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by Michael J. Cahill

Observations of a Drum and Bugle Corps Drummer in the World of Fife and Drum

Last time, we explained that because the fifers and drummers were the signalmen of their day, they had to be at once identifiable to the commanders. Because of this, they were uniformed in the reverse colors of the infantry. But this was not the only reason for that. Very often the martial musicians of our Revolutionary War were young boys, and in any case, non-combatants. Generals of that era were members of the aristocracy, and although men still got stabbed with bayonets and had their heads blown off by artillery shells, war was a much more gentlemanly affair in those times. As strategically advantageous as it would have been, it was considered very bad form to shoot a musician (By the way, it still is!).

As drummers, early in our training, we learned that the drum was not able to sustain a tone like the non-percussive instruments or the human voice. The drummer’s tool for sustaining a tone was the roll. In drum and bugle corps, circa 1945-1980, we marched at about MM=128. A one count roll was a 5 stroke, two counts was a 9 stroke, and a three count was a 17 stroke roll. (Beyond that, a four count roll was known as a four count roll, etc.)

Colonial soldiers walked everywhere. Many of the soldiers at Yorktown, Virginia in the final battle had walked there from New England and other distant places. They marched at MM=92 if the commander was in no great hurry. In fact, this tempo, at that time was called a quickmarch! It was a dignified pace and made twelve hour forced marches possible day after day.

Well, guess what – a 5, 9, or 17 stroke roll at that tempo does not sound like a roll! That is why colonial drumming uses different count rolls. In colonial drumming, the one count roll is the 7 stroke, the two count is the 11 stroke, and the three count is the 19 stroke roll. Those two extra strokes squeezed in create a roll sound as opposed to a more staccato sound you would hear if you played a 5, 9, or 17 stroke roll at that tempo.

In drum and bugle corps, the sixteenth note was the foundation, subdivisionally speaking, of the roll in a duple meter and the eighth note in tertiary meter. A diddle is a double stroke played by the same hand. By diddling the sixteenth note in duple, or the eighth note in tertiary meter, we not only got the roll, but a good, solid, easy to hear subdivision that allowed us to pulsate the roll in time and play the interior diddles together.

To any of you, who like me, thought that because colonial drumming is played slower and is not as flashy as drum and bugle corps drumming, it isn’t as hip, check this out. In colonial drumming, the subdivision for the 7 stroke roll is a sixteenth note triplet, the subdivision for the 11 stroke roll is an artificial grouping of 5 (a quintuplet). For the 19 stroke roll, the subdivision is an artificial grouping of 9 – spread evenly over two counts.

You have all probably heard that on the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere, William Dawes, et al. rode the Massachusetts countryside throughout Middlesex County spreading the alarm by yelling that “The British were coming!” This is comical. Americans of that time considered themselves British. What Revere, Dawes, et al. were yelling was that “The Regulars were out!” This meant that the regular British army, sailed from England and encamped in Boston, were on the march and headed this way. To yell that “the British were coming” would have been totally meaningless to the colonial farmer of 1775. The typical response to such a cry would most probably have been, “What does that mean?”

So our drumming was originally of British origin. Then along came a Prussian named Baron Von Steuben whom George Washington promptly appointed to the position of First National Drill Instructor. After Benedict Arnold spurred the Americans to a victory at Saratoga, New York, the French, who had been interacting with the Swiss, and when they were not at war with them, the Germanic states, said, “Hey, maybe these Americans can beat the British after all,” and entered the war on our side. American drumming became at once what the country was becoming – a melting pot.

As the American culture would do in the years to come, American drumming assimilated the best of the British, German, Swiss. and French styles.

American Martial Music would evolve over the centuries. The War of 1812 saw the introduction of the bass drum. The bugle was introduced around the time of the Mexican War. The Civil War saw the first multi-instrument bands, forerunners of the American Marching Band. In the late 1800s, John Philip Sousa raised the marching band to prominence in the American military, and by his many public tours and concerts, in the American culture.

Drumming, though it evolved some as a skill, remained largely unchanged until the 1960s. If you don’t think this is so, take any drum and bugle corps snare drum part played prior to 1960, substitute 7s for 5’s 11s for 9s, 19s for 17s, play it at MM=92.
Whistle “Yankee Doodle” as you play – Tricorn is optional.

To be continued…