Field Music History
Ed. Note: Inspired, clean, crisp and the ultimate authentic old school drum & bugle corps. That's all I could think of when I heard the U.S.M.A.'s Hellcats last Saturday night playing in the Old Guard's 50th Anniversary Tatto (yet to hit YouTube but available on the OG's website as Part 1 and Part 2).
So, I decided that the material on the Hellcats' website should be here for blog viewers to read.
For free recordings of The Hellcats (mp3), visit the website.
by MSG Donald Trefethen
DOUGLAS MACARTHUR, “I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.”
Since the earliest days of the American Revolution, commanders of the Continental militia realized the importance field musicians held in the order, morale and discipline of their troops. The practice of mustering a fifer and drummer into each company began with the earliest regiments of the Revolution and continued through the end of the Civil War. In camp, the sounds of the fife and drum regulated the daily activities of soldiers using a set series of daily duty calls. By commands of music, soldiers were notified when to wake, drill and eat, when to collect wood or water and when to go to bed at night. The drum served as the primary source of battlefield communication between an officer and his men on the field. Additionally, the steady beat of the drums together with the fifes kept soldier morale high by providing lively tunes on the march. The fife and drum predominated until after the Civil War, but bugles sounded signals in some units as early as Revolutionary times. Easily played with one hand, the bugle became the unofficial instrument of the cavalry. The bugle served an increasingly important role later in the 1800's as the introduction of rapid-fire weapons and larger caliber artillery made the drum a less effective instrument for signaling. Army field commanders grew more dependent on the bugle's bold brilliant sound to relay commands both in camp and over the din of battle.
The Hellcats field music group at West Point has a heritage that dates back to those Continental fifers and drummers. Their legend began early in the American Revolution, when elements of General Samuel Holden Parsons' brigade, including fifers and drummers, crossed the frozen Hudson River to establish the garrison of West Point in January of 1778. This field music connection gives the Military Academy Band the distinction of being the oldest active band in the U.S. Army and the oldest unit at West Point. Within a few years of those first few field musicians arriving at West Point, inspection records show there were literally hundreds of fifers and drummers on site. Following the Revolution, troops were mustered out and there remained “fifty-five men at West Point” including one fife and one drum.
With the establishment of the Academy in 1802 came an increased demand for military music. As the Academy grew, it needed fifers, drummers and buglers to drill the new cadets and provide an audible order to their duty day. Throughout the 1800's there seems to be an average of fifteen field musicians on site at any one time. “Drummer boys” were still being used in field music to play all the cadet calls until around 1880. Keyed bugles were the original brass band instruments and were introduced to the U.S. from Europe by West Point's bandmaster Richard Willis. The band's first bugler, Frederick Lewis, arrived in 1815 and served until 1821. By 1853, the Academy Band was using two assigned buglers to perform cadet calls. Complicating the matter, attached cavalry buglers (such as Louis Benz) were used for United States Corps of Cadet duty. This “Duty Bugler” position remained active until 1942 when it was eliminated and the company bugler duties were transferred to the Hellcats. The field music bugles do not appear to have been used in massed formations until perhaps WWI. By 1918, records show the field music instrumentation included fifes, drums and bugles with a strength of twenty-nine men. This basic configuration would remain the field music standard through the end of WWII. At the end of WWII, band strength was in a free fall as “end of war” discharges and a general reduction in force continued to remove personnel. By 1946 all that remained of the Hellcats was three drummers and two buglers. Field music support for reveille and meal formations was halted indefinitely and could not resume until 1949 when field music regained sufficient strength.
Through the 1950's and 60's, modern Hellcat techniques began to develop. As young men with new visions moved into leadership positions, the Hellcats took on a new look and sound. Captain Resta, the Commander of the USMA Band in 1953, asked a young Sergeant Richard Pelletier if he could turn the Hellcats into something special. The answer was “yes” and with matching drum parts penned by Sergeant Jack Pratt, Pelletier researched, compiled, wrote and arranged bugle tunes at a dizzying pace. With improved techniques, higher standards and a library of groundbreaking original arrangements, the group began transforming into what would become a truly distinctive “showcase unit.” By 1972, The Hellcats reached an all time high of sixty-one men and became a fully autonomous group consisting of bugles, drums, piccolos, tenor drums and a Scotch bass drum. The group now had its own drum major, NCOIC and three Section Leaders. A major reduction hit the USMA Band in 1974 and changed the Hellcats forever. Within a one-year span, field music was reduced to nine buglers and seven drummers and had completely lost its piccolo section. A second cut in 1993 brought the group to its current authorized strength of six bugles and four drums.
The importance of field musicians has waxed and waned with the ever changing needs and requirements of the U.S. Army. But today at West Point, their need is just as great as ever and the Hellcats proudly perform their duty as the last functioning field music group in the United States Army. It is still the mission of today’s Hellcats to provide daily musical support to the United States Corps of Cadets. In addition to sounding Reveille, Retreat and To The Color each day at the garrison flagpole, the Hellcats play for cadet drills, military reviews and parades. Each weekday they provide a diverse selection of lively tunes as the cadets march into the mess hall. The Cadets of West Point have a definite love/hate relationship with the field music group. It has been said, one winter night members of the cadet class of 1833 captured all the fifes and drums used for reveille, tied them to the halyard and ran them up the flagpole. Since early in the twentieth century, the West Point Cadets have affectionately referred to the field music group as “The Hellcats” because that is exactly what they sounded like at reveille. Many reunion classes request the Hellcats to perform for their class parties. Many old grads laugh and cheer, some wipe away tears and smile at that memorable sound from long ago. There is always one who relates how much the Hellcats were hated by the cadets back then, but how fondly they are remembered after a few years absence. Hellcat buglers and drummers also have the sad task of performing muffled drum rolls and Taps for West Point funerals. We are ever aware of General Daniel Butterfield's role in the writing of the bugle call Taps as he closely attends each sad ceremony with his presence in the West Point cemetery.
The field music drummers had been playing traditional rope tension drums at West Point since the Revolution. This continued unchanged until the late 1930s when rod tension drums first appeared in the band at West Point. Rope drums reappeared in 1965 as a new set were purchased from the Gretsch Drum Company for use on special occasions. The tradition of rope tension drums returned full time to West Point in 1990 when the Cooperman Fife and Drum Company produced a set of custom rope tension drums. These drums are used for parades and shows while the old Gretsch are still serving faithfully as the every-day work drums. Around 1933, the fifes were totally dropped due to pitch problems but were shortly replaced by piccolos that blended much better with the bugle. The standard army issue bugles became chrome plated in 1923 making them unique to West Point. From 1932 forward, custom chromed bugles with one valve in Bb/F became the new standard field music horn. Around 1946 new single valve Bb/F bugles designed by Vincent Bach were doing duty at West Point followed in the 1960s by a set of bugles produced by Donald E. Getzen. In 1998 the newest set of custom bugles made their debut at West Point. Mr. Clifford Blackburn of Blackburn Trumpets made improvements on the old design, creating new horns that play freely throughout the entire register, while retaining a dark, characteristic bugle sound. With this new line of custom-made instruments in their hands, the Hellcats continue the legacy of musical tradition at the Academy with an improved level of excellence.
Pride, intense esprit de corps and a sense of historical continuity inspire the distinguished service of today's Hellcats. With their precise marching, embellished by the twirls of silver bugles and intricate rudimental drumming, the group delights many thousands of spectators each year. The Hellcats function as a completely independent group with a full show package and are capable of adapting their production to any performance venue. In 1994, the Hellcats were honored to participate in the deactivation parade of the Allied Strike Force as it made its final departure from the city of Berlin. The Hellcats have been featured on every major television network morning show and they have been warmly received at military tattoos in Atlanta, Georgia and Hamilton, Ontario. In 2002 the group was invited by Skitch Henderson to perform in Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops Orchestra. The Hellcats also were requested by Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Orchestra to spice up the 1812 Overture in their Fourth of July celebration at the Hatch Shell.
The Hellcats of the twenty-first century are staffed by highly talented musicians, professionally trained and equipped with custom instruments designed and hand-made specifically for them. Today's Hellcats enable the United States Military Academy Band to maintain faithful renditions of traditional American military music and to daily provide the Corps of Cadets with a unique piece of living history.
“A bugler in the army is the luckiest of men; he wakes the boys at five and then goes back to bed again; He doesn't have to blow again until the afternoon; if every thing goes well with me I'll be a bugler soon.”
- Second Verse; Oh How I Hate To Get Up In the Morning. Irving Berlin 1918 -
Source: The Hellcats History