During the recent Drum Corps International World Championships, we caught up with Staff Sgt. John Parks, a member of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. His fascinating explanation of the role of musicians during the American Revolution help to explain the long history between musicians and marching.
Dan Gosling: I’m gonna come down and try to meet people. Tell me about what you’re wearing, who you’re with, and why you’re here.
Sgt. John Parks: Well, everybody you see here, we are members of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. We are one of the four premiere bands of the United States Army. We’re all active duty soldiers. So you’ll see fifes, bugles, and one valve bugles, and snare and bass drums that we’re playing today. And some of our members are former DC members. We’re here, we’ve been asked to come. The US Army is one of the sponsors of this event. So we’re here as one of the US Army Bands, supporting what’s going on. So yeah, we’re playing and we’re talking to people out here. We are wearing redcoats, because back in the Revolutionary War, musicians wore the opposite colored coat of the infantry that they supported.
Dan Gosling: Really?
Sgt. John Parks: So you could easily identify musicians when you had a bunch of soldiers around. We were the communication on and off the battlefield. So if the commanding officer needed to put something out very quickly, they didn’t have radios to use. They had music. So they would tell their closest musician to play whatever call…
Dan Gosling: That’s where bugle calls came from? It was a way to communicate on the battlefield?
Sgt. John Parks: Correct. Fifes and then drums were used in the Revolutionary War before bugles and horns became more popular. Those became more popular as people were riding on horseback and they needed just one hand while they were marching behind the troops, you often saw fifes and drums used in the Revolutionary War.
Dan Gosling: So let me ask you this: Is the term Redcoat, is that not accurate? When we think of the British soldiers as being in red coats?
Sgt. John Parks: British soldiers were definitely wearing red coats. They would have been a lot more expensive and exquisite than these redcoats.
Dan Gosling: So they could tell the difference? In other words, you were not in danger of…
Sgt. John Parks: Well, there were a couple things that went into that. First of all, you could tell they had a lot of gold on their uniforms. We didn’t have the money for that, so you wouldn’t have seen any of that on those uniforms. It was later in the war when we started to get money and then supplies, and we had the time to get these redcoats. So the beginning of the war, you didn’t see a lot of that. But you often … Also, musicians were young children. They were following their fathers off to battle.
Dan Gosling: Oh my gosh. How…
Sgt. John Parks: 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 years of age. Playing music, but not purposefully being shot at. There was a gentleman’s agreement back then to not shoot them. Musicians didn’t carry any weapons, so they didn’t serve any dangerous purpose. But muskets weren’t extremely accurate, so of course it probably would have happened.
Speaker 3: Incurred some damage and…
Dan Gosling: So, you actually know a lot of the history. Is part of being in this group learning that history? And they insist that you know those stories?
Sgt. John Parks: Yes. Yeah, of course.
Dan Gosling: Interactions like this…
Sgt. John Parks: So we can do things like this. Crowd interaction and education. We do a lot of things with schools. We’ll go to elementary school Colonial Days and we’ll put on an hour performance, where we’re talking to the kids. I know in Virginia, US history is taught in 4th grade, and so when they’re hitting that Colonial times and Revolutionary War, we are a very popular request. So we’ll tour a lot of the local schools and put on a performance.
Dan Gosling: And you auditioned to be in this group?
Sgt. John Parks: Yes. You can either audition as a civilian, or if you’re already in an Army Band you can try out. Right now we’re having a bugle and a fife audition, they’re both coming up. So when we have an open slot, you send in some materials, a recording of yourself, and we select the ones that we want to come to an onsite audition. And that is usually two days where we have you … We teach you some of our marching. We see if you can pick up that. You play some music that you’ve prepared. You do some sight reading, and you do an interview. And how ever many open slots by the end of that interview, that audition, we pick … And then you go back to your recruiter, and if you’re not in the army, you go back to your recruiter and say, “Here’s my papers. I’m going to be a 42 C or R.” And then you go to basic training and then come straight to us out of basic training, where we start our AIT. Our training program for about 3-6 months, where you’re learning everything and you’re ready to go after 6 months of training.
Dan Gosling: How long have you been doing this?
Sgt. John Parks: I’ve been here about 7 and a half years. I got out of basic training in December of 2010. And so I’ve been here ever since. It’s a permanent duty station, a permanent assignment. If you keep reenlisting, you can stay in for all 20 years. Or more. So…
Dan Gosling: And you studied music in college, I assume.
Sgt. John Parks: I did not. I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia and I played the fife as a kid there, in the fife and drum corps. And so I went to college and studied to be a teacher. Got my kinesiology degree and then a master’s to teach physical education and health. But I kept up my fife playing, and then there was an audition the summer after I graduated from high school. And my brother is in the unit as well. He had gotten in about a year and a half before I did. And he was like, “Hey, there’s … I’ve heard there’s something coming up.” So I started practicing for it. And went up and won the one spot that was open that time…
Dan Gosling: But you’d been playing it for probably much longer than some of your colleagues. The actual fife.
Sgt. John Parks: The fife, yes. But we accept flute and piccolo players. There are, many of the people that I was auditioning for the Fife and Drum Corps, and then once they get there, we teach them the fife.
Dan Gosling: Is there anything historical about this particular instrument, or this a modern…
Sgt. John Parks: This one is definitely modern. It has 10 holes, instead of just the normal 6 you would have seen here on top. A 6-hole fife in the Revolutionary War, they were also made out of one piece of wood. This is two pieces, so we can do a little bit more tuning with it. We can take it apart and store it. So this is definitely modern. We can play it with the bugles, and we can play it with some other instruments, and it helps us to do a lot more modern things than just a 6-hole fife would allow us to do. But that’s definitely the more historic. And those, and they didn’t have very good manufacturing. They would have had fife makers and instrument makers, but they would have all been very different, and they would have been very hard to tune and it would have sounded probably very bad.
Sgt. John Parks: But fife and drum corps were also not as common. You were lucky to have some fifers and drummers in your unit. A fifer and a drummer. Hopefully you had one of each. But the calls sounded very similar. So if you didn’t have one or the other, you could still, the soldiers still knew what was being called. And maybe if you were massing up and marching from one place to the other, marching through a town, you wanted to show the town the spirit of the soldiers, then you would play some music. But also often, if you were going from one place to the other, you didn’t want to be captured. You can hear this from far, a ways away. So you would march quietly, maybe to a stick tap, or maybe just nothing at all.
Sgt. John Parks: But the fifers and drummers also, they got in trouble if they tried to store their units on the cart. They had to carry their own stuff, and also they were the ones that would dole out some of the punishments. If you got in trouble … If you were too old to fight, often you played instruments as well. So some of those soldiers would dole out punishments for the inferior officers. So they had a bunch of different responsibilities.
Dan Gosling: Tell the viewers your name again?
Sgt. John Parks: I’m Staff Sergeant John Parks from Williamsburg, Virginia. And I’m a member of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
Dan Gosling: Thank you so much for your time!