Here Comes the Old Guard

Old Guard at the White House. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Old Guard at the White House. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

 

By Digney Fignus

Since I was a kid growing up in Lexington I have always loved Patriot’s Day. It seemed like it was Lexington’s own special holiday, our first official spring celebration heralding the warmer weather to come. Long before it became a state-mandated “Monday” holiday, all the kids in the neighborhood looked forward to April 19th as a day off from school dedicated to parades and old-fashioned fun. It was something that made you proud to be from our little town that usually made the evening news for at least that one day every year. No matter what the weather, Patriot’s Day in Lexington has always been a great time for families to relax and reconnect with their neighbors after the long winter.

This year we’re getting an extra special treat to help Lexington celebrate Patriot’s Day. The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is coming to town! They will be easy to spot in Monday’s parade with their bright red regimental coats, white wigs, black tricorn hats, and period uniforms dating back to George Washington’s Continental Army. And in a double-dose of good fortune, lucky fans will also get an outdoor concert Saturday, April 19th at 12 noon. This is a must-see event for any fife and drum fanatic. Come early, because there is sure to be a crowd on the Battle Green for this special performance. The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps along with the US Army Drill Team, and the Commander in Chief’s Infantry Guard is a show not to be missed.

Stationed in Fort Meyer, Virginia, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is unique as the only unit of its kind in the armed forces. Part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, an official representative of the U.S. Army, the Corps averages 500 appearances a year and has performed for millions. They not only appear at all the official White House Arrival Ceremonies for visiting Heads of State, the Corps have been featured performers at every Presidential Inauguration since President Kennedy in 1961. Besides their official functions, the Old Guard has performed at NFL events, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, and the Tournament of Roses Parade — to mention only a few. In addition, they serve as good-will ambassadors and representatives of the United States Army overseas performing at international competitions, known as “tattoos,” everywhere from Australia to Panama.

The Old Guard is at the top rung in the Fife and Drum Corps world. Even though it is an ultra-exclusive group, I was surprised to find that anyone can audition for an open position. There are only 69 members in the Corps. Openings are few, so if you are lucky enough to be asked to Washington to audition for a spot, you’d better be good. The Corps uses 10-hole fifes, handmade rope-tensioned drums, and single-valve bugles which according to their website “bring to life the exciting sounds of the continental army.” Only the best musicians get a chance to audition. Although they are currently full-up, last year there were openings for a bass drum player, a fifer, and a bugler. So keep rehearsing, it’s a great gig if you can get it.

I had a chance to talk with Corps member, Staff Sergeant Heather Tribble, a fife player and eight-year veteran of the Old Guard. She is one of many men and women who join the army specifically to serve in the Old Guard. She reflected, “I was performing in a Fife and Drum Corps at the EPCOT Center in Florida. There were a lot of ex-military in the group, and I found out about the auditions from them.” If you pass the audition, only then do you need to commit to the army. After you go through normal basic training you have a guaranteed spot in the Old Guard. Unlike some jobs in the military that require a lot of moving around, people tend to stay put in the Old Guard. It affords the soldier-musicians and their families a little extra stability, a chance to develop long-term relationships, and an opportunity to put down some roots.

 

 

Old Guard at FDR Memorial. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Old Guard at FDR Memorial. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Being a musician myself, the more I talked with Sergeant Tribble the better the Corps sounded. I was tempted to start practicing my own big bass drum to see if maybe I could get an audition for one of those coveted open spots in the band. Unfortunately, I think the geezer-factor might kick in if I started competing with the rest of the mostly 18-year-olds in basic training. I wish I’d found out about this dream job sooner. Imagine, 500 guaranteed shows a year! All that, plus military benefits, and a steady paycheck? Obviously, I made a mistake when I decided to learn to play guitar instead of the fife.

The Fife and Drum Corps is a real family. A bass drummer with the unit, Sergeant Scott Danley sums it up, “The kids don’t just have a mom and dad, they get 60 aunts and uncles too.” Sergeant Danley, an eight-year veteran with the Corps, is a native of Alabama. He joined the Fife and Drum Corps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Scott had just finished his tour of duty with the Marines. He served from 2001 – 2005 playing the tenor drum in the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. He reminisces, “I had always thought the Fife and Drum Corps was a re-enactment group. But just before my enlistment was up with the Marines I attended a twilight tattoo on the ellipse by the White House in Washington. I saw those rope drums going to town. I’d never seen that style of drumming before.” Danley was so impressed with the musicianship of the performers that when he learned there was an opening for a bass drummer in the unit, he knew he had found his calling. He consulted with his wife and with her blessing sent a video audition tape to the selection committee, hoping to re-enlist with the Army Old Guard. To his disappointment he didn’t make it the first time.

After his enlistment was up in the Marines, the ex-soldier and his family returned to civilian life back home in Alabama. Things couldn’t have been worse. It was only a few months after Katrina, homeless refugees had flooded the area, and housing was nearly impossible to come by. The family was in a real quandary when Scott’s wife noticed that almost a year after Scott had been turned down, the army was still auditioning for the bass drum position. In Scott’s words, “My wife suggested I try to audition again and I told her ‘they don’t want me’ but she said I should give it another try. This time I got called to Washington to do a live audition.” On his second try he passed with flying colors. He laughs, “It’s funny because the first tape I recorded was in a big hall and the second tape I recorded in my living room!”

Last year, along with many other programs, the Old Guard was a victim of the government sequester. They were originally scheduled to perform during Lexington’s 300th Anniversary celebration. Unfortunately, because of the untimely budget limbo, they were not able to attend. Thankfully, this year they’re back and better than ever, and they’ll bring along some very special reinforcements. The Fife and Drum Corps is a real spectacle, colorful, precise, and extremely well-tuned. The 69 members of the Corps are usually deployed in marching groups of 21 soldier-musicians, a Drum Major, and support staff. This allows the Old Guard to perform at multiple locations and more than one show at a time. Look for the drum major as a quick way to tell the Old Guard from the other ceremonial Fife and Drum Corps marching in the Patriot’s Day Parade. He will be distinguished by his tall black leather hat covered in bear fur (a light-infantry cap), a white leather sash (called a baldric), and a long 18th century infantry officer’s weapon called an espontoon that he carries to issue silent commands to his marching Corps.

Old Guard at Pocono 500. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

Old Guard at Pocono 500. Courtesy of the Old Guard.

The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps perform a diverse repertoire of traditional field music. Drawn mostly from the 18th and 19th century, it includes familiar favorites like “Yankee Doodle,” and Fife and Drum Corps standards like, “Washington’s Artillery March,” the “Downfall of Paris,” and the “Duke of York’s March.” In addition, according to the official website, “performances include a breathtaking drum solo that is a real show of professional dexterity.” With just two opportunities to see them Patriot’s Day weekend, new converts and hard-core fans are sure to be left wanting more.

Along with the Fife and Drum Corps, the Commander in Chief’s Infantry Guard is also coming to Lexington’s Patriot’s Day weekend celebration. They are the infantry version of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. They dress in traditional Continental Army blue and generally accompany the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps as a support group for parade and pageantry performances. They will be marching in Monday’s parade as well as appearing at the Battle Green on Saturday. Created in 1784, the Infantry Guard is another part of the 3rd Army Infantry Regiment. They hold the distinction of being the oldest active infantry in the United States Army. It only seems fitting that they assemble on our Battle Green on April 19th to honor the hallowed ground where the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.

Besides the Fife and Drum Corps and the Infantry Guard, Saturday’s event on the Battle Green includes a special appearance of the US Army Drill Team. As official good-will ambassadors, the Army Drill Team puts on a spectacular show. They expertly perform choreographed routines with bayonet-tipped 1903 Springfield rifles. Tossing around the heavy rifles with death-defying precision, these highly trained specialists are guaranteed to wow the crowd with their daring and complex maneuvers. Balancing vintage weapons with razor-sharp steel blades is no easy task. Courage, dedication, coordination, and a dead-calm demeanor are all necessary requirements before being admitted to this talented group. It’s a tough competition for a spot in the squad. According to the Drill Team’s Mission Statement, “Soldiers are selected for this elite unit after six months of rigorous and competitive drill practice. Trim military bearing, strength, and dexterity are mandatory prerequisites for qualification to the Drill Team. For those selected for the team, the rigors of training never stop. To execute their complicated routines as close to perfection as possible, the team practices constantly.” The routines are far too dangerous to be done while marching so the Drill Team will only be performing Saturday at the Battle Green and will not march in Monday’s parade. Take my advice and mark your calendars for noon, April 19. You don’t want to miss this show.

The Corps fact sheet proclaims, “The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is America in retrospect – rekindling the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ in today’s Army.” So don your tricorn hat and take advantage of the opportunity to see this uniquely talented and entertaining group of the Army’s finest on Saturday and Monday during Patriot’s Day weekend.

 

Share this:

Warning: Unknown: open(/home/content/76/3361076/tmp/sess_gkoc6rkfenmmt88l3so085c5v2, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in Unknown on line 0

Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (files). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct () in Unknown on line 0