uncluttered downbeat in maintaining march cadence, but as a band drummer he also recognized the value of creativity and challenge in application and performance. The result is an organized eclecticism, mixing such straightforward pieces as “Quick Steps for Drum Corps” and “Army 2/4” with more complicated ones such as “Seely Simpkins,” “Girl I Left Behind Me,” and “Governor’s Island.” These latter beatings feature syncopation and embellishments that challenge the performer and rival the fifer’s tune for musical dominance.
A memorial issue of “Dixie,” showing Emmett in old age. Author’s Collection.
Emmett drew upon his unconventional musical background for the tunes he selected for the fife portion of the Guide. A few were chosen from the familiar fife repertory that had developed from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century practices, such as “British Grenadiers,” “Duke of York’s,” and “Lamplighter’s.” The overwhelming majority, however, do not appear in other fife publications or in oral tradition, and one has to ask, did he compose them? Examination of the Guide itself plus ongoing research so far answers “no.” For example, Emmett was careful to identify the composers of several tunes, ascribing four to “Walch,” two to “Ned” Kendall (the famous bugler who, during their circus days, had improved Emmett’s drumming), and one each to “Jacobs” and Bruce. Emmett claimed authorship of only two tunes, “Dixie” and “Seely Simpkins.” It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that had he composed others they would be similarly noted. Instead, Emmett adopted and at times adapted tunes from the prevailing non-fife repertory, such as the dance “Speed the Plough,” the theater song “Trust to Luck,” and the marches “Downshire” and “Larry O’Brien” (“General Wayne’s March”). “Ethiopian” (minstrel) tunes are represented by selections such as “Sugar in the Gourd” and his own contribution, “Dixie.”
An entrance to Governor’s Island, shown here in 1923. Despite Bruce’s claims, there is no evidence that he ever served there as instructor; for that matter, neither did Emmett. Author’s Collection.
Emmett’s personal touch is obvious throughout the fife section of the Guide. Some of the tune titles reflect his Ohio heritage, such as “Cincinnati,” “Owl Creek” (a stream running through Mount Vernon, Emmett’s birthplace), and “Seely Simpkins” (a colorful local character from Emmett’s youth). Other titles refer to his early musical experiences, such as “Circus Rider,” “Sandy McGregor,” and “Newport” (the latter two referring to Emmett’s army fife instructor and the old Kentucky army barracks). “Miss Brown’s Fancy,” a traditional dance tune, became “Governor’s Island,” memorializing the army’s New York training school for its musicians.
Perhaps the factor that earns the Guide so much praise is its intricate and detailed indications of performance practice. This is evident in both the drum beats and the fife tunes. Bruce indicates specific crescendos, decrescendos, and other dynamics as well as unusual sticking patterns and syncopations in many of the drum beats. Tune embellishments include the usual trills and grace notes in addition to a large number of difficult-to-execute turns. While these in themselves are not innovations (we find turns in handwritten American fife notation as early as 1781), their placement and prevalence here are more indicative of banjo and fiddle performance practices and hence require special skill from the fifer.
The most striking musical changes, however, are those that occurred within the tunes themselves. For example, “Hell on the Wabash” stripped of its grace notes and sixteenth note/rest combinations was recognized by Emmett’s biographer as “The Night We Made the Match,” a traditional Irish air printed some years later in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903). The trills, syncopation, and runs in Emmett’s “Girl I Left Behind Me” leave only the ending phrase of the first strain to remind us of the 1790s origin of the tune. “Fort McHenry Quickstep” (formerly “Virginia March” in The Village Fifer ) underwent similar but less drastic modifications. More remarkable are the changes wrought in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” formerly “The Nightingale” in Patterson’s A New Preceptor for the German Flute (1834). “The Nightingale” is a pleasant, undemanding melody accompanied by an equally pleasant harmony. As “Cuckoo’s Nest,” though, both parts are forged into a single and dramatic melody line. Emmett’s rendition of “Cuckoo’s Nest” requires a great deal of virtuosity from its single performer, more so than the original “Nightingale” does from its duetting musicians.
Cover of the Broome Street edition of Hart’s Instructor, containing author’s handwritten notes for a future edition. Acton Ostling Collection, The Museum of Fife and Drum, Ivoryton, CT.
Other contemporary fife and fife-and-drum books are not quite so descriptive or innovative. They relied on a more familiar traditional repertory, both in style and selection, than did Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide. This tried-and-true formula was essentially a mix of old favorites, some dating from around the Revolution, with a few newer selections culled from the then-current repertory of song, dance, and stage tunes. For example, Col. H.C. Hart advanced a repertory of traditional, minstrel, and popular tunes and beatings that he encountered in his pre-war work as an organizer and instructor of military drum bands. His New and Improved Instructor for the Drum was published at least four times during and shortly after the Civil War. While one of these issues was dedicated solely to the camp duty, the other three concentrated on a traditional repertory that survives nearly intact in Connecticut ancient music today. Tunes that were (or became) longstanding favorites, such as “Downfall of Paris,” “Frog in the Well,” “Old Zip Coon,” and “Le Petit Tambour” (“General Time”) appear in their vernacular forms as do beatings such as “Plain 6/8” and another subsequently known as “Connecticut Halftime.” Hart advocated the eighteenth-century practice, still followed by ancient-style drummers today, of applying a single drum beat to several tunes, so that, for example, “Rickett’s Hornpipe,” “Guilderoy,” and “Rolling Hornpipe” were all suggested as suitable accompaniments to the same beating used for “Beaux of Oak Hill.” The last, postwar issue of Hart’s book explained the use of bass drums and offered several bass drum beatings, something that other compilers from this period, including Bruce and Emmett, failed to mention at all.
Other period manuals, while not as explicit as Bruce and Emmett’s or as enticing as Hart’s, followed the prescribed model because it worked so well, both for the publisher and the military fifers and drummers who made up their market. Both Elias Howe (Boston) and Septimus Winner (Philadelphia) drew upon their extensive personal knowledge of traditional and modern musical trends when preparing publications for specific woodwinds, brasswinds, and stringed instruments (including the “accordeon” and “clarionet”) as well as for the fife. Others utilized much the same repertory while focusing specifically on the unique needs of military musicians. Thus Keach, Burdett & Cassidy’s Modern Drum School (1861) included such classic fare as “Yankee Doodle” along with the more contemporary “Red, White and Blue” and “Wood-Up Quickstep,” a pattern echoed by Simpson & Canterbury in their Union Drum and Fife Book (1862). Of course, these and other publications by Klinehanse, Leighton, and Nevins as well as Bruce and Emmett, included the more-or-less standard camp duty, so vital to the repertory of the Civil War field musician.
This traditional approach was highly successful–so successful, in fact, that attempts to supplement the established repertory with original compositions were doomed to fail. One such entrepreneur was Boston’s talented Alonzo Draper, whose entirely original Fife Melodies was self-published in 1855. Evidently this effort did not attract much market, although it did catch the eye of the prolific Boston music publisher, Oliver Ditson. Perhaps it was Ditson himself who attempted to improve salability by adding a series of “Lessons”and two pages of camp duties when he re-issued Draper’s collection in 1857 as Fife without a Master. This time Draper was cited as compiler, not composer. However, this venture, too, proved unsuccessful, if surviving evidence has any value. The two Draper imprints exist today in three known copies, and none of his original music survives in any other source, including traditional aural repertory.
“Downfall of Paris,” fife, from Col. H.C. Hart’s Instructor (1862). While this version is more vernacular, it was the Emmett version that was ultimately adopted into the postwar Ancient repertory. Courtesy The Museum of Fife and Drum, Ivoryton, CT.
Just how widely the Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide was distributed during the Civil War is uncertain. What is certain, however, is its postwar use by ancient fife and drum corps. Specific pieces, especially the camp duty, were adopted by competitive associations as judging standards for their field days and contests. Other selections, including “Army 2/4,” “Downshire” and “Dixie,” were assimilated into the largely traditional repertory of the early ancients and survive to this day. Emmett’s unique version of “Downfall of Paris” ultimately became the non plus ultra of the ancient repertory. These selections notwithstanding, it was the more vernacular music presented in several contemporary manuals (most notably those of Col. Hart ) that likely enjoyed a greater prominence in the repertory of the typical Civil War field musician, simply because the music they contained conformed to and supported the military practices of the time. In short, the average Civil War field musician, subjected to the stress of long marches and hard duty, probably did not have the incentive or stamina dictated by much of the music as written in the Guide. Its more complex fife tunes required a skill level (and sustained breathing patterns) that were not conducive to protracted performance in rough conditions. Only the less complicated of Bruce’s beatings, those that emphasized the downbeat and thus coordinated placement of left foot, and the less-ornamented Emmett tunes would be useful in organizing and moving large groups of men over rutted dirt roads or through unfamiliar territory.
This is not to minimize the significance of the Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide or to suggest that mid-century musicians were not talented enough to perform its music. Rather, the problem lay with the conflict between the Guide’s emphasis on music and the army’s emphasis on function. By necessity, military music at this time was subservient to its function of regulating both the soldier’s workday in camp and his cadence on the march. Here is where musical elegance failed, because march music required a predictably repetitive downbeat, plainly discernible by men with varying degrees of musical sophistication. It was this very important element, however, that was obscured rather than promoted by the highly stylized ornamentation of much of the music in the Guide. More accommodating to these purposes were the neat and orderly marches and quicksteps established during the Revolution and which, by the time of the Civil War, had been indelibly incorporated into the field musician’s repertory with surprisingly few changes.
The more traditional repertory of Civil war musicians was perpetuated after the war. Fueled by a nostalgic secular society that had romanticized the “boys in blue” as saviors of the union, the veteran musicians belonging to such commemorative hereditary groups as the GAR played the old-fashioned music with vigor at local and national encampments, Memorial Day ceremonies, and various political rallies and other events. As the years went by, it continued to be played by their sons and grandsons, who formed hereditary groups of their own. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a similar repertory had been handed down from father to son ever since the Revolution, resulting in the quasi-military fife and drum corps indigenous to Valley Shore region. These corps, called “ancient” to distinguish them from their modern musical cousins, nonetheless participated with them in field days, conventions, and exhibitions, first in Connecticut and later in New York, where the music of Bruce and Emmett had become standard fare. This intermingling created a demand that kept the heirs of the old Firth and Pond shop busy in the 1880s churning out reissues of Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide to satisfy the new civilian market for the music of Bruce and Emmett, a demand that likely far exceeded that of the original military one.
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