Imagine you are on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War and think about the noise; cannons, rifle and pistol fire, screaming soldiers engaged in combat with swords and bayonets, and the thundering hooves of the Cavalry. The only things that could cut through that cacophony distinctly were a fife, drum, and trumpet (bugles gained prominence shortly after the turn of
the 19th century, and remain the primary signal brass today) and those instruments were used to call out instructions and commands.

"Field music at that time is not what we think of military bands today," explains SFC Jay Martin, bugler, and trumpeter with United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. "Field music was comprised of the fife, drums, and trumpeters for mounted cavalry units. Our role as musicians was for communication purposes on the battlefield. There were command calls for everything from turning left to lights out, and the troops had to know them."

SFC Martin explains the instruments were specific to units.

"The soldiers knew if they heard a trumpet it was a cavalry thing. If they heard a fife, it was an infantry thing, and they had to identify the different calls."

Battlefield musicians were in fact armed but with smaller weapons and based on what was available. While it was not considered "good form", they were often targeted and were wounded, killed, or taken as a prisoner.

From the white wigs to the tailored red coats every aspect of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is designed with history and field music in mind. The unit was formed in 1960 and according to SFC Martin was originally made up of non-musician infantrymen, harkening back to the field musicians of the Continental Army.

"The Old Guard has been the ceremonial standard bearer for the U.S. Army for decades, and they wanted to add another element to represent even more of our Army's early heritage."

Today, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is a performance group comprised of seventy men and women with diverse musical backgrounds.

"A lot of folks in the unit, such as myself, come from the conservatory, school of music approach and training while some come specifically from a fife and drum heritage. There's a whole sub-culture of fife and drum music in the United States that took off after the Civil War," explains SFC Martin. "They may have gone to school for chemistry, history or something like that, but, they grew up as a musician learning in an almost folk tradition way, from someone in their family lineage."

In addition to their performance responsibilities, each member has a secondary task assignment directly related to the unit's operation. The whole unit can be split up into smaller groups for different jobs.

"It may sound cliche, but, our typical day, isn't," chuckles SFC Martin. "We're always adapting. We start our day with physical fitness, then rehearsals begin in one form or another, and we're also training new soldiers coming into the fold. We may send a couple of fifers and a drum out for a small ceremony or colors mission at the local convention center and at the same time, we may have twenty-six soldiers standing out for a ceremony at Ft. Myer. Later that evening we could have another full group performance."

Right now, much their logistics have been tied up in preparing for their upcoming Basel Tattoo presentation in Switzerland.

Wreaths Across America believes military musicians are among the finest players and vocalists in the world representing every musical genre and SFC Martin confirms they are exemplary ambassadors for the service branch they represent instilling patriotism, pride, and respect using music; the one language all people understand without uttering a word.

"As military musicians on the home front, we get to go out and meet with people who may have never met anyone in the military, and we're that bridge. Our historical and educational performances give a human face to the uniform in our interactions. We serve a great role in recruiting and exemplify the diversity of job opportunities available in the military."

By design, the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps does travel overseas for performances but does not deploy with their units as typical Army bands do.

You can hear more from our interview about the history of the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps with SFC Jay Martin along with their music on Wreaths Across America's "Military Musicians Showcase" on Saturday's and Sunday's from 10:00 AM until Noon Eastern on Wreaths Across America Radio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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