Ancient History Unraveled, Part 3: Writing Ancient History

When I told my graduate history professor that I wanted to write about Connecticut Ancients. he scoffed.  “You can’t do that!  How are you going to document them?  They have no [original] papers!”  He was right, I couldn’t “do that”—but only because he wouldn’t let me.

The problem with writing Ancient history actually has nothing to do with Ancient history.  A database of original source material does indeed exist, as I proved when I wrote my paper for another professor (and got an A+).  Rather, the problem lies with the definition of “history.”  For decades, history has rested upon a political foundation, focusing on great nations and their leaders.  The narrative thus created is limited to a predominantly white male elite whose decisions defined nations and dictated interactions amongst them.  Libraries are full of documents these leaders left behind, and academia is full of professors who have read and written about them.  Indeed, that is how my professor earned his Ph.D. and thus his right to counsel me in proper historiography.

Adams’s wife, Louisa, accompanied her husband to his humiliating pre-election theater visit, the details of which he recorded in his diary.

What he didn’t know (or didn’t want to know) is that the definition of history has changed.  The “new social history” does not focus on the political elite but instead reports how their actions affected the people they ruled.  Thus, while historians like my  professor can relate how and why John Quincy Adams lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson in 1828, historians like me can tell him that this did not surprise Adams one bit.  He knew this long before Election Day, having already witnessed a wildly enthusiastic theater audience clamoring for the band to play “General Jackson’s March.”

Good news:  The new social history legitimizes Ancient history as a subject of study.   Bad news:  Not everyone knows how to write it.

1.  Social history does not exempt the writer from clear and careful documentation of facts.  This is especially evident in the literature that developed between 1960 and 1980.  The Bicentennial left no time to establish a historical background for the fifers and drummers who were suddenly in demand to provide “authentic music” for pageants, parades, and other celebrations.   Some scholarship, most notably The National Tune Index (Kate van Winkle Keller and Carolyn Rabson, 1982), and Raoul Camus’s Military Music of the American Revolution (1976)  provided a sound basis for additional research in this regard, but much of the Ancient-related literature  produced at this time proved unreliable at best.  Nevertheless, cloaked in the sanctity of the Bicentennial, it survives unchallenged today, which is why a well-respected post Bicentennial writing on percussion instruments contains the absurd speculation that early European fifes were specifically constructed to be “utilized as drumsticks in a pinch.”

2.  Social history, like political history, requires careful interpretation of all source material.  The dearth of primary sources does not elevate bad history into useful history, not does it entitle the writer to depend upon unreliable sources.  A comparison of two works on “Yankee Doodle” explains why.  One, written by Oscar G. Sonneck in 1909, examines all available references to and survivals of the tune and texts; indeed, despite the passage of time, its scholarship and reliability remain firmly established—that is, until 1999, when another study emerged from the popular press.  “I did all my research, the author told me, “in the public libraries” in and around Albany, New York.  The result, not surprisingly, is a complete endorsement of all the second-hand mistruths exposed by Sonneck nearly a century earlier.   Yet his book  continues to influence writers who prefer to accept rather than explore the author’s questionable postulations.

William Thoms, generally credited with coining the term “folklore” in 1846.  “Folk music,” however, is a more modern concept.

3.  The channel separating social historians from political historians at times runs deep and turbulent.  There are political historians who disdain social history.  They either distrust its primary sources or view its topics as inconsequential.  Others dismiss it as the work of amateurs.  While none of these fears is justified (anyone can write bad history, social or otherwise) some writers have reacted by constructing a false legitimacy from the more traditional historical material.  Thus, a newly published treatise on Connecticut’s fife and drum tradition pretentiously labels it “folk music” and associates its  practices with Elizabethan England, citing in support the performance practices of the late Othar Turner, who the author feels “can teach us quite a bit about the character of the Elizabethan.”  While Shakespeare’s acerbic reference to the “wry-necked fife” has been used and misused ad nauseum ever since it was first quoted in 1618, it hardly represents the instruments or music of Connecticut’s Ancients, which in truth evolved from mid-eighteenth-century military practices.

Othar Turner, b. 1907, d. 2003, of Gravel Springs, Mississippi.

Regarding  Othar Turner, his  extemporaneous performance style has nothing to do with either Elizabethans or Ancients, since it is based upon the Memphis blues tradition of the early twentieth century.   This, by the way,  is why neither Ed Olsen, an Ancient fifer, nor Eddie Youngs, a cane fifer,  could play each others’ instrument when they exchanged fifes at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1976.  But Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth are much more suited to the hallowed halls of academia than the “farmers, factory workers, and fishermen who made up the Connecticut militia.”  And if academia must accept “vernacular,” then let it be quaint.  Surely the image of an elderly dirt-poor Mississippi farmer cutting 5-hole fifes from sugar cane stalks is much more alluring than a bunch of self-taught suburbanites playing store-bought fifes in a hot 4th of July parade, even if they are perpetuating a unique historical music form.

“Andersonville” won the Pulizter Prize for MacKinlay Kantor in 1955.

The long tradition of Ancient music deserves better than the speculation, guesswork, wishful thinking, and misappropriations that have characterized much of its historiography.   It needs no sugar coating to make it historically palatable.  Perhaps Pulitzer Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor  said it best in 1959, when he responded to the late John McDonagh’s plan to update the traditional fife repertory with more recent tunes.    “I can’t say that I am wildly enthusiastic about the idea,” he wrote, and then he told him why:  ” I think it is more important to make the modern public aware of the great excitement inherent in ancient fife music, in all its traditional ramifications, than to make them realize that the fife is a good instrument for presenting Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert.”  (The italics are mine.)

Copyright HistoryoftheAncients, 2011.  All Rights Reserved.

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7 thoughts on “Ancient History Unraveled, Part 3: Writing Ancient History

  1. OMG, I wish I had met this Mr Kantor.
    I went through a whole period where I was surrounded by excellent musicians who only wanted to play “classical” music on the fife as if it somehow legitimized them as musicians and or the fifes as an instrument. all the music from our traditional repertoire not being play and we’re trying to fit square pegs into round holes…?
    You took the time to learn fife, so embrace all that comes with, the traditions, the music everything
    otherwise you should have bought a flute

    • He’s been long gone, but you can get to know him through his works, several of which are fife-and-drum oriented. The two I mentioned are great, but there is another, The Day I Met a Lion, which is a collection of essays about people he admired; included is a great story about the musical aspects of the 1922 GAR encampment.

    • over the last 100 years the vast majority of people who learned to play fife were members of a fife drum and bugle corps. they considered themselves a “drum corps”. only when the Connecticut brand of “fife and drum” came into prominence in the 40s did the [now ever present] distinction between modern and ancient come into real use. the real music that has been abandoned by fifers and fife and drum corps [since the divergence of bugles] is “march” music. when i was drafted into my junior corps it was to be in the corps – not to “pursue” ancient traditions musically or stylistically. at 8 years old i would have been hard pressed to even conceptualize being ancient versus being modern.

      • You’re right about the marches, there are only a few Ancient corps I can think of offhand that still play marches–and at march tempo, Mattatucks (Russian March) being one of them.

        I’m wondering how “regional: your question is, George. Maybe people in CT in those earlier days just assumed “everyone” was ancient and didn’t give the style a second thought, they just played what they were taught, whereas in other areas of the country kids joined an FDB because that’s what was there, again never giving “style” much of a thought. . . although I think the Ancients always prided themselves on having a Revolutionary-type history. . . if you go back to the early days of the 20th century, the letterheads always had some sort of reference to “Music of the Revolution” and “authentic” and all that stuff (even if they did not actually capture that in their music, dress, or drill!) 🙂

        What’s even more odd (to me, anyway), is that in 1885, when the CT Association held its first field day (there were other, earlier ones, but that’s another story), the Ancients were only some of the ones who attended. The intended guests were the more modern combination corps of fife, drum, bugle, flute, and/or any combination thereof (including corps with drums but no melody instrument). They had to skip a year while they thought of what to do, because the Ancient style was indeed so different, and that was reflected in the next field day, 1883, when there was a special (slower) category for the Ancients.

        Not sure if I addressed your issue, but it was fun rambling on. . . 🙂

  2. I have copy of that. Its a great little piece and should probably be read more reenactor types doing musical impressions. Probably gonna read it again today now that i ‘ve learned more about this fellow

  3. Having personally known John McDonagh as both my fife instructor and friend, I would say the comment about him is either wrong or out of context. John goal was to show the full musical capabilities of his [McDonagh model] fife; that it was also a true concert musical instrument. To “show” this, he arranged music to show the full array of music playable on fife. His goal was to increase the amount of music played, not update what was there. Along, the way he put his own spin to traditional tunes for his fifers to play. Not openly suggest these are the way they should now be played by all. I am not sure when this quote is from, but, since the mid seventies many fifers have ideologically followed John mantra [the fife IS a musical instrument] in their own fifing pursuits.

    • Hi, George: The quote is from 1959. According to Ed Olsen, McDonagh wrote to Kantor following their meeting at DRAM that year, and the quote comes from Kantor’s reply. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of Mr. McDonagh’s letter, only of Mr. Kantor’s reply, so I must assume that the references to Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951) and Victor Herbert (1859-1924) came from McDonagh’s letter. Both Romberg and Herbert wrote operettas, among other types of compositions (Herbert also wrote for Tin Pan Alley and ultimately went on to found ASCAP), and much of their music was still in the air in 1959. To arrange any of these for the fife would indeed have modernized the traditional fife repertory, in which many of the marches,jigs, and quicksteps were anywhere from 100-180 or so years old back in 1959.

      However, I totally agree that the McDonagh fife has enlarged the full array of music playable on the fife and would take that one step further and say that it was the first one to do so. I think the reason for this is exactly as you say, that McDonagh thought of the fife as a “true concert instrument.” Throughout much of its history, though, it was not. For about 200 years, the fife was simply a military signal instrument and remained so even after its military decline, because the civilian-based fife and drum corps who adopted it also adopted the old military repertory of jigs, marches, and quicksteps — there really was no reason not to. The old military music was perfectly suited for marching, whether it be moving troops of men from garrison to field or taking the fife and drum corps up and down city streets. Other than the pitch improvements brought about by the Cloos Crosby fife in the 1880s, the fife remained essentially unchanged — that is, until the repertory changed from one of marching and moving to concert-grade performance. I think Mr. McDonagh envisioned this change a lot sooner than the rest of us did.

      I don’t think Kantor was criticizing McDonagh in his reply, nor am I in this one. Any music that is a “living” music is naturally subject to change as it is handed down from one generation to the next. It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it just is. What I think Kantor was saying is simply this: There is “great excitement inherent in ancient fife music, in all its traditional ramifications.” He was passionate about the past (remember, he belonged to the Sons of Union Veterans and marched with the old NACWM for years), but not everybody shares that kind of passion. However, I do think it matches the passion of John McDonagh, who elevated the fife (and its music) from its traditional role to a new level of musical sophistication. I don’t think these are elements diametrically opposed; all one has to do is attend a muster and see (and hear!) how well they coexist in that curious musical style we call Ancient.

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