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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.

Paul Bush, Bob Devlin, Gerry Shellmer, Mike Cahill, Rick Connor

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.

Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums

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 …

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