It ain’t the blaring cornets,
Nor the fussy old bassoon
(Though of course I’m always willin’
To admit they helps the toon.)
Nor yet it ain’t the piccolo what makes your heart go thumpin’
Nor yet it ain’t the croonin’ flutes what sets your pules a jumpin’:-
It’s the drums!
It’s the drums what makes the band
(Dean in Quickstep, 1921)
When reading and researching material related to old bands, it would be fair to say most of it relates to brass playing musicians in bands. Of which some have been explored in previous posts on this blog. However, what of the other musicians in the band, the percussionists and the instruments that they used? It was a matter of how many mentions could be found. To adapt an analogy; stories on brass bands are haystacks, stories on band percussionists are definitely needles.
It is very rare to find a photo of an old brass band that does not have the drums of the band featured prominently in the formation. The photo above of the Concord Citizens’ Band from 1928 shows as much with the drums “posed” and the band crest visible on the bass drum. The photo was picked at random. The information it conveys is very typical of band photos in general (especially in the early years). Photos aside, the sound of a band on parade, then and now, is very much defined by the beat of a bass drum and the patterns of a snare. Mr Dean in his little ditty above alludes to this!
This post will examine three aspects of percussion in early Australian brass bands starting with some writing on percussion in general. There are some articles on the drums themselves which was interesting to find, and included is a story on one of the many famous band drummers. Admittedly there is a vested interest in this topic as I am a percussionist in a local brass band and a community concert band. This post is dedicated to all those musicians who have made the percussion section their home.
We can see from early photos that percussion in Australian brass bands was limited to a side drum or two, and a bass drum. This is no fault of the band; rather, it is the limit of the music that was written and what percussion was called for. Bands did not see fit to expand the percussion section until music called for those instruments and it is only in later years that the range of percussion in a band was expanded to include more orchestral percussion instruments.
It was interesting then to read various mentions of side drums and bass drums (and drummers) in relation to brass bands. The main source of commentary comes from adjudicator comments in band competitions. Thankfully, the newspapers of the day generally published full adjudicator comments so we can build a picture of their thinking. Drums had a role to play in band music and some adjudicators comments were specifically directed to that role.
This being said, the number of comments on the drums varied. Some adjudicators made a point of mentioning the drums in every section, others were more reserved and only mentioned them when they felt they needed to mention them. One example of a reserved comment comes from the adjudicator of the 1928 Queensland Brass Band Championship Contests which was held over Easter in Townsville. The article in the Townsville Daily Bulletin summarised the comments, but buried in this we find a succinct mention about the drums of the Brisbane Federal Band when performing their A Grade Oval March, “Red Gauntlett”:
The winning band, Brisbane Federal, made a fine, smart opening, cornets and drums being good. (“THE BAND CONTEST.,” 1928)
That’s basically all that was said about the drums, which is perhaps understandable. If the adjudicator felt there was something notable, he probably would have said so.
As a complete contrast, we have the comments from Captain Harry Shugg at the 1936 Renmark Centenary Bands Contests where he gave a remark on the drums for every band. And even when a band was unfortunate enough not to have a side drum like the Loxton Brass Band as these excerpts from the comments show:
(Selection): Tempo di Marcia: No side drum. Third cornet does not balance. Side drum much missed.
(Quickstep): MUSIC – “Victoria”. No side drum.
(“Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comment,” 1936, p. 4)
The selection that all bands played was “Songs of Homeland”.
For the most part, Capt. Shugg was firm, but encouraging to all bands as it was a D Grade contest, and this included remarks on the drumming. For the seven bands that competed, of which came from the towns of Renmark, Moonta, Loxton, Nuriootpa, Waikerie, Mildura and Berri, all of them received some comment on the drums, especially in the Quickstep sections. Capt. Shugg knew that drums help set the mood of the march so phrases like, “Good beat off by drums” and “Good drums; band begins with smart and crisp style” (“Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comment,” 1936) were given to two of the bands. However, if something was very wrong, Capt. Shugg made a mention of it, of which the Berri Brass Band found out in their playing of the march “The Australasian”,
Poor toned bass drum. Tone of the band a little noisy, cornet’s in particular; side drum much too heavy in P. passages; does not vary tone at all (“Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comment,” 1936, p. 4)
Harry Shugg was a perfectionist, he was conductor of the Malvern Tramways Band at the time!
Perhaps the most interesting comments on drums in bands came from a Mr R. S. Kitson who adjudicated the 1933 Adelaide Royal Show Contest. On a night that was notable for the pouring rain which affected many performances, a comment was made on the use of the bass drum in one of the sections:
Referring to the use of drums in operatic selections, Mr. Kitson said, “The use of the bass drum in operatic selections, especially in ‘lento’ passages, and on such a night, is not advisable. Brass band arrangements are principally made from orchestral scores, and the kettle drum part is allotted to the bass drum in brass bands. The bass drum cannot be tuned as a kettle drum, and therefore, except in martial movements, is quite of place. (Allegro, 1933)
Then we have the writing of Cecil Clarence Mullen, of whom his work was reviewed in a previous post. In a section of his booklet, Mullen’s Bandsmen of South Street (1900-1951) he took aim at bandmasters for not training their bass drummers properly (Mullen, 1951). We know from the analysis of his work that Mullen was opinionated and a commentator. In summary, Mullen was of the opinion that some bass drummers did not know how to read their parts properly, that some conductors did not teach the drum parts properly (or did not care enough), and that some bass drummers used “two sticks on the march” (Mullen, 1951, p. 8) – that is a questionable opinion!
It was not just bandmasters that drew the ire of Mullen, he had criticism for adjudicators as well,
Adjudicators are also open to criticism in not pointing out these faults to bands when doing the quickstep. The average judge is quick to rush in with his “Out of tune at bar 20” but how many band judges have we known who have written in their notes that “Bass drummer is not playing his part correctly”. (Mullen, 1951, p. 8)
The opinions of Mullen aside, we can see that the playing of drums was noted in aspects of competition, and performances in general. To finish this section, here is an excerpt from the first paragraph of a 1914 article published by the Cootamundra Herald regarding the newly formed Stockinbingal Brass Band:
The music loving people of Stockinbingal decided that an up-to-date and progressive town like theirs should not be without its town band; and last Sunday morning late slumberous were aroused by the blast and blare of brass to the accompaniment of the thunderous boom of a drum. (“STOCKINBINGAL BRASS BAND,” 1914)
The drums are always noted on these occasions!
Regarding the instruments themselves, they were a source of pride to a band, and also triggered memories as well. Often featuring prominently in photos, the drums were sometimes centred, sometimes at the side, sometimes used as a table for trophies. And it is easy enough to spot the drummers of the band as they would be holding their sticks (and not holding brass instruments!).
Above is a picture of the Kew City Band taken in approximately 1915 when the band was on tour to Northern Tasmania. While the band is not sitting down in a formation, they have made an effort to place their bass drum and side drum. The band crest is clearly visible on the bass drum where, despite the photo being in black and white, there is a clear distinction in some of the colours. Fortunately, in a very rare newspaper article from 1910, there is a full description of how the bass drum was painted and what colours were originally used.
The amplification of the arms of the borough of Kew on the shell of the band’s bass drum is an artistic painting from the brush of a local artist Mr. W. D. Wentworth. […] Two blues have, for many years, been the sporting colours of Kew and royal blue was accordingly adopted as the grounding colour, with linings of light blue. The arms of the borough of Kew consist of a shield containing six wheat sheaves, and surrounded by the royal arms. In a scroll at the bottom of the shield is contained the motto of the municipality, “Cresco”. The body of the shield is in light blue, with gold outline, artistically shaded, and the artistic representation of the golden corn is richly effective. The artists has discarded any assistance from transfers, and the whole production, with the royal arms in minutest detail, are in brushwork. Notwithstanding that winter time is, as a rule, a dull period with bands, the Kew organisation keeps in symphony with the borough motto, ‘To Grow’. (“Kew Brass Band.,” 1910)
This was a very detailed description and there is much to suggest that the bass drum in the picture is the same one that is described here. The band would have been very proud to parade with this drum.
Not all music involved drums and we can find examples where drummers displayed not only a talent for playing their instruments but also making them. In 1914, the drummer of the Australian Light Horse Band, a Mr E. Fowler, constructed his own set of tubular bells out of “brass piping cut to various lengths, suspended within an oak encasement, and tuned to concert pitch” (“A DRUMMER’S INGENUITY,” 1914). The article displayed below from the Goulburn Evening Penny Post also tells us how the said drummer practises on his instrument and that it will be “a most useful addition to the band’s equipment” (“A DRUMMER’S INGENUITY,” 1914).
We know that bands come and go over the years and in 1937 it was the discovery of the old side drum of the Diamond Creek Brass Band at the local school that triggered some memories.
Memories of the times when Diamond Creek echoed to the lilting strains of its own uniformed brass band marching along the streets were revived this week when it became known that the original side-drum of many years ago is now being used at the school.
For years, the drum and a ‘cello have lain in dust at the school. Other instruments are to be found stacked away in the hall. The school committee had a new skin fitted to the drum. (“DIAMOND CREEK BRASS BAND,” 1937)
Drums and percussion are like many instruments, they provide meaning to organisations and people – they become a part of the musical family. It is fortunate that we have these windows on the details and memories of these instruments here.
He could become personal, although never malicious. To a drummer: “I love every hair on your bald head, but when I say roll on the drums — roll!!! (Cleve Martin detailing the words of Major Adkins to a drummer of the A.B.C. Military Band during rehearsal in “STARS OF THE RADIO,” 1941)
There were many individual drummers who were recognized over the early years for their talent and as such, took up regular engagements with brass bands. This section will highlight one of these drummers who was renowned throughout Victoria at the time, and also show where drummers were similarly recognized. To end this section will be some lists reproduced from Mullen’s booklet listing famous side and bass drummers.
When researching for this post, there was a drummer who kept standing out, Harold Brassey Allen (“A Famous Drummer Boy,” 1912; Quickstep, 1921). In his later years, he was famous enough to be written about in one of the weekly Herald columns penned by the colloquial, ‘Quickstep’. In summary, Brassey Allen was recognized for his talent very early in his musical career. In the picture here we see him in his early years, dressed in full Scottish regalia, with side drum. Brassey was no ordinary drummer and displayed a versatility that saw him perform with pipe bands, drum & fife bands, and brass bands (Quickstep, 1921).
Brassey had already been playing side drum for a number of years with the Armadale State School Cadet unit when he joined the South Melbourne District Band in 1910 (Quickstep, 1921). Upon leaving the South Melbourne District Band a few years later, he joined the Prahran City Band under Mr E. T. Code and five years later joined the Malvern Tramways Band of which his talent was brought to the fore through his xylophone solos and drumming (Quickstep, 1921). He was also recognized early at the South Street contests for his talent, winning his first prizes at the age of 13 although South Street never had any formal competitions for drummers. Brassey, and his brothers, were all superb musicians Brassey and his brother Arthur are listed in the Mullen pages below (Mullen, 1951; Quickstep, 1921).
Drummers were recognized for other reasons as we see in this bold move, for 1941, the Warracknabeal Brass Band admitted two female side-drummers into the band, Misses Bette Clark and Margaret Vaughan (“WOMEN DRUMMERS IN WARRACKNABEAL BAND.,” 1941). As we can see, The Horsham Times certainly gave the information in the headline, but most of the article was not about their ability as drummers. Rather, it was about the fundraising for their uniforms and what kinds of uniforms they were going to wear! No doubt the inclusion of two female side-drummers in a rural brass band was due to the Second World War which was raging at the time.
Below are Mullen’s lists of famous side-drummers and bass drummers who have appeared with bands competing at the South Street competitions. Given that Mullen’s lists only go to 1951, there were likely to be several more famous drummers after this time. However, once again we can thank Mullen for his effort in compiling these lists of names.
The early bands clearly valued their drummers and drums and people took notice of them. We have seen how bands were marked up or down for the quality of the drumming in their playing, and where bandmasters were criticised for not teaching their drummers the correct parts. We have seen where the instruments themselves had meaning to bands and also where the drummers developed their own substantial reputations.
The percussion section of a band is always a special place to be and no doubt the early drummers thrived in the band environments. We say thank you to these drummers for their work which set the scene for future percussionists in community bands.
Allegro. (1933, 21 September). BANDS AND BANDSMEN : Show Contest Marred by Heavy Rain. Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47003081
THE BAND CONTEST : Adjudicator’s Comments. (1928, 11 April). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), p. 11. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article61026813
Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comments : COMPLIMENTARY REFERENCES TO PLAYING THROUGHOUT : Decidedly High for D Grade, Says Capt. Shugg. (1936, 29 October). Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record (Renmark, SA : 1913 – 1942), pp. 4-5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article109291574
Concord Citizens’ Band. (1928). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia [Photograph]. Retreived from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vinbbp/phot16030.jpg
DIAMOND CREEK BRASS BAND : School Drum Revives Memories. (1937, 12 November). Advertiser (Hurstbridge, Vic. : 1922 – 1939), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56846146
A DRUMMER’S INGENUITY. (1914, 14 February). Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 – 1940), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98833598
A Famous Drummer Boy—Master Harold Brassey Allen. (1912, 14 December). Malvern Standard (Vic. : 1906 – 1931), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66391732
Kew Brass Band. (1910, 22 July). Reporter (Box Hill, Vic. : 1889 – 1925), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article89698715
Mullen, C. C. (1951). Mullen’s Bandsmen of South Street (1900-1951). Melbourne, Vic.: Horticultural Press.
Osborne, B. (1915?). Kew Band. Victorian Collections : Kew Historical Society Inc. [Photograph mounted on card of the Kew Band while on tour in Tasmania]. Retreived from https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/58269a46d0cdd11284b9d7ac
Quickstep. (1921, 17 September). BANDSMEN’S GOSSIP : The Art of Drumming. Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242423372
STARS OF THE RADIO : Founder of the National Military Band : Picturesque Major Adkins. (1941, 27 November). Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 – 1953), p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64402540
STOCKINBINGAL BRASS BAND. (1914, 09 January). Cootamundra Herald (NSW : 1877 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article139522962
WOMEN DRUMMERS IN WARRACKNABEAL BAND. (1941, 18 February). Horsham Times (Vic. : 1882 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72689341