Turn Off the Taps and Turn Up the Music

Echo underway, posted Friday, July 16, 2010

This weekend, the Deep River Ancient Muster carries on a local tradition dating to the 1870s. Scores of fife and drum corps will parade Main Street and perform at Devitt’s Field.

Fifers and drummers were necessary to the good order of armies, and the Continental Army took care to care of its musicians—including pay at the same rate as privates. Attached to regiments, these soldiers signaled commands on the battlefield and in camp, as well as provided the cadence for disciplined marching. Yet these musicians needed to practice, and to avoid troops’ confusion in what they heard, General George Washington ordered in 1777 that “stated hours are to be assigned, for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them, and practice.” Washington thought all the troops benefited from these concerts: “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music.”

The many thousands who have attended the Deep River festivities know this well. This is but one of the many revered Connecticut traditions the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online will document. The Ancient Muster is also listed with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center as a Connecticut Local Legacy.

The Ancient Muster begins on Friday with a Tattoo* at 7 p.m.

*Tattoo? This word is derived in the seventeenth century from tap toe, which in turn was derived from the Dutch doe den tap toe—“close or turn off the tap.” Tavern-keepers were to turn off their taps when the drums sounded, calling soldiers back to their billets or tents. Deep River’s modern tavern-keepers are under no obligation to heed the ancient meaning of the Tattoo. Or are they?