In March of 2020 the fife and drum community lost George Carroll, arguably the most significant individual contributor to have shaped fife and drum in America today.
George Carroll is responsible for seminal research into historical fifing and drumming and founded both the US Army Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps and the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums. Enclosed in the tabs below please find an extensive biography of Mr. Carroll, tributes from Peter Emerick and Anne Simmons Thornton, several videos (including a 1985 PBS interview), and a library of photographs.
George Phillip Carroll 1932 to 2020
By William H. Casterline, Jr.
March 15, 2020
George Phillip Carroll was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a rich “Highlander” heritage included an abundance of parade and ceremonial music. At the age of 12, he joined the Canadian Sea Cadets as a bugler. He had wanted to play drums but he was too short so he was given a bugle. While performing as a bugler, he continued to practice drumming on a coffee can with a pair of chair rungs. He was able to obtain Gene Krupa’s book Science of Drumming, and V.F. Safranek’s Manual for Field Trumpet and Drum and practiced the rudiments out of those books. There were no drum teachers in his hometown, so he taught himself. After a year as a bugler, he switched to snare drum and at 15 he joined the Pictou Highlander Pipe Band. At 16 he joined the 22nd Reconnaissance Regiment Military Band in Windsor, Ontario, as a drummer. He also logged over 1000 hours of aircraft spotting during World War II while in his early teens.
In 1950, at age 17, and already an accomplished drummer, Carroll enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy. After basic training he attended the Canadian Navy School of Music in Victoria, British Columbia. After graduation he remained for a few months as an instructor and then he was transferred back to Nova Scotia where he played for numerous bands ashore and afloat. During this time, he became the youngest Petty Officer in the Canadian Navy. On one occasion, he played for a visit of then Princess Elizabeth of England. In 1953, Carroll received the Coronation Medal for organizing a drum corps of 16 drummers that was featured during a combined musical performance of Canadian Military massed bands, Army, Navy and Air Force, that played for Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation ceremony in Ottawa, although she did not attend. The Lieutenant Governor of Canada stood in as her proxy.
In 1955, after five years in the Canadian Navy, Carroll joined the Black Watch Military Band, where he served as Drum Sergeant. In 1957, the Black Watch Band was designated to be the official musical organization for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II. The Band was flown to Washington, D.C., to play before Queen Elizabeth in person. During that trip Carroll auditioned for The U.S. Army Band at Ft. Myer, Virginia, and he was immediately invited to join. In 1958, his enlistment in the Black Watch Band ended and Carroll enlisted in the U.S. Army as a percussionist in The U.S. Army Band, doing field, dance and concert work.
He also played in John F. Kennedy’s inauguration parade in 1961, playing his “eagle” field drum he had purchased from Charles “Buck” Soistman. While in The U.S. Army Band Carroll was a member of the Presidential Herald Trumpets and he played for such visiting heads of state as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and French President Charles De Gaulle. Recognizing that The Army Band needed a standard drum beat for funerals, Carroll utilized his research skills to furnish one, which was adopted as the standard by 1960. It was the “slow beat” that was heard around the world in the widely televised funeral for President Kennedy in 1963.
Carroll first became interested in the history of drumming when he was in the Canadian Navy. He recalls:
We were taught the lore of the British Navy, which was a lot... all the way back to Nelson. I was on a number of ships, including the HMCS Quebec, the HMCS Ontario and the HMCS Magnificent, an aircraft carrier.
I was on the Magnificent for a year and they tied us up for a three month radar refit in Portsmouth, England, right next to the HMS Victory, Nelson’s ship at the battle of Trafalgar. All that Navy lore opened my eyes to history and I started digging and researching where the drum traditions came from. It wasn’t fife traditions because the fife had gone away in Canada, so I started to research what a fife was and how it sounded, and what role it played, but I couldn’t find anything because all the fifers in Canada had died.
While I was still on the carrier, we visited Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and there was a little fife and drum corps from Norwood, Massachusetts, playing on the jetty as our ship came in. While on shore duty I also saw a colonial muster at Apponaug, Rhode Island. So that’s when I first got to hear fifes and it really grabbed my attention because it was a complete revelation to me on the American style of fifes and drums and, indeed, to have a country as modern as the U.S. to have such historic martial music.
While in The U.S. Army Band during 1958 and 1959, Carroll continued to research fifing and drumming, including trips to the Smithsonian Institution, National Archives and the Library of Congress. Carroll says, “I was amazed at the wealth of materials which were available on the subject, and the importance fifing and drumming played in the armies of the colonial period. Not only did they regulate army activities in the camps, such as the bugle does today, but they also had an important role to play in commands and maintaining morale on the battlefield as well.” He also began to confer with leaders in the fife and drum community, particularly those in Connecticut and its surrounding states, including Sanford “Gus” Moeller, Edward “Ed” Olsen and Soistman.
Finding, as have all researchers of colonial military music, that original colonial drum beatings were scarce and often written using unclear notations, Carroll used his research and knowledge of rudimental drumming to interpret the early notations and translate them into modern scores. Where original fife tunes did not have identifiable drum beatings, he composed authentic drum beatings for them.
In 1958, Colonial Williamsburg (CW) was creating a fife and drum corps to accompany the newly formed Colonial Williamsburg Militia. For years, CW had been making contacts with and obtaining assistance from fife and drum leaders in the “ancient” style including Olsen, the President of the New York Fife and Drum Association, who later would become recognized as the foremost historian on the development of traditional American fifing and drumming. The ancient style generally and broadly has been defined by authenticity of music, rudimental drumming, instruments, uniforms and drill for the colonial period and Revolutionary War, but also extending to the War of 1812 and thereafter.
To provide a demonstration of what a fife and drum corps could do, in 1958 CW invited the Lancraft Fife & Drum Corps, from North Haven, Connecticut, to perform during the spring “Prelude to Independence” celebration. The Lancraft corps was, and remains, one of the country’s premier fife and drum corps. CW had just created the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums (CWF&D), which consisted of two fifers and two drummers. Their first performance was on July 4, 1958.
The 1958 Lancraft performance was a great success and CW invited them back to perform at the 1959 Prelude to Independence ceremony.
In 1959 Carroll formed the Colonial Boys Fife and Drum Corps in Arlington, Virginia. The Potomac Field Music (Civil War era group) later broke away from the Continental Colonial fife and Drum Corps, and in the late 1960’s several CWF&D fifers and drummers would perform with Potomac Field Music.
In May of 1959 Carroll read about the scheduled performance of the Lancraft corps at CW. Carroll knew about the Lancraft corps. He said, “Lancraft is one of the oldest and best drum corps in the country. Their drumming was so accurate, that if you had a pistol and shot off one of the tips of the drumsticks, you'd get all of them because of their great placement.” Carroll traveled to Williamsburg as a spectator to see them play. Soon after his visit to Williamsburg, Carroll contacted William D. (“Bill”) Geiger, the Director of the Colonial Williamsburg Craft Shops. Geiger was a military historian and the supervisor of the CW Militia and founder of the CWF&D. Geiger invited Carroll to Williamsburg for a meeting at which they discussed Carroll’s interest in fifing and drumming, his research, and the CWF&D. That summer, Carroll and Geiger began sharing research. Carroll offered his services to help train the fledgling CW fifers and drummers. In a letter dated September 19, 1959, Carroll inquired about his offer and concluded by saying “of course I would not want anything for this [training)] except the satisfaction of seeing Williamsburg with an authentic and proper fife and drum corps.” The summer season had ended and Carroll’s offer was put on hold; however, other events would soon bring that offer back to life.
Knowledge of then Army “Specialist” Carroll’s research and expertise became known to the Army and he was asked to assist with the creation of a fife, drum and bugle corps within the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard. In the last months of 1959 Carroll was approached by his commanding officer to help form a drum and bugle corps for the Old Guard. Carroll recalls the very beginnings of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps as follows:
I was a percussionist in The Army Band at Ft. Myer when my boss, LTC Curry, got word from General C.K. Gailey, the commander of the Military District of Washington, D.C., that General Gailey wanted to hear a bugle call at Ft. Myer on payday. I learned later that Bill Geiger was an Operations Sergeant on General Gailey’s staff during the Battle of the Bulge in WW II.
General Gailey sent word to The Army Band asking if they could get a drum and bugle corps going. The Colonel knew I had started a boys’ fife and drum corps in Arlington, the Continental Boys Fife and Drum Corps, and that I had been researching 18th century drumming. He said ‘George, you know all about this drum and bugle stuff, how about making up a TO&E (Table of Organization & Equipment) for a drum and bugle corps?’ I said I wouldn’t form a drum and bugle corps because the 3rd Infantry goes back to 1784 and the Honor Guard already was wearing colonial period uniforms to celebrate that fact. They wouldn’t have been using bugles, they would have been using fifes.
The Colonel went back to General Gailey who said you can have a fife and drum corps with a colonial theme and still have bugles, and when a two-star General says he wants bugles, a Specialist gets bugles, but we were able to reinstate the fife back into the U.S. Army, and it’s still there and probably always will be, and that’s a nice thing to have.
1LT. Glen Watson, who had been the executive officer of the Honor Company of the 3rd Infantry, was put in charge of the new fife and drum unit.
I was “loaned” (detached) from The Army Band to the Old Guard. So we prepared a TO&E for the creation of the new unit: the number of drummers, fifers and buglers; the equipment; and the uniforms. Colonel Curry sent the TO&E to General Gailey and he approved it.
Orders establishing the new unit came down on February 23, 1960, and the next thing we needed were musicians and Lt. Watson said we can’t go with regular musicians because it would take too long, they would have to go through the Navy Music School. We were in a hurry because they wanted us to perform at a ceremony on May 1st, less than three months away.
We were told that we could get anybody from the Military District of Washington, D.C. In other words, we could shanghai them, but we decided that would not work. Instead we decided to ask people to join, because only if they wanted to do this, would it work. So word went out. We advertised that the unit would restore the old fife, drum and bugle to the Army, would be wearing 18th century clothing and would be playing obsolete instruments. And it worked. We ended up with 80 names.
Most of the men had no musical background, so several of us from The Army Band began training them immediately. We ordered a set of drums from Buck Soistman. Several of us went over to his shop in Baltimore to pick them up. I knew of Buck because The Army Band had ordered a set of Drums from Gus Moeller, but he had become ill, so Buck had to finish them.
In just two months we had the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps ready to perform.
In the spring of 1960 Carroll and Lt. Watson were sent to Colonial Williamsburg to obtain assistance with their efforts organizing the Old Guard corps and to inquire about borrowing four original muskets for a performance the Old Guard corps was planning at the 1960 Deep River Ancient Muster. On May 12, 1960, they met with Geiger who Carroll had met the year before. Geiger was very impressed with Carroll.
Soon after its activation, the Old Guard corps ordered a set of hand-made wooden, rope tensioned drums from Soistman. These drums were the same “Grand Republic” model drums Moeller had been making. The name was coined by Moeller to describe his drums that accurately replicated 18th Century drums, also known as “long” or “field” drums. Moeller was a passionate advocate and teacher of rudimental drumming who once marched while drumming 245 miles from his home in Mt. Vernon, New York, to Boston to demonstrate the open rudimental drumming style.
Carroll knew Soistman because in 1959 The U.S. Army Band had ordered a set of drums from Moeller, but he had become ill so Soistman had to finish the set. Carroll had picked up the drums from Soistman’s drum shop, The Rolling Drum Shop, in Middle River, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. A year later, in 1960, CW ordered is first long drums from Soistman based on Carroll’s recommendation.
To help launch the new Army fife and drum corps, the Army sent it to the 1960 Deep River Ancient Muster, the country’s oldest and largest fife and drum gathering held every July, where its music, drill and uniforms made a huge impact on the New England fife and drum community. For his contributions to founding the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, Carroll received the U.S. Army Commendation Medal.
At the May meeting with Geiger, Carroll renewed his offer to help train the CWF&D. Although they had been performing for over a year with the CW Militia for visitors at weekly militia musters and at special events in Williamsburg, they had received no formal training in colonial music and rudimental drumming. Geiger knew the CWF&D needed professional training to survive and he saw in Carroll the source of that training. In a memo Geiger predicted “I am confident that his [Carroll’s] instructions would result in a high degree of authenticity which we presently do not have.” Within months Geiger’s prediction became true.
Following the May meeting with Geiger, plans were made for Carroll to instruct the CW fifers and drummers, and Carroll and several Old Guard corps members provided the first classes on July 8, 1960. Thereafter Carroll provided training to the CWF&D on weekends through September. During that time the repertoire increased from five to thirteen tunes and drum beatings. The CW fifers and drummers were trained exactly as the Old Guard Corps members were being trained, including a heavy dose of military discipline that understandably was met by the teenagers with some resistance. Carroll’s research into colonial fife tunes and drum beatings had produced a body of music that became the initial repertories of both corps. His music and insistence on authenticity of drill, music and rudimental drumming was the common mold from which both corps were formed.
The CWF&D progressed so well that they won several medals in November at the Southeastern States Ancient Muster (competition) in Arlington, Virginia. The Arlington muster saw several New England corps attend, including the Mt. Vernon (N.Y.) Colonial Greens, in which Moeller had been a member. Another member of the Colonial Greens, who attended the Arlington muster, was Patrick (“Pat”) Cooperman. Cooperman was a drummer and part time wood turner who made drumsticks that he sold at musters. Carroll had met Cooperman at a New England muster in 1959 and had purchased some drumsticks for the Continental Boys Fife and Drum Corps. Within a short time, Carroll and Cooperman became friends. In the years to come Cooperman expanded into making fifes and handmade wooden, rope tensioned drums in the tradition of Moeller and Soistman. Cooperman’s company became a supplier of fifes, drums and drumsticks for both the CWF&D and the Old Guard corps, as well as countless fife and drum corps and military bands.
Carroll’s instruction of the CWF&D in 1960 would lead to his becoming CW’s first Drum Major and Musick Master in 1961. In 1961 Carroll took the CWF&D to the Deep River Ancient Muster where they also impressed the crowd with their music, drill and uniforms. Carroll had begun a lifetime role to help define and shape rudimental drumming for historic field music, continuing the efforts of others such as Moeller and Olsen.
Carroll’s contributions to and influence on American fifing and drumming were significant, particularly the study, promotion and preservation of historic rudimental drumming. Carroll’s drum beatings, based on his research and interpretations, were more historically authentic than those used by many of the New England ancients. The New England tradition of drumming was based on individual styles unique to each unit, often with an emphasis on looking forward to preserve that style, possibly influenced in part by competitions that were and remain prevalent in New England, rather than looking back to research and adopt more authentic beatings. Carroll joined a group of leaders in the ancient community that were advocating the use of authentic open rudimental drum beatings for historic American military field music.
In the early 1960’s, Carroll published two books of historic martial music and drum beatings, the Carroll Collection of Ancient Martial Music, Vols. I and II. These books became known as the “red” and “white” books, and they remain a significant source of historic colonial music and drum beatings to this day.
In 1962, Carroll and his boss and mentor Geiger began publishing the Drummer’s Assistant, a quarterly newsletter for the ancient fife and drum community. Each newsletter contained articles about fife and drum units, their leaders and their history. There also were articles about historic music and drum beatings, many of which were written by Carroll based on his research.
The Drummer’s Assistant was the first publication of its kind aimed at the ancient fife and drum community, and it helped to unify and define the ancients, a process that had begun in the 1950s. It was published through 1966. By then the Company of Fifers and Drummers had been created in 1965 and this contributed to the decision to discontinue the newsletter. However, its impact, including the publication of some of Carroll’s research, was instrumental in the growth and development of the ancients. All his life, he remained a tireless advocate for authenticity and the preservation of the fundamentals of field music within the ancient fife and drum community, and his influence remains clearly visible, and audible, to this day.
Under Carroll’s direction the CWF&D grew and improved to become one of the pre-eminent fifes and drum corps in the United States. He was a perfectionist who demanded the best from each corps member. Carroll also started the Colonial Williamsburg Band of Musick that played reproductions of 18th century instruments in a variety of concerts including weekly summer evening concerts on the bowling green at the Governor’s Palace and concerts during the Christmas holidays. The CWF&D played for Presidents and world dignitaries, took its first trip outside the United States in 1967 (to Toronto, Canada), and recorded its first record album in 1968. Carroll took the CWF&D to Deep River in 1961, 1963 and 1968, and to the Connecticut State Convention in 1965, 1966 and 1970. Other trips included Philadelphia for Freedom Week in 1961, the 1964 Boy Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge, the 1965 World’s Fair in New York City, and to Washington D.C in 1967 for a “Musical Tattoo” on the Mall performed with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the United States Marine Band and the United States Air Force Pipe Band.
Carroll established the structure and organization of the CWF&D that, with minor adjustments over the years, is still in place today: a rank and point system; older Corps members training the younger members; roll calls; written job sheets; repertories; and a clothing and laundry system.
During the 1960’s under Carroll the CWF&D traveled to New England musters winning medals and acclaim. Most significantly, the CWF&D became one of the leaders in the United States in the resurgence of authentic 18th century fifing and drumming. Carroll also mentored countless CWF&D members. Typical of many alumni is Andrew Reeve, a member of the “first generation”, who wrote:
I have been the protégé of many mentors. Because I had studied with George, I was recruited for the Queen’s Guard unit at William & Mary, a link I share with Ernie Johnson. George also sold me my first drum kit, and I still have the classic improve texts he used in my jazz & rock drum instruction. Had it not been for him, I would not have been the drummer with The Strangers, the group that put me through school. He even approved when my wife and I bought tickets to Woodstock in 1969, they were only $25.
After 10 years with CW, Carroll went to Walt Disney World for eight years where he established its fife and drum corps. As Senior Show Coordinator, Carroll created programs, scripted pageants, and served for years as bandleader for their orchestras, appearing with Julie Andrews, Meredith Wilson, Mel Tormè, and Shari Lewis, among others. While in Florida, he also taught at Jacksonville University, and played with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, eventually becoming its chief percussionist. He also started a number of fife and drum corps in Florida.
After working at Disney World, Carroll moved to Alexandria, Virginia, to work at the Pentagon for the National Guard Bureau in its museum’s heraldry and history division. The 1980’s saw him transfer to become the Bandleader of the Virginia National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division. He was the founder and editor of a newsletter of history, heraldry and museums, and he was the author of the Army National Guard Regulation for Museums.
While living in Alexandria, Carroll opened a drum shop and gave drum lessons. He also began making wood rope-tension drums under the company name Carroll’s Drum Service. During his career he was a determined researcher and he authored numerous books and articles on drumming and fifing. He was a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, a founding member of the Company of Fifers and Drummers, a percussionist with the National Concert Band of America, a member of the Percussive Arts Society, and Director of Music for the Civil Air Patrol’s only recognized music program. In 2007, he wrote a book on the history of military drums, “American Drums of War: 1607-2007,” which was published in 2008.
In 2015, Carrol moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. In 2016, he was honored by the CWF&D alumni at the 60th anniversary of the CWF&D. His Soistman eagle drum, which he played at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration parade, and which numerous CWF&D Senior Corps drummers played during the 1960’s, is on display at the CW Fife and Drum Building in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Carroll was an icon of American fifing and drumming, particularly for his contributions to and promotion of the ancient style. In addition to Carroll’s contributions to American fifing and drumming, his teaching of a broad range of percussive arts to thousands of students, and those students continuing to perform and to teach in a wide variety of percussive fields and careers, is another of his many legacies.
About the Author
William H. “Bill” Casterline, Jr., was a fifer in the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums under George Carroll from 1965 to 1968. After graduation from high school in 1969, while attending college and law school, he continued to work part time until 1974 for Colonial Williamsburg as a costumed interpreter in the exhibition buildings and as a member of the CW Militia. From 1976 to 1980, Bill served on active duty as a Captain in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Since 1980, Bill has practiced law in Fairfax County, Virginia. In 2008, Bill researched and wrote a history of the CWF&D for its 50th anniversary, during which research he obtained the materials about George Carroll’s role in founding the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and leading the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums to become one of the country’s premier corps, and his significant contributions to American fifing and drumming.
Tribute to George P. Carroll
By Peter Emerick
The story begins as George would put it, when he saw the “Colonial Boys” of Norwood Massachusetts performing on a pier while his ship was at anchor in a port somewhere in Massachusetts. Overtaken by his passion he pursued this little known American tradition exploring and revealing some of America’s best kept secrets.
There are many accolades written about George during his early years which included the solicitation of authorization and formation of the “Old Guard Fifes and Drums” and the proprietorship of the “Musick” at Colonial Williamsburg. Both of these organizations would prove to be essential catalysts to the advancement of “Ancient” community of fifers and drummers. Both of these organizations provided the resources necessary to research and interpret at the time, a nearly forgotten part of our history. It was the 1960’s and a post WWII culture running on steroids!
As George explored the “Ancients” he learned that there was the hidden culture that had been preserved in their traditions that explained some of the research he had been involved with. He learned about the localized styles and schools of practice that existed in each one of these corps. He broadened that knowledge with the help of his institutions and shared that experience and information with many Corps directors. He felt so strongly about sharing this information that he published a periodical called “The Drummers Assistant”. This was the precursor to the “Ancient Times”. This circulation was always an eagerly anticipated arrival.
Volume IV 2nd Edition contains a report on the organization of the “Company”. Reflected in the notes are the “movers and shakers” of the time and the Corps supporting the organization. The dialogue fails to mention who were the voices but I can attest that George played a fundamental role in the organization from its inception. It was a natural fit for George coming from a strict disciplined military background. During this time period he was instrumental in the formation of the “Company of Military Historians” at that time based out of Old Saybrook CT and the “Brigade of the American Revolution” reenacting association.
George found that by publishing selections of music from his researched material and by adding modern drum notation and arrangements, he could satisfy a community thirsty for new material and more in line with the perception of an “Ancient Corps”. At that time many of the Corps had established repertoires that reflect more of the 1940’s and 50’s than that of the 18th and 19th centuries. George felt very strongly about honoring our past appropriately.
George was a “Task Master”. His quest for knowledge never decreased in the fifty plus years that I have known him. His desire to teach the craft never diminished. His patriotism displayed through his talents never diminished. He could demonstrate the full range of personality that some would love, and some would hate, a common pitfall with Corps Directors.
After Colonial Williamsburg, George went on to form the Corps at Disney, St. Augustine, Yorktown and host of other venues. He continued to teach and perform with military bands as well as hosting music academies for the Civil Air Patrol. He served as producer, performer and advisor to countless recording and historic film projects. He made and repaired drums with his family and friends and continued his quest for knowledge.
Almost every person in the fife and drum community has benefited from some contribution George gave, and gave freely. As we play through the strains of “Brandywine Quickstep” or beat the “York Fusiliers” let’s take a moment and thank George for that simple delight in a job well done.
I for one, am thankful to those from our community that assisted George these last few years, special mention to Lance Pedigo and Jim Smith. It’s comforting to see folks from our community reach out to someone in need when it happens.
About the Author
Peter B. Emerick, Uxbridge, Massachusetts
Under the tutelage of my father Benjamin P. Emerick I fell into a lifelong association with George Carroll. Both were ardent readers who enjoyed researching and performing historical music and trading stories. I followed suit. George was a terrific resource over the years and I was fortunate enough to play a role in many of his adventures. Most of you are familiar with the various incarnations of the Uxbridge Corps, of which I am the Director. Reaching into as many different historical venues as possible, it has been, and perhaps always will be an astounding trip. As a result of the creative actions of my mentors, I have presented, performed and taught fife and drum history in countless locations throughout the eastern United States. I am forever indebted and forever grateful for the doors it has opened in my life.