11 Dec 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: “Noisy Martial Music”

As residents of Capitol Hill, we have become used to strange sounds emanating from local military installations, whether the guns of Arlington Cemetery,  aircraft flyovers, or the sounds of the National Anthem in the morning. While these are usually greeted with a simple,“What was that?” there are also historical precedents that do not accept these as the usual life on the Hill.

In 1854, there was some complaint about the Marine Band and their habits. The Washington Evening Star, in their usual roundup of events at the Navy Yard, began with the simple note that a number of new houses were being built in the neighborhood. Then, they continued with the following:

We notice that the country round about is often favored with the presence of the drummer boys belonging to the Garrison, who go out at some distance off to practice their noisy martial music, which, although pleasant enough in its place, when an accompaniment with other instruments, is not so agreeable a concert alone. There were at least a dozen of them yesterday, from the big drum down to the smallest kettle drum, kicking up a regular tattoo.

The musicians in question were members of the Marine Band.Under the direction of Francis Scala, the band had begun its evolution from a small aggregation of woodwinds, brass, and a few drums, to a larger ensemble that would reach its epitome under John Philip Sousa. Why they had to leave the relatively large confines of the Marine Barracks (or “Garrison,” as it is called in the piece) and seek the open spaces of Capitol Hill (presumably near Pipetown), is uncertain.

As the article continued, it seemed that the anonymous author got closer to his real complaint about the music: its martial character.

We were forced to exclaim with the poet-

“I hate the drum’s discordant sound,
It speaks of war around, around,
it speaks of war around.”

This was misquotation of a John Scott of Armwell (pic) poem. An 18th Century Quaker and landscape gardener, Scott is today remembered almost solely for this work. The poem, entitled simply “The Drum,” catalogs all the miseries of war, which it attributes to the drum’s siren call to the “thoughtless youth,” who then join the military. The poem has been anthologized and set to music many times since it was written.

Scott’s poem, reprinted here in the November 30, 1811, edition of The Belfast Monthly Magazine. (Google Books)

In the final sentence, the author does try to find some good in the situation, allowing that

There were, however, a party of fifers out likewise, whose music somewhat mitigated the tattoo that the others kicked up.

These days we are thrilled when the Marine Band comes into our neighborhood, whether at the head of the 4th of July parade, or for John Philip Sousa’s birthday at Congressional Cemetery.


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