This image features a prettied-up version of war. I have also seen small, bedraggled bands of Civil War re-enactors shuffle down Andover's Main Street on parade. They looked so convincingly bereft, some of them wearing blood-stained head rags, and in no mood to make music. Fifes and drums were, however, the soundtrack of both wars, before soldier’s fifes were replaced with bugles. I learned that fact while reviewing a book on the subject of these early American music-makers, Connecticut’s Fife & Drum Tradition by James Clark, back in 2011. I looked at the book again today after finding this photo of the Massachusetts group in a forgotten computer file.
Clark, who has been a drummer since 1963 when he was nine, took up the instrument just as the last links to its early American past were breaking. The Civil War veterans were gone and so were their musical ways. But Clark’s encounter with a “grandfatherly figure," who played an antique drum using antique sticks, introduced him to “a whole other world of artisanship and a kind of historical continuity with the early days of New England and the United States that a boy already fascinated by American history found irresistible.” In the standard phrase, he was hooked -- on drumming.
Although Connecticut is a small state, it looms large in the fife-and-drum tradition. “For nearly a century, the standards set and maintained by the CF&DA [Connecticut Fife & Drum Association] were among the highest in the nation,” Clarke's history declares. One reason for its superiority was its long lineage. The instruments were an integral part of 17th-century village life. Drums in particular were essential, calling people to public meetings before tower clocks did. Drumming even figures with some prominence in at least one incident in Connecticut’s history. According to historian Benjamin Trumbull (1735-1820), when a New York State colonel attempted to usurp command of the Connecticut militia in 1818, there was “such a roaring” of their drummers that he was literally silenced.
More important, Clark argues, the music expressed Connecticut values, which became the values of the new democratic country. Early American soldiers were mostly bumpkins -- “provincial, ill-equipped, and seldom able to win head-to-head battles with British regulars." Their music was no more sophisticated than they were, but it was well-suited to a new country that rejected pomp and championed democracy for all. In Clark’s words, “As the stories of Nathan Hale and ‘Yankee Doodle’ show, in the American imagination it was not the polished, the precise, or even the victorious that were most valued, but the efforts of ordinary people to ... create an independent and more equitable society.”
Twenty years after the Civil War ended, competitive fife-and-drum corps emerged, attracting mainly working-class men, who adapted the battlefield’s musical traditions to contemporary tastes. The grandfatherly man who introduced Clark as a boy to the old traditions was a member of such a group. But, as Clark observes, the factory workers who used to fill the ranks of most corps are gone now, along with their factories. What remains are small groups of historical enthusiasts like Clark -- and like the members of the Middlesex County group -- who are keeping fife-and-drum music alive by performing it in parades and other public celebrations. They are also, unwittingly, helping me conjure up my erstwhile neighbors far better than visits to graveyards.