Fife And Drum Revival

December 22, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The deep-voiced drums roll and thunder; the wooden fifes squeal. The Spirit of '76 springs to life. Yankee Doodle is on the march again in Baltimore, after a 30-year absence.

They're called the Eastern Colonials Senior Ancient Fife and Drum Corps, a group of veterans who gave up the music three decades ago and newcomers who hope to revive what was once a patriotic Baltimore tradition.

After months of practicing in Baltimore's Carroll Park, they will be host to corps from New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and elsewhere in Maryland at a muster Jan. 10 at 12:30 p.m. at St. Leo's Hall in East Baltimore.

The tunes of glory will be on parade: "Garry Owen," "Bonnie Dundee," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "The World Turned Upside Down," "The British Grenadiers," "Scotland the Brave," "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"We're looking for everyone to come," said Gus Malstrom, 67, the veteran fifer who undertook the revival of a fife and drum corps in Baltimore last spring.

In 1952, Mr. Malstrom, Mel Doxzen and Joe Carter were boys and young men when they joined the late Charles J. "Buck" Soistman of Middle River -- then the country's premier ancient drum maker -- to form the Monumental City Ancient Fife and Drum Corps.

For nearly 10 years, their black tricorn hats were a familiar sight as they marched in parades and performed in patriotic pageants, always at the stately 18th century pace that distinguishes them from rapid, high-stepping modern bands.

Monumental City drifted apart in the early '60s, fading into fond memory until Mr. Malstrom decided to call some of the guys last spring to see if they were interested in a revival.

Indeed they were, and so were born the Eastern Colonials, with seven fifers and five drummers -- when they all show up. Members come from Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as Maryland, and recruits -- men and women, boys and girls -- are welcome.

"We are looking for people. We know there are people out there who play but don't know about us," said Charles Terzi, 45, a banker who hadn't touched a drum for 30 years until this summer.

Mr. Terzi's story is typical. He started drumming at age 7 and followed the traditional route through parochial school fifes and drums to a drum and bugle corps. In those days, many parochial schools had their own corps. But by the time he was through school and working, there was no one left to play with.

Pounding away at his new $450 snare, Mr. Terzi said drumming is like riding a bicycle -- once you learn it, you don't forget it. "But I'm having to build up my endurance again. It's hard work," he said. "I try to practice about two hours a day."

Joe Carter, 53, also followed the traditional fife and drum corps route but took it one step further -- doing his two-year Army hitch in the 3rd Infantry's Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps -- which appears regularly in Washington and at national events.

Patting his drum, which is 21 inches deep and 17 inches wide, Mr. Carter said, "This drum is 30 years old, and I played it during President Kennedy's funeral in 1963. It was my personal drum, but it was muffled with black cloth so no one could tell."

Mel Doxzen, the other Monumental City veteran, made his own drum. The retired sheet-metal worker said it took years of experimenting to learn how. But he hasn't had much practice until lately, because there was no one to play with.

Although he uses some modern materials -- plywood for the body and plastic instead of animal skin for the head -- the basic pattern hasn't changed in centuries.

The "ancient drums," used in the Civil War, the Revolution and earlier battles, are much taller than modern band drums. To tune them, drummers tighten and loosen the head by pulling leather "ears" that adjust ropes strung in V-shapes around the drum body.

Modern drums are made of metal -- with heads made of Kevlar (also used for bulletproof vests).

The throaty roar of the old instruments is unmistakable, and the power of the snare drums is reinforced by the deep, heavy boom of a bass drum pounded by wooden mallets.

The drums had to be loud because they were used to signal troop movements across the battlefield din. Because the troops moved in masses on foot, a slow, steady musical pace produced the best results. That style, 75 to 90 beats a minute, distinguishes the ancient fife and drum corps from modern bands, which march at 130 paces a minute.

Although ancient fife and drum corps are scattered across the United States, the heaviest concentration is in New England, particularly Massachusetts and Connecticut.

For information about joining the Eastern Colonials, prospective fifers and drummers may call (410) 254-7558.

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