Tag Archives: fife

Greg Bacon and John Ciaglia Collaborating on Music Book for 2016


Back in nineteen-eighty-seven I went to the Westbrook Fife & Drum Muster where I bought my first fife and drum recording. It was a white cassette of the first Ancient Mariner album, which had been released seven years prior. It was one of the few Westbrook Musters where I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end. I desperately wanted to hear what was on that tape, and to do so required making the trek back home where my boom box sat waiting for me in my Massachusetts living room.

The tunes started to roll, White Cockade, Adams and York, and Sailors Hornpipe. I was immediately drawn in. I was then seduced by the singing of Ruben Ranzo and the seamless transition to Clapboard Hill. All of it great and exuberant, but also fully within the boundaries of what I had expected. I had, after all, been watching those barefooted bastions of sea music from the time I was a little boy and attending Sudbury Musters in the mid seventies. Just as side one was coming to a close, however, the boundaries of fifing as I understood them were breached.

Suddenly, from my crappy little speakers, came classical music fused with a complex matrix of fifes spinning around tunes that felt traditional, but not structured like other tunes I had learned. There were too many fifes for me to track and I went into a dizzy trance as the music moved from one tune to the next; a beautiful melodic waltz; a single fife sliding into a slip jig with the others soon in tow; tempo changes; jigs; reels; breaks; ornaments; teases; and something wild on the end that didn’t make any logical sense but seemed like the only way to end. I clawed for the liner notes, praying to God it wasn’t going to have some lame title like Sonata in D. It was… The Sea of Ale and the Dock Street Mermaid. Miraculous!

Hearing The Sea of Ale completely changed my relationship to music. After that I joined the Ancient Mariners. I started writing melodies. I signed up for a music theory class in my high school, even though I had never played in any school band, and the music teacher had no idea who I was. I would also sit for hours in front of a double cassette deck in my home, recording a melody onto one tape, then playing along to that recording while re-record both the playback and my playing onto the other tape. It was a poor mans way of overdubbing and multi-track recording. It sounded like shit. But I learned the basics of writing harmony and developed a lot critical listening skills.

I also discovered, through much of my own trial and error, that those beautiful harmonies on the Sea of Ale must have been created by someone with immense knowledge of classical music theory, and by someone that must have spent years honing the art of penning these beautiful contrapuntal settings. Writing harmony is freaking hard. You may be able to accidentally work your way into a single line harmony of passable merit, but writing something with four voices is akin to a tight rope walk over a canyon while juggling fire and whistling Dixie. The results would be disastrous for mere mortals.

I later learned the juggler and harmonic arranger of Sea of Ale is John Ciaglia. Through the years I got to know ‘Ciaglia’, as his friends call him. I marched in the Mariners with him, played in an occasional quartet, drank wine in the Kasbah, discussed music, and developed a true appreciation for his evolving art. Also, through all these years, I’ve continued to write new melodies.

Then, one day in early 2015, I got an email from Ciaglia out of the thin blue air. He had found a few tunes I had published years ago and wrote arrangements for them. Coincidentally I had just finished writing a new tune, so I sent that along and asked if he’d be interested in writing some parts for it as well. A few days later I received another email with a gorgeous arrangement of my plain little tune. From there a collaboration has ensued that has resulted in a hundred pages of quartets. A hundred pages!!! Me writing the melody, he writing the harmony.

For me it’s been a magical journey that started with first hearing the Sea of Ale, and now consumes me in a sea of writing. In the summer of 2016 we plan to publish these works. Until then, the writing continues and I offer to you this example that I received in my email today; a four voice arrangement of a melody that I wrote a few weeks ago called Cleopatra’s Needles.

I hope you can hear the enjoyment in what we are doing, and in turn find enjoyment in listening.

Si Bheag Si Mhor

Just before the holidays I decided it might be good to dust off the fife and begin working on some recordings. More dust had collected on it than I had anticipated.

For a warm up I decided to go back to basics. Something easy. Something I’d played a million times. Unfortunately dust doesn’t care about basics and, sadly, it took a while to get the lip back. This recording was from those first few days so be kind.
The tune is called Si Bheag Si Mhor, which roughly translated means “The little fairy hill and the big fairy hill”. It was penned by Turlough O’Carolan’s and is thought to be his first tune. It is said to be about a mythical battle between the fairy inhabitants of two neighboring hills in Co. Leitrim. Folklore surrounding the hills tells of ancient warriors whose mortal bodies lie entombed within the hills. From time to time these spirits revive their quarrel. Not something I’d like to happen upon during a dusky evening in Leitrim.
The arrangement is one that I put together back in the early nineties. It is in two voices. Since it is slow and sweet, my buddy Joe and I used to play it for the ladies. We referred to it as our wooing the women tune. I can’t say it ever worked. In fact, one evening, as we were trying to impress, these young ladies turned the tables by playing the arrangement for us. Embarrassing. I think that may have been the last time we ever tried to woo anyone with music.
Si Bheag Si Mhor by baconworks

Autumn Faire

Autumn Leaves
After posting last night about the Sudbury Colonial Faire, it dawned on me that I wrote a tune a number of years ago in homage to the fall festival. So, I spent the remainder of the evening dusting off the music and recording this trio entitled Autumn Faire.
Autumn Faire
The Sudbury Colonial Fair, often called the Sudbury Muster has been the muse for many composers including my friend Jason Malli. He wrote a tune called Wayside Moons, which we performed along with Autumn Faire in a fife solo five or six years ago. It was an interesting solo because the two tunes really have nothing in common aside from their inspiration.

Sudbury Colonial Faire

Every fall, as the air becomes crisp and the leaves begin to turn, there is a wonderful event that takes place on the grounds of the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
Colonial Sudbury
On the last Saturday of September the Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minute and the Sudbury Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companie host a colonial faire, which features twenty or so fife and drum groups from all over New England and beyond.
Sudbury Fife and Drum
This years line up includes such perennial favorites as the Middlesex County Volunteers, who have just returned from a month long trip to Scottland where they had the great honor of playing at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Beyond that, they play some of the pertiest fife and drum arrangements you’ll ever hear.
MCV at Edinburgh Castle
Additionally, all the way from Fort Myer, Virginia comes the United States 3rd Infantry, otherwise known as The Old Guard Fife & Drum. The Old Guard, being an official ceremonial unit for the President of the United States, has also played the wide world over. Imagine having this on your resume; They were asked, by Jackie Kennedy, to play at JFK’s Funeral Parade. You can see them in red at the bottom right of the picture below, which was published in Life Magazine. They are truly classy and put on a great show.
Old Guard at JFK Funeral

The Ancient Mariners, also recently returning from a European tour, will bring their own unique brand of fife and drum entertainment to the colonial faire, which takes place in what, many years ago, was a corn field across from the Wayside Inn.
Mariners and the Prisoner
Incidentally, many of the Ancient Mariners are actually Old Guard alumni and, in fact, there is one Mariner that has recently joined. I, myself, auditioned for the Old Guard in 1988 but was rejected on the grounds that I was too short. Basta’ds. A year later I joined the Ancient Mariners to receive my floggings…but I digress.

In any case, the faire really is a great day full of music, apple cider, riotous children’s games such as Soak the Bloke, and a variety of colonial vendors that sell everything from fifes to flapjacks.

Don’t miss it.

We Are the Mariners – Drummelhund

Augst Concert
Above is a nice picture of the Roman amphitheater in Augst, beautifully lit, while we were playing. The picture was taken from behind the stage at the top of a large set of stone steps. This amphitheater was the stage for a new fife solo that my buddy Joe and I had been working on. Below is the video of our performance in Augst.

We were slightly out of sync for the first couple of notes but other than that we were very happy with this performance. It was our very first time in front of a real audience with this piece. The day before we played it at our dress rehearsal in front of the Swiss Mariners for the first time. It was a complete disaster. We did not even finish the piece during the rehearsal. So, I guess it is fair to say that we went into this performance with a bit of apprehension. Just before playing for the crowd of twentyfivehundred people we looked at each other and said, “Ok, were back in Natick”.

Drummelhund in Switzerland

Back in 1992 I wrote a tune that I called Drummelhund. Drummelhund is a Swiss German word that derives from ‘trommel hund’, which literally translates to ‘drum hound’.
I first heard the word as a nickname that was given by our Swiss friends to an energetic American drummer named Todd Kennedy.

In preparation for our upcoming Swiss trip, I thought I would dust off the tune and give it some new life as a fife duet. I started writing variations that included hornpipes, jigs, Major, minor, inverted melodies, fermatas, Swiss staccato and culminating with the original reel, plus or minus a few notes. After a whole bunch of half-baked ideas and re-writes … Shabam! A medley.

My buddy, Joe Mawn, and I have stolen a couple of lunch hours in the hopes that it will all come together for our Swiss concert in August. So far things seem to be progressing nicely. I’ve even had a co-worker tell me that during his lunchtime jog around the neighborhood he was able to step in time as he heard us in the distance.

I hope to have a recorded version that I can post at some point. In addition, I plan on eventually posting the sheet music. Until then, here is the hokey computer generated rendition to give you an idea of what it is going to sound like. Unfortunately you don’t get to hear the fermata or the Swiss staccato or all the lovely ornamentation that ultimately grows onto a piece. You’ll just have to come to Switzerland to hear those details.

Screaming Wretch

In the mid 90’s I went to New York for the Millbrook Muster. After a lovely day of traditional fife and drum we imbibed a few cocktails and enjoyed each others company as we played tunes around the campsite. As the night covered us in stars our fifing had moved from the traditional jigs, reels and hornpipes into the more exploratory realm of what we called ‘Space’.

Space usually involved a half-dozen fifers playing, without any predefined structure or direction, in an attempt to spontaneously create atonal music. From the outside I suspect it was fairly offensive. But being in the center of it was intriguing. Like an ant colony, it initially appears unorganized, but after a bit of observation, a strange sense of organization emerges. Musicians would react to what the other musicians were doing and the Space would take on a musical dialog of its own. Without a map the participants would begin to gain an intuitive sense of where things were going like ants finding their way to food. Fascinating.

Well, the woman who was trying to sleep with her newborn a few tents over did not find Space to be nearly as interesting as we did and, with a fair amount of energy, she let us know. In an attempt to be considerate we put the fifes away and, instead, decided to continue our musical explorations through group humming. Ironically, this ‘Hum Jam’ attracted quite a crowd and before we knew it we had a dozen or more participants with as many onlookers. It was all very organic and quite exciting. But, once again, our lady-with-a-baby was unable to see the brilliance in the musical and communal phenomena that was unfolding before her. And with more energy than before, she leathered into us with an ear popping, shrill harangue that rivaled any atonal noise we could have possibly produced with fifes. She really killed the mood.

I went home, once the weekend was over, with a spiteful vengeance toward that screaming wretch who ruined our Space, which is ironic since I’m actually a reasonably nice guy. The next day, in a moment of catharsis I wrote this tune.

Screaming Wretch

In a nod to Space, I wanted to write a tune that sounded somewhat random and, originally, left the last note of the tune up for interpretation by the performer. My recording of Screaming Wretch, primarily on bouzouki and tenor banjo, is very incomplete as you will hear instruments drop the second time through. But, I wanted to post it because Plùc is looking for some new material and the best way to learn this tune is to listen to it…repeatedly. Also, you will notice, upon close inspection, that I am playing this slightly differently than how I originally wrote it. This is due to a combination of me softening a few spots, now that the years have soothed my aggravations, along with my fading memory of every accidental that I wrote in.

So, to the lady-with-a-baby: Thanks. This tune would have never been written without all your bitching. Second, I hope you can accept my belated apology for ruining your good nights sleep.
Screaming Wretch by baconworks

Photo Essay: April 19th

Every year, on April 19th, the Sudbury Militia and Minute Company and the the Sudbury Ancient Fife and Drum Corps marches from the old Sudbury center to the North Bridge in Concord, MA in honor of the colonist that took up arms on that day in 1775 against the most powerful army in the world. For me, April 19th was on par with Christmas for excitement. I loved the way everyone dressed. I loved the smell of the black powder from the muskets and, most of all, I loved the music. The melodies of the fifes were infectious and it became my instrument of choice. Since I only heard fife and drum few times a year I was, on the eve of the march, as restless as most kids are the day before Santa shows up.

The first tune I can recall as a child is called ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and has the distinction of being the the first tune played every year to start our walk to Concord. I have recorded my arrangement of this tune with three voices to go along with this post. I will get the written music posted as soon as I can.

Here is what the march looked like this year:

The Sounds of Freedom

How poetic is it that the first steps towards independence in America happened at a bridge? Standing on one bank the colonists were subjects to a distant king. Fighting their way across the bridge they took their first steps on the shores of freedom. The bridge I speak of is the North Bridge in Concord, MA.


On the morning of April 19th, 1775 men from Concord and many surrounding towns gathered on Punkatasset Hill to discuss the movement of British troops. Upon seeing a column of smoke rise from the town, and naturally assuming the Regulars were setting their homes ablaze, they “resolved to march to the middle of the town to defend their homes, or die in the attempt.”[1]

The common belief is that, led by the fifes and drums, the men marched towards the North Bridge, which arched the river between them and the good folk of Concord, to oppose the tyranny before them. What was running through their minds as the beat of the drums steadily marched them towards their great foe in red? The moment must have been surreal and the future so dizzyingly uncertain. It amazes me that, at the brink of certain conflict, music was played at all.

What they played on those fifes and drums, as well as the story in general, is the subject of some debate. The surviving tradition, historically correct or not, is to play The White Cockade, which was a “traditional Scottish tune that celebrated the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to reclaim the throne of Britain for the House of Stuart.” [2] If the story is true, playing the White Cockade represents a “bold taunt of defiance” according to historian D. Michael Ryan.

The fact is, it is not really clear if they played the White Cockade or any tune. There was no mention of the tune being played on that day until 1835. A hundred years after the battle the story was further promoted with a well known article from Harper’s new Monthly Magazine called The Concord Fight.

Regardless of the historical details it is, nevertheless, moving to hear the drums and fifes slicing through the fresh April air every spring on the morning of the 19th as they march down the dusty road towards freedom playing The White Cockade.