On 14th October, we had the opportunity to speak with Rex Jamieson. In this interview, Rex shares his experience performing with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
What was your role with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps?
Of course, we’re on our feet marching all the time. We dress in the colonial style, white wigs and black three-cornered hats, just like the old colonists did. When marching down the street, the fifes will play a tune, then the bugles will play a tune, then the drummers will play a solo. Then the fifes will play again and so on. There’s a sequence of five tunes, and we had six sequences, so that’s 30 pieces of music. The fifes and bugles only had to learn 20 of them though, whilst the drummers have 30!
It takes longer to qualify as a drummer because you’ve got more music to memorise. We played drum solos that used Swiss style rudiments, which are much more difficult than the ones the Americans adopted. I kept asking my drum Sergeant “Why do we have to play these hard rudiments?”, and he replied; “Because we can”. We spent a lot more time practicing in front of mirrors to get all our stick heights and the angles just right.
What was your training period like?
One of the first things you do is your physical training, first thing in the morning, then shower up for the day. We’d spend the rest of the day rehearsing in individual groups – so fifes, bugles and drums separately. Then we would get together outside and start working on a show. The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps had different shows for different crowds, depending on there the crowd were – to your right, left, all around…we needed to perform facing the crowd no matter where they were.
How old were you when you joined?
I was 32 years old when I went into the army, which was quite a bit older than the other high school aged kids. So, I was a drummer for five years, so at 37 years old I was trying to keep up with 18-year olds drumming wise. I was doing alright, but I wanted to learn how to play fife, which they agreed to let me do. I was out for about six months while I was learning how to play the Fife, then played that in the corps for another 10 years.
What made you want to learn to play the fife?
Just broadening my musical horizons. When I was in Vietnam, I was a radio operator and I spent six hours at a time monitoring a radio network. You can only read so many new newspapers, so you’ve got to find a way to entertain yourself. Just outside the base I was on, a little Vietnamese place sold guitars, so I bought one for myself and borrowed a chord book from one of my buddies that was in the communications platoon with me. I sat there and taught myself to play guitar while I was in Vietnam. I even taught it to beginners when I got back to the States.
When I eventually finished college as a music major, it was in music education. I got my first teaching job in public school music because I knew three musicians in the Jacksonville, N.C. public school system. I sang in a Methodist Church choir (non-military) in Jacksonville with them, and after leaving the 2nd Marine Div. Band, I went back to college as a percussion major and got my teaching degree. When I finished, they asked me if I wanted a job down there (I was back in my home state of N.Y.), and I said “Sure!!”, sometimes, it DOES PAY as to who you know!
Did you prefer playing drums or fife in The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps?
I enjoyed them both very much. I enjoy almost anything musical!
Do you have any favourite tunes?
In the Marine band, you play a lot of marches. John Philip Sousa was big in this country, having written so many different marches. One that we played a lot was called Colonel Bogey. He came up with the idea for this piece while he was on the golf course – that’s why he called it that!
In the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, we played the music that was played in George Washington’s day. We played musical signals which told the soldier what to do – no walkie talkies in those days! Okay. You want everybody to gather for meals, you play this tune. If you want the soldiers to go to bed, you play this song.
Could you briefly explain the colour of your jackets, Rex?
George Washington decreed that his musicians would wear the exact opposite colours of the infantry. The infantry soldiers wear a blue coat with red trim on the sleeves and around the collars and so forth. He wanted his musicians to be exactly the opposite. So we wore the British red coats where the blue trim on the sleeves. We also had white nylon wigs made by a wig maker who spent a lot of time getting those curls just right. We always wore the colonials. Occasionally we would rehearse in our regular army uniform, but I was just for rehearsals.
Did you have an operational role at all?
No. Had there been a national emergency of some kind, or a war declared, then we might’ve actually have to had picked up our rifle and help out. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Where were you based exactly?
Fort Myer is right next to Arlington national cemetery. Ft. Myer is part of “The Military District of Washington” (MDW), along with Ft. McNair in the city of Wash., D.C., and Ft. Belvoir, which is about 10 south of the city in Va. A person can stand on the eastern side of Ft. Myer and look over the city of Washington, as it’s elevated above the Potomac River, which separates the city from the state of Virginia, it’s THAT CLOSE to the city! It’s probably one of the smallest forts in the U S Army – half a mile wide and a mile long! The Army Band is there as well as the third infantry unit. They had their own commanders, so sperate units in the same Fort.
Did you ever perform together?
Oh yes. We had two retirement ceremonies every month where the army band would be over on the left side of the formation, all the soldiers in the middle, and then the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps on the far right side. There’s a part in the ceremony where they say sound off. The army band starts and we both march out, to each other, then through each other. We’d each play half of the sound off. At the end of the ceremony, the band leads the march off and all the troops follow, with us at the very tail end. When we reach folks that we’re honouring, we go into what we call the troop step. It’s a very slow step where you take one step and point your toe, and then take another step and point your toe.
We performed at The White House where they had visiting Foreign Heads of State. We were the only Fife and Drum Corps, so did every single ceremony at the White House. The different military bands in Washington had to take turns, but we did every single one.
What’s it like playing at the White House?
You have to have secret clearance for White House duty, which most of the people in the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps managed to get. If someone was away for whatever reason, we’d have to take a marcher from another section, and they would just pretend to play, and march, just to fill the hole in the formation. We used to have five in the two rows of fifes, five in the two rows of bugles, three snare drummers and two bass drummers. I was a snare drummer.
Were you ever asked to cover or fill a hole in the formation?
No, I never was asked to.
So you can’t say you’ve mimed at the White House then?
No, and if you’re a fifer or a bugler, you can’t fake it on the snare drum!
Do you play the same repertoire for each Foreign Head of State?
Yes, except for the British prime minister! Yankee Doodle was a fun song we made up to ridicule the colonists – so we miss that one out when that visit happens.
Do you have any particular highlights from your time with the band?
The battleship USS North Carolina for WWII is anchored in the mouth of the river in Wilmington. Every Memorial Day in the spring, we would have to go down there and play a ceremony on the actual deck of the USS North Carolina. I thought that was particularly fun to do that job. One time we were there, Francine Neff who’d just been elected treasurer of the United States, was there at that ceremony. We were all breaking dollar bills out of our wallet and having her sign it personally. Later on, the bills came out that had her name on it. So I have one with her personal signature on it, and another that came out with her.
When I was in Marine Corps Band and the Army Fife and Drum Corps, we did a lot of recruiting. We would be taken to a local high school to do a marching show or play a concert. The local recruiter would step up to their microphones and says; “Well, boys and girls, it’s just as one of the many jobs that the United States army has for you!”. That was always fun doing those things, and of course the kids would come and ask us a myriad of questions.
…this blog will be continued on 20th November – keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!
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