The Linguistic Origins of Modern Drumming

We have the Civil War to thank for modern rock music

I am going off my beaten path here today, though music is certainly a beat I follow. Music is a universal language. Music is a creative gift from our Creator who made us in His image. We reflect Him, therefore, in the creation of music.

Music is mathematical and linguistic, even in its essence. I didn’t previously know, for instance, that drumming has an “alphabet” of 26 rhythms. I did know that drummers in the Civil War (and I assume previous wars) played a key role in their battalions. They weren’t just there to boost moral; they were the communicators on the battlefield, signalling the orders from the generals and commanders to their troops in the heat of the battle.

These things are discussed in the video embedded below on the originals of the shuffle – a type of pattern that mimics a train passing by on a track, and a basic backbone of most modern music. Marcus Petruska takes time in this video to talk about “the debt we all owe to the Civil War drummers”.

He goes into some detail about how drums (and bugles) were used to communicate commands in the fog of war to the troops in the battle. Those various beats used to communicate to troops in war became the percussion vocabulary that informs modern music – the 26 rudiments of drumming. It’s a bit mind blowing to think that we have the Civil War to thank for modern rock music!

These two subjects, music and the Civil War, meeting at the confluence of drumming resonate deeply with me because my great great grandfather was a drummer in the Civil War. He enlisted with the 40th Illinois Infantry that was organized by Stephen G. Hicks, a lawyer in Salem, Marion County, Illinois, and commissioned on July 24, 1861. He was part of Company “F” from Franklin County, Illinois, comprised primarily of farmers.

Enoch Jones, my great great grandfather was a cabinet maker, not a farmer, and he entered the Army as a drummer. I don’t know for a fact whether he was musical, but I assume he must have been. He was listed as one of two “musicians” in Company F in the appendix to the diary.

When I first read this in a diary written by Stephen E. J. Hart (of Company “E”) published in 1864, I imagined a young boy, a drummer boy (like the Christmas song). His brother, Silas Jones, enlisted as a Sergeant in the same company, a leader, but my great great grandfather was “just” a drummer.

But, I didn’t realize, then, the significance of drummers in the Civil War. They were the communicators. They traveled with the captains (the commanders) because they were counted on to communicate signals from the commanders to the men fighting in the various locations as they were constantly changing on the battlefield in the bloody chaos of war. Drummers were the lifeline. They communicated the ever changing plans to the men on the front lines.

My great great great uncle, Silas Jones, died on April 18, 1862, of wounds he suffered in the battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862. As the war wore on, Enoch went from drummer, to first sergeant, to second lieutenant to first lieutenant, which, the author wrote, “he now fills with great credit”. The first lieutenant was the second in command to the captain in charge in the Company. So, he went from “musician” to second in command.

Because of my family history, my ears perked up with the discussion of the influence of Civil War drummers on modern music. Drummers and the music for which they lay down a foundation still communicate today, albeit for more peaceful purposes. Music transcended the fog and chaos of war to communicate order, and it transcends the fog and chaos of modern life, that can sometimes feel like a war, to bring order and peace.

Music brings people together and holds them together, is it did on battlefields in the Civil War. Music transcends differences. Music is gift from God and lifts our hearts in appreciation to the Creator of all things. Music is the language of worship and thanksgiving. Music enhances our lives as we shuffle off these mortal coils, contemplating the true myth, longing for the eternity God has placed in our hearts. (Ecc. 3:11)

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