This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Three Drum Majors

14 May 2021

It was a drum major! Hurrah
A drum major—no base imitation; a real drum major,
a drum major with a bearskin two feet high;
with a great red plume waving away above that altitude;
a drum major with a gold tipped baton,
a drum major with a gorgeous costume,



A drum major who could walk backward
as gracefully as he could forward,
a drum major with a commanding eye,
whose glare told the band and the small boys
he would stand no nonsense; a drum major who could juggle
with his baton as he sped along.
That was the kind of drum major he was.

He carried his head high and strutted along
with an I–am–the–whole–procession air,
for he knew that heaven had bestowed upon him
the greatest opportunity to exhibit himself
which had ever fallen to the lot of any drum major
since evolution had raised the human race to that
pinnacle of perfection necessary for
the producing of drum majors.

Oh, how he stalked in lonely lordliness and
how he swung his baton as he passed the Governor's stand
with his band filling the air with triumphant melody.
No such drum major was ever seen before
and the world can have no hope that his like will ever appear again.
This was an excerpt from a newspaper account about a parade
in New York City honoring then-Governor Grover Cleveland,
as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 2 November 1884.

Once upon a time a parade was a common event in the life of a city. Political rallies, religious processions, and other civic celebrations often called for a parade through the city streets leading toward some kind of public spectacle. Of course any parade required a band to play music, and every band needed someone to lead it in the marching. This important duty was the responsibility of a band's drum major.
In November 1884, New York City hosted one of the greatest political parades of the 19th century for its state's governor, Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Party's candidate for President of the United States. The reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, who was clearly carried away by his enthusiasm for the occasion, began his article with a wonderfully poetic description of the drum major who led the parade's start. He was the unnamed leader of Patrick Gilmore's famous military band and the drum corps of the Twenty-second Regiment of the New York state guard. 
The reporter estimated that "It took these people three and a half hours, marching swiftly, to pass the reviewing stand sixteen abreast. There were fully 75,000 people (more likely 35,000) in the line and every one was a voter. It was the finest procession ever given in honor of a Presidential candidate in New York, and the 500,000 people who lined the streets on which they marched were right in applauding it to the echo, as they did." Every group of Cleveland supporters in the parade was led by a band. There must have been hundreds of drum majors marching that day

Grover Cleveland went on to win the Presidency in 1884, the first Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856. Though Cleveland carried enough states to win the Electoral College votes, his Republican opponent, James G. Blaine of Maine, despite numerous scandals of corruption, still did well in the popular vote. Of the total ballots cast, Blaine narrowly lost with 48.28% to Cleveland's 48.85%.
In the election of 1888, the tables were reversed and Benjamin Harrison, a former Senator from Indiana, defeated Cleveland, with 20 states going Republican to 18 Democratic. But again the popular vote margin was narrow, 48.6% to 47.8%. Four years later, Grover Cleveland returned to the political stage and won the next election in a three-way contest against the incumbent Benjamin Harrison, and James B. Weaver of the Populist Party, becoming the first, and only, U. S. President to serve two non-consecutive terms.
President Cleveland saw a lot of drum majors in his career. Not all of them in a parade either.
"Pioneer Cleveland"
26 August 1896, Puck magazine
by Louis Dalrymple (1866–1905)

This political cartoon was published in August 1896 and shows Cleveland  holding an axe labeled "Political Wisdom", in a forest where he has been cutting trees labeled "Gold Standard". Approaching from the left is a procession led by Mark A. Hanna, as drum major, followed by William McKinley, Garret A. Hobart, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas B. Reed, George F. Hoar, John Sherman, Henry Cabot Lodge, and others. One man carries a banner that states "The Republican Party is unreservedly for Sound Money - the existing Gold Standard must be preserved. Rep. Platform."
The illustration of a drum major in tall bearskin hat and colorful uniform was a powerful symbol in America because the public understood a drum major's charismatic power to lead people. Today I present three vintage photo portraits of drum majors.

The first drum major is a very young man, a boy really, about age 13-14 or perhaps a bit older, but not by much. He is dressed in a simple white uniform with short sailor's jacket and knee breeches. His hat is a kind of brimless cadet's cap. Attached to his jacket are the swallow's nest shoulder wings of a military bandsman. The point on his mace has a very fine insignia with the letter S. The card has some bad abrasion but it isn't the reason for his  missing left hand. It is merely hidden, bent behind his hip.

The photographer was Heinrich Veldmann of Kiel, Germany at Holtenauerstr. 32. This style of this carte de visite dates to the 1890s, I think, but it could be from later, perhaps even  the 1900s. Kiel is a major port city on the Baltic Sea in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It was the home of the Imperial German Naval Fleet and I believe this lad was a drum major for a German navy band. 
The faded backdrop behind the young drum major looks like a body of water with a wooden bridge beyond. It's possible that it depicts the great Kiel Canal which connect the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. Construction of this 61 mile freshwater canal transiting from Brunsbüttel to Holtenau was begun in 1887 and officially opened on 20 June 1895 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Undoubtedly there were many big parades for that event. 
And though this boy was German, it's not impossible that he might have been in the parade for Governor Cleveland, as there were many communities of German immigrants in New York who supported the governor.


* * *

My second drum major portrait show a more senior gentleman with a stern military gaze. I would say he is in his late 30s or 40s. Maybe 50s? He wears a mid-length uniform coat fastened with 18 shiny buttons and tied with a sash belt, and a French-style kepi hat which has a star-shaped badge. The stripe on his trouser leg is a feature of military-style bands. One of my theories on men's hair fashions is that his mustache/mutton chops combo with a clean-shaven chin is a sign of a military veteran. 

This cabinet card photograph was taken by W. C. Davis of Waterloo, New York. In the 1900 census, Whitney C. Davis, age 38, was living with his wife Francena S. Davis on the farm of his in-laws, James and Libbie Sutherland. At that time Whitney C. Davis listed his occupation as Photographer, Retired. In the 1894-95 business directory for Seneca County, located in New York's picturesque Finger Lake region, W. C. Davis was listed under Photographers and Bicycle Dealers. So I would estimate this drum major posed for his picture in about 1895-99.

* * *

My third photo of a drum major is a prize winner. This fellow has a splendid uniform with a long coat that gleams from its rows of brass buttons and gold thread embroidery. We can almost see the photographer's camera in the reflection on his mace's dome head. But the real glory is in his tall British-style custodian hat with its horsehair plume. It's a magnificent portrait only marred by the young man's accidental resemblance to Don Knotts, the actor who played Mayberry's celebrated deputy sheriff, Barney Fife. 
On his cap's badge and his belt buckle is an American eagle which are symbols that would only be on a true military bandsman's uniform. So I believe he is a leader of a regimental band for a state guard. This is a photo that deserves to be colorized but I can't make up my mind for the coat's color. Scarlet red or Prussian blue?

His cabinet photo was taken by Henry Ehm of 708-710 Broadway in Brooklyn, N. Y., Duplicates can be had at any time. The backstamp on the card is in a rare landscape format and shows a classical Grecian trio of young woman, youth, and cupid admiring a large portrait. Beside them is a camera and artist's palette board. According to, a useful list of 19th and early 20th century photographers, Henry Ehm operated a studio in Brooklyn from 1889 to 1912, and was at this address from about 1890 until 1910. The drum major's hat was a popular dress uniform fashion for bands and soldiers in the 1890s. 


It was this drum major's location in Brooklyn that sent me searching for "drum major" references in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. There were thousands of them in the decades before WW1. The report on campaign parade for Grover Cleveland was just the best of several detailed descriptions of how drum majors captured the attention of the public. It was an era when every ceremonial part of civic life included parades and march music. The drum major's position at the front of a parade served more to command the eyes of the spectators than of just his band. His directions controlled the speed of the marching step cadence and the timing of any special drill instructions. Tossing or twirling the drum major's mace was a display of juggling but it was also a mark of skillful art to generate impressive awe from an audience. 
The roll of a drum major still continues in modern military bands, though the need for parade marching has greatly diminished. Many modern high school and collegiate marching bands often have multiple drum majors who assist in presenting extravagant halftime shows. I think those over-the-top forms distract from the old traditions represented in these three portraits of anonymous drum majors. But who knows, maybe Grover Cleveland would have enjoyed seeing his Brooklyn drum major do a strut and spin.

* * *
I found several videos on YouTube
that demonstrated the best qualities of a drum major.
Here is a short video from Nigeria
showing off the drum majors of the FCT Council Boys' Brigade Band
at a 2017 music event  held at Kwali, Nigeria.
The band's playing is rough and unpolished
but the spirit of the drum majors
is inspiring to see.
Extra points if you recognize the march tune.

The tune was "Marching Through Georgia" (sometimes spelled as "Marching Thru' Georgia" or "Marching Thro Georgia"), a marching song written by Henry Clay Work at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. The title and lyrics of the song refer to the Union Army's General William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea" to capture the Confederate city of Savannah, Georgia in late 1864.

Here is a video of the Flying V Drum-Majors
from the Canadian Armed Forces Music School in Borden, Ontario.
There is no music, but instead we get to see how military drum majors
practice their movements and commands.



And this last video was also filmed in Borden, Ontario
on the same day in August 2016, I think.
Here Mcpl Brook practices his Drum-Major Routine.
There may be no music but this drum major
can hear the march tune clearly in his head.




This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where only the Shadow knows all the secrets.


La Nightingail said...

Your posts are always so enjoyable - especially this one with the videos. Why did you call the 3rd video drum major "crazy"? He's very talented! I used to twirl a baton - not in front of a band, but just for fun. I was fairly good at it. I did give myself a couple of black eyes with the darned thing, though. :)

kathy said...

The drum majors in the video from Nigeria were clearly the stars that day, especially the young man leading the other drum majors. And the military man in the last video was quite talented. I wonder what song he was hearing in his head. Thank you for another enjoyable post!
Oh - Barney Fife! I had not thought of him when I first saw the photo, but I knew it reminded me of someone. Those things (sorry, I don't have your vocabulary! lol) hanging off his shoulders only emphasized his slender stature.

Susan said...

I love these uniforms and the cartoon at the bottom of the post.

Wendy said...

Don Knotts! HA HA - I'm still laughing at that.
Some video came up on Facebook showing a HUGE college band performing a rather long and intricate program. It had multiple drum majors. It seems like a magic trick. How do musicians keep the music in their head and move in the correct direction at the same time?

Molly's Canopy said...

That is a dandy hat in the last photo, but I very much like the backdrop in the second one. It took me a while to figure out what it was. All three are impressive examples of drum majors of their era -- and the videos amply illustrate the skill required for the task. Absolutely love the illustration of the portly drum major! A great find.


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