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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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