Inside the Arc – Color Pre or Take a Knee

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There once was a time in Drum Corps when the color guard was the Gulag to which were sent all those who were unfit or unready to play horns or drums. The guard was officially known as “the auxiliary”, a term that had always conjured up (at least in my mind) something like an appendix, an add-on to a book or a body, something one could easily live without should it cause any trouble.

But even here there was a pecking order: rifle line on top, flash flags next…etc., all the way down to the lowly, “guard on the American flag”, who was lucky to be permitted to suit up and take the field with all those other really important players. But we had it backwards, and the origins of this flag and rifle business tell a very different story.

In 1777, Ben Franklin convinced Gen. Washington to engage the services of Frederick William Baron von Steuben, an ex-Prussian army captain, to bring some order to the mostly under-trained Continental Army. The Baron wrote the first drill manual for US troops and personally selected and tutored 100 men to be his instructional staff.

Von Steuben knew his history, that flags and banners from earliest times had served the dual roles of both ceremonial pageantry, and practical rallying points and signals on the battlefield. It was, therefore, extremely important that these symbols of unity be both respected and protected at all times. If the color bearer falls in battle, the flag must be retrieved and held aloft by another soldier immediately, indicating that the unit remains cohesive and under the command of the officer closest to the banner.

Out of this grew the posting of colors, manual of arms, pass in review and all the other associated traditions, from Olympic medal ceremonies to the “Color Pre” in a Drum Corps show. And it was the music that was the add-on, in support of the ceremony of “presenting the colors”.

It should come as no surprise that such a powerful symbol can also trigger strong emotional responses, pro and con. In 1970, at the height of the Viet Nam War, one of the anthems of the counter-culture was the Jefferson Airplane tune, “White Rabbit”. The Garfield Cadets played John Sasso’s arrangement as a production number, neatly packaged with the “Peace Sign” drill designed by Pete Emmons and Bobby Hoffman.

It wasn’t really a political statement so much as an attempt to be musically hip and relevant. No one had anticipated the reaction of many in the crowd at Legion Nationals who booed lustily during that segment. Hoffman was incensed at what he perceived as misdirected hostility toward corps members. “That will never happen again”, he vowed.

The following year, the Cadet show was a reenactment of the Revolutionary War, including flags of the British and the colonies, drill moves right out of von Steuben’s manual, and the Peace Sign at the battle’s conclusion. But this time the music was “Battle Hymn” and the American flag came right down the 50.

It was obvious, ironically, that the entire production was a blatant anti-war protest. No matter. The audience reaction at that very same show one year later was thunderous and overwhelmingly positive. “That’s more like it”, said Bobby.

A flag is not a nation, but it can represent its values, one of those being, at least in this country, respect for freedom of expression. No one individual or group owns that right exclusively. It belongs to all of us, in whatever way we choose to use it. The exercise of that privilege is in itself an act of patriotism.

I don’t regret beginning my Drum Corps career as the “guard on the American flag”. I carried a rifle, a real bolt-action WWI Springfield, and even got to do a Queen Anne Salute, you know, the one where you go down to one knee.

Editor’s Note: All photos from author’s personal collection.

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 Saturday, September 30th, 2017. Filed under FrontPage Feature, Inside the Arc.