Observations of a Drum and Bugle Corps Drummer
in the World of Fife and Drum
by Michael J. Cahill
As I grow older, I am truly amazed that I continue to learn a great deal – a fact that is astonishing considering that I was quite certain that I knew it all some 35 years ago. One of these revelations is that almost nothing is what it is for no reason. If you trace anything backwards in time, there is almost always a person or an event that starts, alters, or puts something on a path where permanence is established. Although we are told that drumming is as old as man, the adoption of the drum by the military is one of those momentous events.
Anyone who has seen a Western or Tarzan movie of course knows that drums and war go hand in hand (“Those drums, they’re driving me crazy!”). I also knew as a boy that fifes and drums were the instruments of choice during the American Revolution – who has not seen the painting “The Spirit of 76” depicting a fifer, a snare drummer, and a color bearer marching defiantly into battle? What I did not know was just how important these instruments were to the armies of that time.
In 20th Century terms, these musicians were the radiomen of their day. They were the only means the generals had to communicate orders to the soldiers. The musicians were so important that they were dressed in the opposite colors of the infantry so that they could be immediately identifiable. For example, continental line soldiers, circa 1779 of the New England region, were dressed in blue regimental coats with white facings. The musicians were dressed in white coats with blue facings.
Each regiment was assigned a fifer and a drummer. The soldiers of the time had to be able to recognize about 30 different signals. In short, the musicians ran the camp and the battles, delivering the orders from the commanders to the infantry.
Of course, like musicians of any era, when they gathered together at night in the encampments, they would get together to perform for each other and ultimately have “jam sessions.” This music, much of which survives, is the core of the fife and drum tradition in this country.
The fact that I am today quite knowledgeable in colonial drumming is somewhat of a fluke. In 1986 I was living in Lexington with my friend and fellow drummer, Paul Bush. We attended the Patriot’s Day Parade and, in casual chit-chat before, had opined that Lexington and Concord should have the most kick-ass fife and drum corps in the country. Alas, when each of these units paraded by, we were very underwhelmed.
Four months later, at a drum and bugle competition in Revere, a fife and drum corps called the Middlesex County Volunteers did an exhibition. They were good. They had good technique and a style that was at once compelling and infectious.
I am this year competing my 10th year in the corps. It has been a joy and a revelation to play this music. I have journeyed back two centuries and have felt through the music a special kinship with drummers of that period. I have discovered that they were more proficient than I had believed. There have been times when it has been easy to trick my mind and achieve something close to time travel. Marching over North Bridge on Patriot’s Day morning, playing their music, is one of those times.
To be continued …
Read these articles when they first appeared in the hard copy version of MMA. I knew Mikey; he performed with the Cambridge Caballeros (I think he took my spot when I joined the Navy, somewhat suddenly). I also now perform with fife and drum corps and found a reasonably proficient corps in Los Angeles when I moved there in 1999. Now, I’m back in New England (CT) and get to see a lot more F&D activity. It’s really a blast. One of the things that fife and drum has all over drum and bugle is the jam session. We play a lot of ‘traditional’ and somewhat modern music that everyone knows and at musters (gatherings of corps for performance) we get together to play these tunes all together. There’s nothing like standing in a crowd of 100’s of fifes and drums playing the same (mostly) song.
Mike Cahill passed away on Oct. 5, 2015 at the age of 73. Mike was not an ordinary man. He was an extra-ordinary man. Mike was an extraordinary man. If you knew Mike Cahill, then you LOVED Mike Cahill!
I first met Mike in MA in 1973 at a World Open drum corps competition and with our mutual love of snare drumming, drum corps, having fun, and upbeat hi-jinks, we fast became kindred spirits and we remained this way for the rest of his life. My wife and I have always lived in northern NJ, but that never stopped Mike and I from getting together frequently. In 1973,74,75, When Cheryl and I would drive up to Lynn MA for the World Open competitions, we would stay at Mike’s apartment on Marlborough St. in Boston. Once, when we left the apt. after Mike did, he said to just close the door behind us. I asked if we should turn off the stereo. He said “No, please don’t. It’s good for the plants!” (That was Mike.)
Mike and I were percussion judges for DCI, Drum Corps International. And we loved it when we were assigned to judge competitions together. And after we’d judged at cold NJ marching band competitions in the fall, we’d come back to my home and soak in my 101 degree hot tub with cigars and a Diet Pepsi or two, (wink) and congratulate ourselves on our good fortune.
It has six years since his passing, and we still think of him often, with love!