Music in the Military

Mark Logsdon, of The 1st Michigan Colonial Fife and Drum Corp., plays on an 1824 drum for an audience during a presentation and demonstration at Fort Meigs. 

PERRYSBURG ­— History buffs read extensively about their favorite aspects of the past, but they don’t often get to actually hear them.

As far as Mark Logsdon is concerned, history can and should be experienced with every sense ­— especially hearing.

Logsdon talked to local history fans about the importance of music in battle on Feb. 18 at Fort Meigs.

During his presentation, entitled “Music in the Military: The Story of Fifes and Drums,” Logsdon, director of the 1st Michigan Colonial Fife and Drum Corps, explained how musical instruments were used as disciplinary tools as well as ways to relay commands on and off the battlefield.

With a reproduction rope tension drum hooked onto the drumstick carrier slung over his shoulder, Logsdon described the thrill of hearing what soldiers and citizens would have heard in the late 18th century.

“Musically, sonically, what you’re about to hear are the kinds of things you would have heard over two centuries ago on the technology of the time period,” he said. “The thing that means a lot to me is, the stuff you’re hearing is the echoes of two centuries in the past. That’s exciting.”

The loud, rapid sounds signalling soldiers around the time of the American Revolution were so loud, they could be heard as far as five miles away.

Once, at the end of a parade Logsdon played in, a friend who had seen him off at the start of the route met him with a list of songs he thought he could hear the corps playing nearly three miles away.

Logsdon said his friend was 90 percent right.

“Fifes and drums became so important as communication devices that some towns levied taxes on the colonists so they could be purchased. That’s not going to happen today,” he said.

Logsdon played songs and signals soldiers would have heard throughout the day from fifes, recorder-like instruments, and drums, such as a call to wake, dress and stand at attention, a call to go to church and a call to dinner.

It’s true that there was always a drummer on duty, Logsdon said, but there’s one thing our history books have gotten wrong over the years.

“Paul Revere never said ‘the British were coming.’ It wouldn’t have made any sense. We were British. What he did say was, ‘The regulation is coming.’ It was a scary time,” he said, referring not only to the looming presence of soldiers marching through a village on their way to war, but also the intimidating sounds of their drums.

The National Guard’s presence during the Detroit Riot in the 1960s is the only event Logsdon has witnessed that could be considered comparable, he said.

“It was highly unusual. I have a small understanding of how colonists felt and what they saw because of what I saw in 1967,” he said. “It was an unusual occurrence for an unusual time.”

Although historians have questioned whether drums were used during the battles themselves, Logsdon is confident they were, citing numerous anecdotes in diaries, letters, memoirs and pension applications.

He also relayed a story about how General Mad Anthony Wayne wanted to move out earlier than planned before the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Maumee but wasn’t able to because the drummers’ calfskin drum heads were wet from the night before.

“He had to wait for them to dry out. There were campaigns that didn’t happen because drums were wet,” Logsdon said. “The drums were the voice of the battle. One commander standing before 2,000 soldiers didn’t have a microphone and wasn’t about to scream his orders. These battles were very well planned, plotting affairs.”

Drum and fife signals told soldiers which way to turn and how to get in formation.

“All of you in this room given enough time to be trained on the signals, if we had enough time, you would know which songs mean to stand a certain way, to wheel to the left or right, to go from a column to a line or a line to a column,” he said. “From my time reenacting, I’ve found it works. You know what’s going on, you know what to do.”

As a special treat to the audience, Logsdon played a restored Brown Family drum circa 1824, an almost entirely original solid shell drum made of tiger stripe maple and ash that was found in a garbage pile in Baltimore, Maryland, held together by its tack pattern.

Logsdon sent it to the Smithsonian, where it was “saved from having its voice silenced,” he said.

“You can be old and still have something to say. I hope I’m in this good shape when I’m old,” he said, affectionately referring to his drum as “Grandpa.” “You’re listening to what’s as close as possible to what Washington would have head on a daily basis. It’s a privilege to be able to hear history,” he said,

While some in the audience worried Logsdon could break the antique by playing it, Logsdon said it’s worth the risk.

“It might break, but it will break doing the job it’s meant to do, not laying in a garbage pile. If I’m the last one to play it, thanks for the memories,” he said. “Plus I’m willing to spend the money to repair it again.”

Logsdon was joined by Fort Meigs Director Scott Lonsdale, his longtime student, for two songs.

The program was sponsored by the Anderton Bentley Fund in memory of Christopher Perky, who served at Fort Meigs during the War of 1812.

This especially fitting because memory is what has kept fifing and drumming alive, Logsdon said.

“Because of the Grand Army of the Republic, thanks to old veterans, drummer boys from both the Union and Confederate sides getting together to play, the tradition has carried on,” he said. “We speak for the dead. We honor the veterans we cannot thank in person. In playing these drums, we hope we make those ghosts happy.”