Inside the Arc – “It’s Just Not Drum Corps Anymore”

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Napoleon is probably most responsible for the popularity of combining music and marching in modern times. While he was out conquering the world, he stumbled upon a Turkish “Janissary” band with cornettos, shawms, cymbals, and a thing called a “Jingling Johnny” that resembled a hi hat on a broom stick. He proceeded to buy one, a whole band, musicians included, drum major and all.

British 18th Century style side drum(Bate Collection, Oxford)

Soon, all aspiring world leaders wanted their own. He bought some for them, too, and sent many as presents to his buddies. Soon, all the great powers had them and began to march around all over the place like so many tipsy Legionnaires. Pageantry was hip, and it still is.

Field drummers and buglers, having been around since Greek and Roman times to help propel soldiers this way and that, were not about to be left out of all the fun just because there was temporary shortage of mass battle bloodshed. “Let’s get in the parade!”, they shouted , and fell right in.

Danish "Half Moon" bugle from the Hanoverian Period c.1814 (Reenactor photo from the author's private collection)

Those big Roman horns that wrapped around your shoulders were a bit unwieldy and the herald trumpets got pretty heavy in parades, so around the 17th century, the Brits and French began to double wrap them for ease of transport. “It just isn’t drum corps anymore”, said Charles I of England, so they beheaded him. (OK. Cromwell had something to do with it, too.)

British "Duty Bugle" c.1898 (horn in author's collection)

Later, the Redcoats played those little stubby B flats while the colonials sniped at them from behind the tree line at Lexington. Eventually, the British lost half a continent, and decided something had to be done. So, around 1810, a certain Irishman (it figures) named John Haliday patented a new bugle, with keys, that could play “God Save the Queen” and “Danny Boy” and everything. The Duke of Kent dug it and ordered a bunch. Oops, there goes drum corps again. The damn thing had pads, like a bloody saxophone!

English Keyed Bugle c.1830 (Bate Collection, Oxford)

In the US Civil war things got even more confused. The Federal cavalry played in F, the artillery in G, the infantry in Bb and the Confederates played whatever they got their hands on, while the dance orchestras used the new valve cornets and that padded bugle thingy. Lincoln emancipated the slaves and gave good addresses, but ignored the whole drum corps thing. And we still put his face on the fiver.

Cavalry Bugles in F c.1900 (horns in author's collection)

It took Teddy Roosevelt, the Spanish American War and WWI to get everybody into the key of G and playing “The Muffin Man” at the annual VFW parade, and then Bill Ludwig had to go and spoil everything by putting a horizontal valve on the plumbing. “It Just Ain’t Drum Corps Anymore”, read signs at the convention.

Italian "Bersaglieri" soprano bugle c.1910 (horn in author's collection)

Things were fine for a while, then it all quickly spiraled out of control: the baritone, Jim Donnelly and Caesar LaMonica’s French horn,the contra bass (good Lord!), Dominick Del Ray and his mellophone, Kenny Norman and his G/F deal, Gerry Shellmer (aka, the anti-christ of percussion) with his tuned bass drums, timpani and bells, and then someone actually sang “Amen”. They should have called it right then and there.

And now we have mics and synths and amps and samples…Saints preserve us! What’s next?

I can’t wait.



About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Sunday, June 10th, 2012. Filed under Inside the Arc.