Drum & Bugle Corps, a brief history of the concept


Historically, the bugle, or field trumpet, is the oldest non-percussive instrument known. It predates the concept of music and in its bugle form, like the crocodile ties to its dinosaur ancestors, is a pure functional representative of those first signaling devices. It is in the roles of bugles and drums as military signaling devices, roles they served from the advent of the first armies in the Middle East, until finally supplanted by the field radio in World War Two, that the first drum and bugle corps emerged.

Originally, the term Drum & Bugle Corps referred not to a performing ensemble, but to an administrative sub-division of military command structures that regulated the availability and operational practices of drummers and buglers detailed to support camp and battlefield command and control. When Sergeant C.G. Conn’s brass band was dissolved by the commanding officer of his Civil War Indiana Volunteer Infantry unit, an action taken because the band failed to practice or perform with any consistency or skill, a drum and bugle corps remained. It was essential to the functioning of any military unit to have skilled signaling personnel to effectively control the movements of the troops – but the corps did not perform together.

By the time of the First World War, brass bands were common in military units, and were logically intertwined with the drum & bugle corps administrative entities. The buglers and drummers did double duty musically, also serving as brass players and percussionists in the band. It is because most of the musicians available in a military unit were buglers that the brass band had first emerged instead of some other form of musical ensemble to serve the recreational and morale function.

The bugles of World War One were of two varieties. The first, used for battlefield command and control was made in a tight compact wrap and pitched in Bb – the higher pitch carrying better over the noise of battle conditions. Below left is an American field trumpet built to specification 1152 by JW York & Son in Grand Rapids. On the right, is it’s Austro-Hungarian opponent, built by Bohland & Fuchs.

For camp functions, a bugle more directly descended from those of the US Civil War, and the British military of the 17th century, was used. The specification for these is number 325, published in May of 1892, which replaced an 1879 specification for an F bugle with pitching crooks. The M1892, or “US Regulation” bugle as it came to be called, was for a G bugle, but with the ability to pull to F. The pure form of the specification can be seen in this H.N. White Boy Scout bugle from 1925 below.

Below is a period York hi-pitch G/F bugle, this being a less-than-to-spec M1892, but an actual WWI horn.

Bands at this time were privately funded by post communities and/or by the officers of the unit, and musical duties were simply a volunteer assignment in addition to a soldier’s regular tasks. In many units where the instrumentation available for forming a band was less than optimal, innovative buglers had been finding a way to effect an ensemble to perform for parade drills and other functions that began to approximate the drum and bugle corps ensemble concept.

In 1918, General Pershing restructured military music making the bands into concert ensembles with expanded instrumentation, and designating that musicians should thenceforth be professionals with no other duties. This effectively separated the drum and bugle corps from the military band, though an administrative music corps might command both. The need for drum & bugle corps ensembles in place of bands evaporated just as the concept had matured to the point of being viable as entertainment.

In other countries, such as Canada where the Second Armored Division Signals Regimental Band formed in Toronto in 1926, hybrids of bugle ensembles and bands, something derivative from the improvised military brass band, began to emerge. In the United States, it was the World War One veterans who really gave birth to the Corps movement through the American Legion, which held the first American Drum & Bugle Corps contest during it’s third annual convention in 1921 at Kansas City – perhaps inspiring the Canadians. Ensembles competing were made up of veterans, frequently those who had formed the corps of actual units during the war. An example of this among the first ensembles would be “The Boys of 76”, who were veterans of a Wisconsin National Guard Battery that had been formed before the war. By the 1930 convention in Boston, the number of ensembles competing had grown dramatically, although they were still made-up exclusively of veterans.

In 1937, the Legion introduced a “Junior” division for the children of “Senior” division members. The American Legion Auxiliary then began forming corps as well. The Legion competitions used non-valved bugles in different pitches. An example of one of these, from one of the most prolific suppliers to the early corps H.N. White’s King brand, is below. This is a rare C/D combination, by pull of the tuning slide.

Another King from this period is a Regulation wrap B flat bugle, this one a “Silvertone” with sterling bell.

The introduction of valved bugles into competition was actually quite early, though the official Legion competitions adopted a rule by the early 1930s that required the valve to be locked into only one key for competition. This essentially ensured that the competitions would continue the original non-valved tradition and the limited music options that correspond.

The first valved bugles are said to have appeared in the late 1920s. The story that has circulated since that time is that William F. Ludwig, one of the two brothers behind Ludwig & Ludwig percussion, which they sold to C.G. Conn, was the “inventor”. According to his son, while attending a ten year reunion of US forces in France, WF Ludwig saw a G-D valved bugle made by Arthur Chappell based on a Bersag horn from 1870s Italy. He brought the idea back with him and contracted Frank Holton & Co. to produce these and tenor pitched versions for Ludwig to sell with his drums out of his new firm named simply WFL. However, in addition to the 1870 lineage, the originality of Ludwig’s design is further challenged by the horn below. This G-D bugle, if the attribution to S.R. Leland and Son, which operated from 1839 to 1915, is correct, would indicate that such had been available in the United States before the war. The design is consistent with what was sold by Holton King and others during the Depression.

By the 1950s, the WWI veterans were aging, and the “Senior” division shrinking – even though corps competition and ensemble numbers continued to grow. The legion persisted in maintaining the narrow and limited standards of a pure military style corps performance, and as a result, many new organizations and competitions arose that allowed valved bugles, non-military components, and the freedom to innovate new forms and concepts of corps entertainment.

In 1963 in Scranton Pennsylvania, a group led by World War II veteran and former national vice-commander of the American Legion  Almo Sebastianelli came together to establish a new national organization, Drum Corps Associates (or DCA). This group sponsors competitions that include, but are not limited to traditional Legion forms. Ironically, Sebastianelli never played an instrument, and modestly assumed the role of a color guard judge in later years.

In 1971, a large number of dis-satisfied Legion corps directors met in Indianapolis and established a second alternative to the Legion, Drum Corps International (or DCI). Within 2 years, the American Legion ended the corps competitions begun in 1921 and ceded control over the future of the art to the two younger rival organizations. Within a few years, most post-sponsored corps lost their funding and disappeared.

With the demise of the Legion competition, the original corps format became extinct. The closest representative of that style that can still be seen today would be the Drum & Bugle Corps of the United States Marine Corps, stationed at Washington DC.  This ensemble does use valved bugles, with the current inventory being made by Kanstul in Anaheim California – Zigmant Kanstul having been involved in drum & bugle corps in California. The military drill, parade performance, and other aspects of ensemble playing and marching however still remain reasonably faithful to the traditional forms first created in the field and then adopted by the American Legion. One of the more unique elements associated with this ensemble is the unique variation in the wrap of a US Regulation G bugle adopted only by the Marines for this ensemble. An example of one of these made by Holton and used by the Marine D&BC in the 1960s is below.

Although the traditional drum & bugle corps is virtually non-existent today outside of a few historical and ceremonial ensembles, the broadening of definitions to include corps-style marching bands in some, and a much wider range of options within the bugle family in others, allowed competition participation numbers a decade ago to top 60,000 participants across all competitions.

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