Music and art: painted martial drums

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By Joel Bohy Historic Arms & Militaria Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers Cranston, RI

One of the things I think of when I return to the American Revolution, the Federal era, or the Civil War is the sound of fifes and drums. When I hear them today, it takes me back to another time. Edward Jarvis in his Traditions and memories of Concord, Massachusetts mentions hearing a bass drum for the first time with fifes and snares in preparation for the spring militia rally “They had drum music and fife, and one or more of each, and the bass drum after its introduction. It was considered an important adherence to martial music, and a wonder for the boys. I remember the moment when I first heard one. It was a May evening when Captain Sanderson was leading the artillery. It was my early bedtime. My brother Charles had gone to the bedroom before me. As I followed, passing by the front door, I heard drums, and in addition, the big rumbling sound, strange and beautiful to me. I couldn’t resist going to the door to see, if possible, what instrument had made it. The music was at Captain Sanderson’s store twenty yards away. Barefoot and bareheaded, I ran towards her, and there I saw the bass drum. I stood next to him and heard his full sound. I wish Charles had been there to see and hear it. But I was told that it would appear when the company should go out and [so] was pleased with my discovery and hastened to come home and go to bed.

But not only could beautiful music be played with bass or snare accompaniment; they were sometimes painted with magnificent patriotic works of art. Like powder horns, painted canteens and backpacks, drums are also moving from weapon and militaria collectors to folk art. Here is an example, a civil war regulation painted rope tension drum.

It has upper and lower hoops painted red, a hull painted blue with an eagle, shield, sunbeam, and a banner marked “REGT./US/INFANTRY”. Since there is no regimental designation painted before “REGT”. this example has never been published. It has brass studs around the side vent, and if you look through the vent you can see on the opposite side the original manufacturer’s white paper label marked “ERNEST VOGT, / MANUFACTURER OF / DRUMS, BANJOS, TAMBORINES, & c., / N ° 225 BEAVER STREET, / PHILADELPHIA. / Contract, December 29, 1864. ” This example also has its original calfskin heads, string, and nine of the ten original leather ears for tensioning the drum. It is rare to have such a complete drum that has not been restored.

Like young Edward Jarvis, when I was a child I had the same feeling listening to fifes and drums and started playing when I was 10 years old. Not only the music moved me, but also the artwork painted on the outer hulls. Forty-five years later, I’m still in awe of these pieces of American history and art.


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