The Hay-day of the Drum Corps, by Frank Podlaha
When people ask me if I am a musician, I usually say, “no, I’m a music lover.” Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was a kid, I did belong to a few musical marching bands known as drum corps. I played the glockenspiel, or “glocks.” The glocks are the marching version of xylophones, in the percussion section.
When best describing a drum corps is NOT to think of a school “marching band” like you may remember back in high school or college. Although we primarily marched in parades, a drum corps is really nothing like a school band. The drum corps is made up of much fewer instruments. The groups I belonged to were mainly fifes and trumpets on the brass side, and glocks and drums on the percussion side. The repertoires generally consisted of patriotic parade songs, Sousa marches, etc. For example: The Stars and Stripes, Yankee Doodle, Yellow Rose of Texas, and so on.
I know drum corps exist all over, but in my day they chiefly existed as a local town civic organization with close ties to the volunteer fire departments. I grew up in a small New England town, New Fairfield, CT. Drum corps were big back in those days, 1970s to the early 80s. At the time, the local fire departments would host the town’s yearly carnival. Just like today, the town’s carnival was the highlight of the summer. Where I live today in Tennessee, they call them County Fairs. But back then, these firemen’s carnivals were always kicked off with the annual town parade. They would invite fire departments from other towns (Connecticut and New York) to participate in the parades. The parade itself was actually a competition among fire departments to display their best fire trucks and equipment. Prizes were handed out for best truck, best marching unit (firemen – yes, they marched too), best drum corps, etc. The fire departments would hire a drum corps to help them march in the parade by keeping time with a continuous drumbeat. The New Fairfield Volunteer Fire Department would always hire the New Fairfield Sparklers Drum Corps.
Now you get the picture, this is where the fun starts…
The 70’s Were Crazy
I belonged to the New Fairfield Sparklers in the late 70s, early 80s, from about age 10 to 15. The Sparklers were a kid drum corps, most of them were. Later in college, I belonged to the Newtown Striders, a “senior” drum corps of adults. The Sparklers traveled to and from parades in old Bluebird school buses painted in our colors. Yes, imagine the Partridge Family bus! Now imagine these buses filled with young teenagers. The parade season lasted all summer. At least two, sometimes three, times a week we traveled to a parade and firemen’s carnival in a nearby town. It was heaven for a kid. We were carnival junkies. I think I’ve been to every town’s carnival in western CT and south-eastern NY over the years.
What a blast they were, too. After each parade, the host fire department would offer free food (hotdogs), beer, and soda for those in the parade. Most parades were evening time, and we’d get a few hours after the parade to eat some hotdogs and check out the carnival. It was usually late by the time we all piled back into the buses to head home.
They’d all get Arrested Today
Parents, cover your ears! We did some crazy things back then. Oh, I forgot to mention: we changed in and out of our uniforms on the bus before and after the parade. Young girls and boys stripped down to their undies two feet from each other. I know, what can I say! I got my first peek at a you-know-what on the drum corps bus.
The free food and drink after the parades were off to the side of the carnival grounds, roped off from the general public. We called them “bullpens.” They were full of 100s of drunken firemen. You do remember the free beer part? It was also very easy for a crafty kid to sneak over to the beer side and grab a brewsky. Uh-em, so I’ve been told.
After the festivities, we all loaded back onto the retro groovy buses for the ride home. Dark buses were full of hormone filled young teens. Oy vey! That glass you hear clanking was a spin-the-bottle game rolling away as the bus made a sharp turn.
Times were definitely different back then.
Besides the things I can’t mention, the drum corps was the coming of age for us New England kids of the 70s. We did learn music, marching, discipline (some), team work, and even a little respect for one another. Drum corps still exist today, but I’m sure their hay-day has come and gone. Thankfully, we all made it out safely.