“The music of the army being in general very bad…”

Perhaps a quote every Continental fifer or drummer is familiar with can introduce the impending grievances. It was issued by our pal George Washington on June 4th, 1777 in Middlebrook, New Jersey.

The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them.

It always seems that Fort Lee is the event that gets me all in a tizzy afterwards. Over the year, I had been stepping away from the military scene with events like Eastfield and Stamp Act. As Kitty said it best, gun shows aren’t fun anymore. Well, at least shoot-em ups aren’t fun anymore. I like the small events with people of like mind gathered to do living history, not burn powder. Eastfield was definitely one of those where the marriage of guns and purpose merged nicely.

Changes to improve gun shows aren’t that hard, from my perspective. Being a musician, my focus always tends to be on, surprise-surprise, music.

The great thing about being a musician is:

  1. No dirty gun to clean.
  2. So much easier to bring to an event and carry around.
  3. Any changes for authenticity in regards to music tend to be free or cheap in comparison to soldiers.

And that list is barely even all the benefits. For the purpose of this post, let’s take a look at #3. Cheap usually isn’t a word heard when describing this hobby but changing how you play costs only the time of practice.

For example: We know the British marched at two tempos when on parade. A common step of 60 beats per minute (BPM) (one step per second) and a quickstep of 120 beats per minute (two steps per second).* Improving the authenticity of a song means playing at a faster or slower tempo. Even better, you can march the common step while the music plays at a 120 tempo! Just watch the guards do it at Buckingham Palace as they play Duke of York’s March, a tune played by fifers and drummers in the 18th century.

(Yes, in this video their quick march is really at about 105 BPM. To see a true 120, take a gander at this. Though the bagpipes then drag the tempo down to 110)

Often times, people complain how fast 120 BPM is. The newly formed 17th Regiment of Foot does a steady 120, sans drum! Marching to it can be difficult for an extended period but take a look at the length of their steps at 120. They’re not taking gigantic leaps. They’re taking relatively small, measured steps.

So if we have documentation saying the British played at this tempo and that’s what they marched to, then why aren’t we doing it? Because people complain. When I suggested we do it this past weekend, I got told, “Well 120 is authentic, but it’s a bit much.”

The other problem is that there are musicians not practicing the songs at that speed. Men with muskets drill. A lot. It’s kind of expected of the soldiers to be able to perform their respective army’s dill at events and dare I say, perform it well. So why is it that there are musicians out there that think it’s okay not to practice their “drill”?

On to the next problem: accurate instruments. For the most part, I don’t see a whole lot of plastic drum heads that say “REMO” on them anymore and it’s nice to see that most drummers are using calfskin heads. For new fifers, I totally understand cheap fifes. I started off on a cruddy plastic fife from Cooperman. Everybody has to start somewhere. I can understand not wanting to invest in a decent instrument until you know if you’re going to be any good or not. I tell all the new musicians, don’t buy anything more than $100 until you’re absolutely sure you want to be a musician.

But if you’ve been in the hobby now for a substantial amount of time, have established yourself as a musician, you should really get an accurate instrument. Bringing a Civil War fife to a Revolutionary War event is just as bad as bringing your Springfield Model 1861 to Yorktown. Yes, both the Model 1861 and a Brown Bess go “BOOM” when you shoot it, but it isn’t the same. Both fifes serve the same job as fifes but they sound and behave differently.

Steve Dillon makes excellent copies of the Cahusac fife in his collection. You too, can have an exact copy, made of boxwood, in the key of C, in the correct pitch, for a nominal fee. (BAR members even get a discount! I got mine for $65 I believe.) The fife not only plays great, but it looks great! So why play those expensive, incorrect ones when the good stuff is available? Because fifers complain that instead of open fingerings for a C#, it requires two fingers down on the 3rd and 4th holes.


Touting my pride and joy at the School of the Soldier this past April.

Did it take some retraining on this fife to get the new fingering and the slightly tighter armature? Yeah, it did. But trust me, it’s beyond worth it to be able to say to your audience that you’re playing an exact copy and this is how the music would have sounded to the original listeners. Besides the teaching tool, the Dillon fife sounds amazing and is without a doubt the best fife I’ve ever owned.

My final piece of dirty laundry is documentation for music. Similar to how the uniforms we wear have to be documented with period sources, so should the music we play. It’s impossible to know what songs were played at each battle or each day but there are plenty of sources out there.  For those willing to look on sites like IMSLP, you can find both Thompson and Aird’s tutors for fifes. The BAR has published a lovely book with period fife and drum music taken from primary sources. The drum notation was even “translated” into modern notation for those that read sheet music.


You can even make a trip to your local university’s special collection! I went to Brown University’s special collection and got to look at RI fifer’s William William’s manuscript. All I had to do was ask.

But even within the BAR book, stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, would the British play songs written by Americans? Probably not as they don’t show up in British tutors until after the war. Did the Americans play British songs? All the time as evidenced by repeats of songs in American sources that were in British sources.

One of my favourite songs to play is Stony Point. It’s found only in American fife books so it’s pretty safe to say this piece was written after the Continental Army’s victory there on July 16th, 1779. So here’s an example of a period song from the Revolution that shouldn’t be played at events that take place before this battle. The context just wouldn’t make sense. It would require me telling visitors, “Well mam, that last piece was called ‘Stony Point.’ It’s a song about a battle the Americans won in 1779 but we’re currently at Trenton in 1776 so we don’t know about that battle yet.”

So why this rant? Because I’m growing tired of the nonsense.

I’m tired of hearing made-up parleys on the battlefield when we have one from an original source that’s in the BAR Music Book used by all 3 of the umbrella organisations in the hobby.

I’m tired of seeing videos of battle reenactments where musicians are playing concerts of marches on the battlefield when we know musicians were essentially stretcher bearers doing the occasional signal.

I’m tired of officers in battle telling me to stand behind the line and just twiddle my thumbs when I want to stand behind the sergeant to hear the orders so we can play the signal if necessary or take away the wounded because there’s documentation for that.

I’m tired of marching at 100 beats per minute as a quickstep.

I’m tired of hearing 19th century tunes (I’m looking at you, Men of Harlech) at 18th century events.

I’m tired of going to events, knowing all the camp duties fifers and drummers played from sunrise to sunset and never playing a single one of them besides Drummer’s Call and Assembly.

I’m tired of playing cease fire a crap ton of times because officers don’t know what it means and they then continue to have their units burn powder as if the battle was their last reenactment ever.

But most of all, I’m tired of my suggestions/complaints falling on deaf ears. It’s disheartening to share this information with people to have them not put it to use. It sucks trying to teach a regiment the signals (making recordings so they can listen to them at home, giving them music lessons, etc.) and them never implementing them into the camp. It sucks telling the people in charge of you this, armed with all this documentation and they still won’t budge.


You don’t even have to carry a heavy guy! We chose a very tiny 13 year old. Photo credit to Suzanne Shaw Photography.


You don’t even need more than one musician!

These fixes aren’t hard. I’m not asking folks to go out and sew all new outfits out of $75 per yard wool. I’m not asking anybody to sleep on wet hay on the ground. I instead challenge others to put some effort into their impression. Practice your fife or drum a few times during the week. Think before you play a piece, “Is there documentation for it?” You’ll be amazed at just how far the authenticity for the unit and the event will improve when you use music correctly.But most importantly, question what you’ve been taught. I started learning the ways of the Spirit of ’76 and when I began to question what I was doing, everything fell into place. I no longer play undocumented songs on a replica civil war fife during battles.


So, where does all this leave me? Part of me sees the mess that the state of music is currently in and desires to stop playing at events. Things were so much easier three years ago when I just showed up at events and fired a musket and was ignorant to everything. However, it seems that a few of us are splintering off and forming our own “band”, both of fifes and drums and of music. A group of like minded, dare I say, progressive, individuals getting together to do martial music the right way.

Even the Continental Army music improved after some hardcore practicing. Washington put it best when he said in that same order:

Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.

*See Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. 1st ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976. 7-9.


Dirges, Deaths, and Diet Coke: Fort Lee 2015

The end of November always signals the end of the main reenacting season for me, though this year it’s been extended into December with the tentative Boston Tea Party (Depending on my final exam schedule) and the 14 mile death march I agreed to do at Trenton.

On Saturday the 21st, the Rhode Island contingent of the 10th Massachusetts ventured down to Fort Lee, New Jersey to recreate Washington’s Retreat to Victory. (An oxymoron if there ever was one.) We shoved off from Mr. Spark’s house around 6:15 in the morning and made the venture along with Ms. Miggins to the Palisades. After nearly being killed on the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, we arrived safely at our destination.


A portion of the RI contingent with Ms. Miggins’ lovely leaves.

The day started off ominously as I attempted to stab Ms. Miggins’ new shoes with the buckles she got. Convinced the leather was actually yeti skin, the buckles bent as I attempted to stab them through! Fortunately, other folks from the RI contingent came to the rescue and fixed the buckle. It took my original 18th century fork to stab through the yeti pelt.

Ceremony 2

Fort Lee tends to be a repetitive event. I always make big plans for what I’m going to do but those plans never happen due to time constraints. I got there and right away I was summoned to make music with the rest of band. For some odd reason, we mustered the men an hour and a half before the parade started so everyone was stuck waiting around. We tried to keep things lively by giving a concert. Of course, when we played “Chester,” a certain regiment made me start to giggle and I had to stop.


Finally, at 12:00, we set off for the town centre. The march there always goes by the most delicious smelling Japanese and Chinese restaurants and being around lunch time, I’m always tempted to ditch the parade half way through and get real food instead of the infamous Fort Lee Mystery Mush.


After much speechifying and the annual Run for the Donuts a certain drummer and I make, we set back to the palisades for nooning. Things were going well until we hit the steep-ish hill on the way back into the park. As we headed up, the Fife Major (Known as Two Flutes in some circles) thought it wise to drop us from the comfortable speed of about 90 beats per minute to the deathly dirge of 40 beats per minute. Neither of the tempos being the authentic 60 beats per minutes common step and 120 beats per minute quick step, I was not pleased nor found it possible to play at 40. But I dealt, and after much grumbling from the men, we continued on.


I can’t say no to furry things, especially muffs. Our friend Wigzilla had to fight me in order to get her muff back.

The reason I go to Fort Lee each year is not for the pristine historical grounds or the riveting battles. With the GW Bridge looming over us, helicopters flying by all day, and New York City directly across the water, the place is anything but immersive. I also don’t go for the fantastic Mystery Mush. I do go for the people. With no camps, the British and the American forces are forced to mingle. Seeing friends from both sides and from the area is always great. The best part was meeting people I’ve only known online and people everyone tells me I have to meet.

(Yes, somebody actually made an 11 minute video of reenactors eating Mystery Mush. But you can see me in the blue suit at the beginning signal Roast Beef and walk off with a handful of bread.)

After lunch came an awkward and brief music demo that was cut short by the battle. The battle scenario was definitely better than years past. Most times Fort Lee gets very silly after 10 minutes with buckets of water flying out of the block house and tennis balls as grenades. This year it stayed serious and involved a lot of flanking and running. Fort Lee is definitely not an audience friendly place though. I heard from Ms. Miggins that even as close as the ladies were, they saw barely anything. I can only imagine what the actual audience saw. And if we’re not doing the battle for the audience, are we again just burning powder for nothing?



10th MA as militia in the centre and I’m off to the left near the tree with the 3rd New Jersey Greys.


Some more 10th MA action, this time you can see them a little bit clearer.


Myself and my friend in his fantastic new coat on drum with the Greys.

After the battle, the RI contingent shoved off but not before a stop at Mitsuwa to acquire Pocky, wasabi, and tea. We even got to endorse some green tea and acquire tons of free teabags! As patriots, we should have passed on it but alas, we can’t say no.


I may or may not have had to fight the folks at McDonald’s at a Connecticut rest stop in order to get the sandwich I ordered corrected.