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Ancient Fifes and Drums: History, Tradition, and Survival of a Lower Connecticut River Vernacular Culture

The vernacular societies that flourished on the banks of the Connecticut River in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have long been extinct save for remnants of their material culture preserved in public and private collections. Methodic examination of these artifacts and archives reveal much about the history of these cultures, but our understanding is necessarily limited by the obvious inability to observe and interview the individuals who peopled each culture and who made and used its products.

One such culture, however, did escape extinction and therefore provides an unparalleled opportunity for study of its practitioners and practices along with its artifacts and papers. This is represented in the so-called "ancient drum corps" indigenous to Connecticut’s Valley Shore, specifically the several towns that line the Connecticut River as far north as Middletown and East Hampton. "Ancient" fifers and drummers are not re-enactors but are traditional musicians whose music, dress, and drill retain vestiges of their eighteenth-century military heritage. Their repertory consists of historic, traditional, and patriotic tunes that until fairly recently were largely transmitted from player to player "by ear." Ranging from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, these exist in a fluid body through which new tunes are adopted and obscure ones abandoned. They surround a stable nucleus or "core" of old favorites that are relatively unaffected by topical trends of fashion and the subtle manipulations of aural transmission that over a period of years dictate the character of tunes outside the core and challenge their endurance.

The Lower Valley provided an ideal place for the growth and development of the ancient community. The ancients were influenced by the several factors that affected other vernacular river town societies--environmental configuration, social isolation, and the rigid political, economic, and religious views that resulted over time. James Deetz (In Small Things Forgotten, New York: 1977, 38–39) identified five components of vernacular culture, four of which are demonstrated by the traditional ancient community even today:

  • conservative, traditional values
  • close ties to kin
  • suspicious of outsiders, change and innovation
  • life guided by change of seasons

Tradition predominates in ancient drum corps culture. In the past, academia’s dismissal of tradition as undocumented hearsay discouraged the systematic study of ancient habits and music. But it is precisely their traditional nature that begs proper attention. Identification of primary materials has begun fairly recently, but the examination of the instruments, music, accouterments, uniforms, images, and papers amassed thus far reveals a viable history that documents and thus validates much of the existing tradition. For example, consider this anecdote about "an old swamp Yankee drum major," traceable in oral history to 1946 (Ed Olsen, Brooklyn NY).

Drummahs play ‘Golden Slippahs.
Fifahs play what ye hev a mind to.

This "quote" demonstrates the practice of "stock beats" long utilized by ancient drummers. Stock beats are generic accompaniments applied to a fife tune by drummers who do not know how to play the intended beating or if one does not exist. One of these is "Connecticut Halftime," another is "Fancy 6/8." Tradition is suggested by 1) the existence of these generic beatings in the core repertory and 2) their frequent use as stock beats today. But the tradition is too vague to interest the music historian, who may be tempted to simply apply a terminus post quem in terms of their publication in 1862 and 1938 respectively or in the publication of the referenced tune "Golden Slippers" (1879). Perhaps wide distribution of the printed drum beatings did provoke their entry into a later, post-publication core repertory. But it may be that their success in an earlier, rote-based tune core prompted an external interest and, ultimately, publication.

The provenance of stock beats can be documented more fully. In 1797, when war with France seemed imminent, a Massachusetts drummer and teacher, Benjamin Clark, wrote out a series of drum beatings in a blank commonplace book. On several verso pages, he wrote the title of a beating followed by an indented list of several more titles. These refer to specific fife tunes, all of which are playable to the "stock beat" indicated by title at the top of the list (the beating itself Clark wrote out in notation on the page’s recto). The practice was either continued or revived in 1862 when Col. H. C. Hart listed various fife tune titles beneath certain beatings in his Instructor for the Drum. Survival into the twentieth century is suggested by the amusing anecdote listed above and confirmed by early recordings ("On Parade Medley," No. 1804. Indestructible Phonographic Records, Albany: 1902; "Girl I Left Behind Me." Edison Gold Moulded Records, Orange [NJ]: 1907) and concludes with an observation of ancient drumming practices today. Stock beat tradition, now clearly defined in terms of history, should indeed interest music historians as a present-day performance practice inherited more or less in continuum by Valley Shore ancients from military drummers of the late eighteenth century.

Conversely, a thorough understanding of applicable tradition enhances the historical record. Without knowledge of stock beat tradition, for example, the lists of tune titles in Benjamin Clark’s manuscript might remain uninterpreted or, worse, be misinterpreted by well-meaning scholarly guesswork--a series of favorite tunes, perhaps? Selections for a specific but unnamed performance? Or maybe lessons intended for students.

The ancients are only beginning to attract this kind of attention, but already the findings point to an important history with ties to a dramatic military past. It is this segment of "ancient history" that is portrayed by re-enactors today. Re-enactors select a specific point in time to re-create in sight, sound and behavior, much like the interpretations featured at thematic history museums such as Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. Most commonly the scenarios they choose are from the American Revolution or the Civil War, eras that also dominate the history and tradition of the ancients. Their mutual interest, though, is prompted by widely divergent philosophies. The re-enactor strives for an authentic, focused revival of a single point in time. The ancients, however, represent an undifferentiated survival of serial time, a succession of time-points linked by the long continuum of tradition.

Tradition cannot be studied in and of itself. The pursuit of tradition exclusive of history produces a record as unreliable as the conclusions of the historian who ignores relevant tradition. And if lessons can be learned from the nation’s Bicentennial, only confusion results from indiscriminate substitution of history for tradition and vice versa. By nature, tradition must encompass a beginning point, an endpoint, and multiple points of time in between. These are suggested in practice and traced in oral history but cannot be established or defined without the benefit of a fully explored and documented history.


By Susan Cifaldi
Created and published September 18, 2001