Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

090_MUSTEREvery third Saturday in July for the past fifty-seven years, thousands of men, women and children from fife and drum corps across the country and throughout the world have converged upon Deep River, Connecticut, to participate in the Deep River Ancient Muster (DRAM). Braving the heat in woolen socks, waistcoats and other period clothing, they proudly march through the streets in perfected unison, preserving an age-old custom.

The fife and drum tradition originated with the Swiss military in Switzerland during the 15th century. The instruments were used as a communication system between the commander and his troops. They signaled the different times of day to tell the men when to eat, sleep, work or play. They alerted the brigade to trouble and called them to arms. The music often broke up the monotony of a long march into battle, and informed the men on the battlefield when to assemble, charge, retreat or cease-fire.

“Both the British Army and the English colonists used fife and drum in the Revolutionary War. This music is strongly associated with the birth of America. It was still used by the American military into the Civil War, but by then the increased range, accuracy, and rapidity of firearms, the extension and rapid movement of battle lines, and replacement of long marches by transport on railway and steamship, made fife and drum obsolete. After the Civil War, the bugle was preferred, though fife and drum was used by shipboard Marine detachments until 1921,” as written by the Kentish Guards of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, a historic military unit that has been in continuous service since being chartered on October 29, 1774.

The only corps that are still part of the armed forces and still active today is the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. They are the official escort for the President and give approximately 500 performances a year at parades, pageants, historical celebrations, schools, sporting events and at the White House for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. Their uniforms mirror those worn by General George Washington’s Continental Army in 1781, and have red coats, white wigs and black tricorn hats. Last year the entire regiment consisting of 69 members, traveled to five musters in honor of their 50th anniversary, but the DRAM was their favorite.

“Deep River is the father of them all. It’s the largest muster held in the world. It’s an annual meeting place for corps around the country. They share in the experience, music, heritage and tradition of fife and drum. There is a lot of camaraderie,” said SFC J. Mark Reilly, Snare Drum Section Leader, Production Staff Percussion Arranger, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps., Official Ceremonial Unit and Escort to the President of the United States.

After World War II there was a revitalization of fife and drum music in America. It moved away from its military roots and became a social event much like the DRAM. Veterans would assemble to play standardized tunes; songs they all knew from having served together. Each region began to adopt their own musical tastes, costumes and marching techniques.

011_MUSTER“Ancient corps started getting together fairly regularly for purposes of fifing, drumming and sundry revelries. These gatherings eventually developed into (and by 1953 were being called) “Drum Corps Musters.” With the advent of our country’s Bicentennial Celebration, Ancient fife and drum corps were springing up throughout the country. The gatherings at the small town of Deep River became the largest and most popular. By 1976 it was drawing as many as 80 units from many different states as well as from Basel, Switzerland, a musical community with which American Ancients have formed an extremely close association,” wrote the late Ed Olsen, a historian, archivist, co-founder and former curator for The Museum of Fife & Drum in Ivoryton, Connecticut.

Before the first Deep River Ancient Muster, which was held in 1953 with fifteen companies present, local fife and drums corps participated in a “Field Day” at Devitt’s Field in Deep River. The earliest “Field Day” dates back to 1879 with five units performing in what was supposed to be a friendly jamboree, but what often resulted in a heated and unforgiving rivalry.

“It was a musical competition amongst local drum corps. They marched to show their style and discipline. The rumors are that the Chester and Deep River corps would get so upset they wouldn’t speak to each other after, and would cross the street if they had to rather than walk on the same side,” said Pattie Unan, director emeritus, DRAM.

Today between 80-120 fife and drums corps attend the DRAM every year to experience a weekend long celebration of ancient music, ancient uniforms, and marches. The event is so popular that many families plan their annual vacation around it.

“It’s special. There are other musters but none like Deep River. The format for all musters was started here, and they all fashion themselves after this one. It is considered the oldest in the country and the world,” said Marilyn Malcarne, former DRAM president, marching instructor and Tattoo organizer. “Deep River is such a hospitable place for this. They open their arms up for us. It’s a real community sponsored event.”

The Friday night before the parade the fife and drum corps still descend upon Devitt’s Field for the Tattoo. It usually showcases visiting corps or specialty groups that people don’t often have an opportunity to hear.

“We invite 5-7 corps to play and they tell us about their history, uniforms and music. It’s people jamming together from all over the world into the wee hours of the morning,” said Malcarne.

The Tattoo program was implemented 27 years ago as a way to extend the DRAM from one day into two. (The word “tattoo” is derived from the Dutch phrase “die den tap toe” which informed the soldiers with the fife and drum that it was time to turn off the beer taps after an evening of debauchery and get back to camp. Over the years, “die den tap toe” evolved into “tattoo”.)

Deep River has two fife and drums corps, one for seniors called the Deep River Drum Corps which was established in 1873, and the Deep River Junior Ancients Fife & Drum Corps (DRJA) for children ages eight to eighteen. The DRJA began in 1955 as a way “to foster and promote Ancient Martial Music through education, instruction, and participation in parades and musters”.

“We have 33 kids. They come from all over the state. Some have been in the corps for 10 years, others just started. We organize them and teach them the ancient art of the fife and drum,” said Roise. “They are getting together to play, but it’s also a way to keep the history going. Hopefully, these kids will carry on the tradition of fife and drum, which is part of the history of the United States and a real slice of Americana.”

The DRAM attracts thousands of spectators annually who line the street in anticipation of the three mile long parade that starts on the corner of Kirtland and Main Street at the Ivory Restaurant & Pub, and ends at Devitt’s Field. Throughout the entire route with music wafting through the air, families and friends seated roadside in lawn chairs get a rare glimpse into bygone era.

For more information email Pattie Unan at

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