To be a drummer boy in the Civil War was one of the most dangerous positions in the regiment. Because it was his job to signal the troops to assemble, advance, or retreat, he was often targeted by the enemy. Every military commander understood: Kill the drummer and silence the drum and you will throw the opposing regiment into confusion and chaos.
Percussion Ensemble Director Dan Adams owns six authentic Civil War drums, half ceremonial, half showing the scars of battle. “Each has its distinct voice,” says Adams, “and produces a sound you cannot get from anything else.” Years after acquiring them, he still gets spine-tingling chills whenever they are played, especially together. “I don’t know a lot of other universities that use their historic drums in concert.”
He knows that many collectors of the rare and expensive Civil War drums preserve them by leaving them to sit unseen on a shelf. He takes a different approach. “These things need to talk, to be heard. No two sound exactly alike.” Like old sailing ships, the drums are constructed of whatever wood was available in the area at the time, mostly the maple and ash of the eastern hardwood forests.
The SPU Rope Drum Corps leads the processional of faculty and graduates at Ivy Cutting, plays for area Memorial Day commemorations, regales audiences at the Northwest Percussion Festival, and performs at two campus concerts in winter and spring.
It is the more advanced percussion students who are allowed the privilege of playing the Civil War drums, but still they receive a complete tutorial in how to keep the instruments tuned, their historical significance, and how to properly play and care for them. Adams, whose resonant voice bears a timbre not unlike the drums, smiles. “These drums instilled a sense of valor and patriotism in the soldiers of the Civil War. We treat the instruments with a lot of respect.”
Adams’ interest in the drums blossomed in his student days when he visited Civil War battlefields, bought a “pretty beat up” battle drum to restore, and “got the bug.” He has grown experienced in spotting fakes (“watch for makers labels on the inside of the drums”) and always keeps his eyes peeled for additions to his collection. And he thinks back to those little drummer boys, most too young to fight, who risked their lives to guide the troops.