Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Rhythm of the 54th

By Chet Williamson

He is said to have been the first man of color to enlist as a "musician" in the Civil War and called the “original drummer-boy.” 

At the impressionable age of 13, Alexander Howard Johnson, was so moved by the hanging of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, that he took to the streets to play for his memory.

A member of the famed 54th infantry, Johnson’s likeness is cast in bronze in the memorial dedicated to his commanding officer, Col. Robert G. Shaw. The monument stands on Beacon Street at the Boston Commons just across the way from the Massachusetts State House. The troop was immortalized in the film Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman. 

Note: Although Johnson himself claims the likeness, the sculptor used models for his subjects and there were other drummers in the 54th.

The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Johnson was not born here, but he resided in Worcester for more than 60 years and although his life in antebellum is largely forgotten, his contributions to the local music scene should not go unrecognized. At the time of his death in 1930, it was reported that he was among the best drummers in the state.

After the war, Johnson moved to Worcester from his hometown of New Bedford and organized the city’s first drum corps. In a 1923 article in the Worcester Sunday Telegram, Johnson is quoted saying: “It surely was heard from. It had 22 pieces, all snare drums, except one and that was a bass drum.

“We were stopped from practicing on Main Street halls because the noise was something terrific and we used to make things shake so that things were shaken off the shelves in the stores… .”
A Civil War drum much like the one Johnson played.

Johnson’s drumming style was derived from the military marching traditions of the 19th Century. He played loud and proud. “I have beaten a drum in about all the big parades for years,” he said. “I have played for all the Worcester military companies.”

One local writer said that whenever there was a grand parade in Worcester, people turn to listen and before they could see who was playing the rhythmic rolling of a drum, would say, “Here comes Major Johnson.”

According to one family researcher, Johnson’s nickname was "Major." He never rose to that rank in the military, but after the war always wore a military cap around town. People eventually started calling him, "The Major." It stuck. 

Major Alexander Howard Johnson
In a 1920 article in the Sunday Telegram, Johnson said, “Nowadays, I teach others how to play the drum. One of my pupils is a grandson of mine, James E. Landers, the drummer at the High School of Commerce. And there are many others.”

The writer said, “there is hardly a drummer who marches the streets of Worcester who has not received instruction from him.”

Johnson was an elder statesman at the time of the 1920 interview. “I may be more than 70 years old, but I can drum with the best of ‘em,” he said. The author of the piece added, “This drummer, who despite his years, can drum with such vigor and nerve, is a familiar figure. Everybody knows him.”

From the collection of Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester MA

Early drum teachers did not teach style. They taught rudiments and technique. When Johnson was coming up, American music reflected the melting pot of its population. And the inertia that wrought jazz was just taking shape.

Warren “Baby” Dodds was one of the first great drummers in jazz and considered by many to be the "Father of Jazz Drumming."

"We played what was later called ragtime," Dodds said, "but then it was called syncopation."

For dance parties, Dodds said the band played a popular Creole repertoire. They played low-down blues with a Spanish tinge, Tin Pan Alley tunes, folk songs, as well as cakewalks, mazurkas, polkas, quadrilles, two steps, and light Europe Classical favorites.

Based out of the G.A.R. Hall on Pearl Street, Johnson's Drum Corps played gigs that were typical of marching bands of the day. In addition to all the parades, they played political rallies and reunions, circuses and carnivals, county fairs and holiday parties, and vaudeville. And given the fact from the 1830s to 1900 minstrel shows were the most popular forms of entertainment in the country, Johnson’s drums could also have been heard on such a stage.  

By 1920, the hot music of jazz was sweeping across the country and it is only conjecture to think that Johnson may have played the new music. However, it is certainly possible that his students were involved. Worcester bands and their drummers such as Boots Ward and the Nitehawks and Mamie Moffitts 5 Jazz Hounds undoubtedly knew of Johnson’s expertise.

Johnson was also there when the first drum kits were taking shape, although it is not known if he ever sat behind a trap set. The evolution of the drum set developed from marching bands.   

Baby Dodds talks about first playing a snare drum with sticks. He eventually added a bass drum with rope-tension, a foot pedal and cymbal. He added color with an array of woodblocks.

Johnson had the good fortune to have two drum shops in his neighborhood. In 1896, George Bemis of Worcester developed and patented a new type of snare drum and manufactured them with some degree of success before losing his shop to a fire.

Early Walberg & Auge kit

Established in 1903, Walberg and Auge began “as a musical instrument repair and manufacturing company that made band instruments such as drums, bells, xylophones and traps."  

The company has recently been resurrected and according to its website, “during the nativity of Jazz, W&A innovated and manufactured many components which consist of the "Modern Drum Set" we know today. Ex: W&A innovated and manufactured the first high hat stand, drum throne, clamping basket snare stand, and much more.”

Low boy cymbal pedal manufactured by Walberg & Auge

In moving to Worcester, Johnson also found family and community. In 1869, the same year of his arrival, he married a city girl, Miss Mary A. Johnson (no relation). The couple had 17 children. Unfortunately, many died in childbirth. Alex came to town with a boyhood friend and fellow conscript of the 54th, Emery Phelps.
According to New Bedford writer, Earl F. Mulderink, Phelps reported that he saw Johnson two or three times a week at their Grand Army of the Republic, Post 10, at 55 Pearl Street. He and Johnson remained steadfast friends throughout their lives. “They maintained active memberships in their local GAR post,” Mulderink said. “[They] worked together for twenty years, and knew intimate details of Johnson’s medical complaints.

Frederick Douglass
Note: There were also at least a dozen men of color who enlisted into the 54th from Worcester. Before the war, this city was a town of abolitionists. Abby Kelley Foster is probably best known for her part in the underground railroad, aiding runaway slaves. Cambridge-born author and Unitarian Minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who led this city's Free Church, was a member of the Secret Six that financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Frederick Douglass, the great black orator of his generation, addressed crowds at City Hall on the evils of slavery. He was joined by John Brown.
John Brown
Johnson talked about Brown’s impact on his life. (By the way, two of Douglass' sons were members of the 54th.)

“I was only a little fellow then, and I had a little drum,” Johnson said. “I recall what a stir there was when John Brown was hanged. People said he died a martyr to the cause of abolition. There was a crowd that turned out in New Bedford, and I remember a big colored man in a red shirt stood out on the balcony and rolled his drum. And I stood down in the street and rolled my little drum too.”
Johnson plays his drum on the streets of Worcester, circa 1900
Johnson was born in New Bedford on April 23, 1846. He lived there until the war when he enlisted in the 54th at the age of 17. According to a 1907 Sunday Telegram feature on the drummer, Johnson’s “parents were of the Narragansett Indian tribe, but the major was adopted by a colored man, according to his family. 

William Henry Johnson
Johnson's father by adoption was William Henry Johnson who lived to be 98 years of age.” Note: W.H. Johnson was the second black lawyer from Massachusetts to join the bar.  

According to author Thomas Doughton, much is known about Johnson especially through his marriage to Mary Ann Johnson, who was of Nipmuc Indian heritage. “Hepsibeth Hemenway, whose portrait is at the Worcester Historical Museum, was her grandmother and hundreds of folks in Worcester are descended from this family.”


Young Alexander learned to play the drum at the age of 6 years and “his ability made his enlistment an easy matter. He was regarded as one of the best drummers in the army,” noted the Telegram.

Throughout history musicians have played an important role on the battlefield, especially drummers, according to an unnamed source at the American Civil War website:

"Each company in an infantry regiment had a musician who was usually a drummer. They were relied upon to play drum beats to call the soldiers into formation and for other events. Drums got the soldiers up in the morning, signaled them to report for morning roll call, sick call, and guard duty. Drummers also played at night to signal lights out or 'taps.' The most important use of drums was on the battlefield where they were used to communicate orders from the commanding officers and signal troop movement. Civil War drums were made of wood that had been cut into thin layers, steamed, and formed into a round shell. The outside of a Union drum was often painted and featured a large eagle displaying its wings with the stars and stripes flowing around it. Confederate drums were not quite as fancy, many just having a plain wood finish. The heads of the drum were made from calfskin and stretched tight by ropes.”

It is somewhat ironic that an African-American drummer whose ancestors were not allowed to play drums for fear of insurrection, is now asked to direct traffic on the battlefield in the war against slavery. Writer Megan Sullivan in her Cornell dissertation puts it succinctly saying: “Music was critical in the organization of early slave uprisings. When brought to America, drums were used as they had been in Africa: for communication. Using drums to spread messages in a rhythmic language undeciphered [sic] by Whites, slaves could could orchestrate revolts on land and on slave ships as well.”
Members of the 54th Regiment 
Johnson’s military career is well-documented. He participated in the battles of Oulstee, Honey Hill, Boykins Mills, James Island, Fort Wagner, and Sherman’s “March to the Sea.”
Young Alex Johnson
Before leaving Boston to march among the ranks of the 54th, Col. Edward M. Hollowell presented Johnson with a brass drum. 

He carried it throughout his military career. It was hit six times and Johnson himself, was once shot in the leg.

The battle of Fort Wagner helped turn the tide towards victory for the Union Army. Johnson recalled the siege to a Telegram reporter. It was the 54th first engagement.

“We fought from 7 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, and we succeeded in driving the enemy back, he said. "After the battle we got a paper saying that if Fort Wagner was charged within a week it would be taken.

“We marched all night and reached Foly Island the next afternoon about 4 o’clock. Most of the way we were singing, Col. Shaw and I marching at the head of the regiment. It was getting dark as we crossed the bridge to Morris Island. It was about 6:30 o’clock when we got there.

“Col. Shaw ordered me to take a message back to the quartermaster at the wharf, who had charge of the commissary. I took the letter by the first beat as ordered, and when I returned I found the regiment lying down, waiting for order to charge. The orders to charge was given at 7:30 o’clock.

“Before he gave that order, Col. Shaw asked the boys if they would stand by him. “We will, father,” they yelled. They always called him father.” He then gave the order to rise and charge bayonets at a double quick.

“It was a hard fight, lasting until 5 o’clock in the morning. We lost our good colonel. We went into the battle with 1200 men and came out with less that 300. Sargent William H. Carney, the hero of the regiment is now a messenger at the statehouse in Boston. [Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor. It is reported for “grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and singing, ‘Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.’]
William H. Carney
“We were told that there was a price on the head of every colored man before we fought the battle of Honey Hill. The Union men were forced to retreat and our regiment was left to hold back the enemy, while others were retreating. We went through a dress parade and after the others had got enough away we retreated in the woods.

“We then went to Jacksonville, Florida and a little while later to Charleston, doing guard duty. Finally we went to Mt. Pleasant, where we remain until we were discharged.”  

Three flags of the 54th

Johnson lived at two known addresses in Worcester. “For 32 years in the house at 69 Central Street during which time we had 18 landlords,” he said. Johnson died in his other home at 21 Orchard Street, March 19, 1930.

From the collection of Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester MA

The Telegram reported that at the funeral “Edward James Foster, National Commander-in-chief of the GAR was present. The Captain Thornton Parker Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps, headed by Bartlett E. Towne, and an escort of police, marched with the body to grave. Burial was in the family lot in Hope Cemetery.”

The Union dead at Hope Cemetery in Worcester

Special thanks to Librarian/Archivist, Robyn Conroy of the Worcester Historical Museum for her kind assistance in the development of this work and Debra Faust-Clancy for proofreading.


Robert Lowell’s poem: For the Union Dead
Three Places in New England by composer Charles Ives is based on the Col. Robert Shaw monument and the 54th.

Roster of the 54th --

Clips from the film, Glory