The History of “Three Camps”

While there are standard drum beats and rudimental method books that have stood the test of time, much of our rudimental drumming history has been passed word-of-mouth from one generation to the next. Each generation or each drummer adding their own twist and flair to what we know. This living history is not unique to drumming but it does often lead to multiple sources of “fact” and a variety of origin stories. First introduced to me in grade school, “Three Camps” was shown to me and I was told it was a drum solo or “just an old exercise.” In my own experience, Three Camps is one of the few things that cuts across the rudimental world, with modern marching drummers, pipe band drummers, fires and drums, and more all being familiar or having played it in some form or another. While looking for accurate historical information on some of the well-known pieces I came across Ed Flack’s article on Three Camps. Complete with references Ed sheds light on the purpose and evolution of Three Camps. No matter if you are playing this on a rope drum with fifers or you have used Three Camps as an endurance exercise this is a fascinating read.

Regarding the name, “Three Camps.” During a lecture he delivered in 1988, William F. Ludwig Jr. claimed that the name was derived from the practice of dividing a company of troops into multiple camps, “For reasons of security.” According to Ludwig, three separate camps were each assigned one drummer. “The drummer in each camp would play a passage and wait for the neighboring camp drummer to repeat it or embellish it as a sign that all was well.”

“The Three Camps” also known as “The Mother and Three Camps” and as “Points of War” is one of the oldest and most famously known of all snare drum compositions. It was played as a reveille (morning wake up call) in all branches of the U.S. military from 1779 until 1875 when it was replaced by a bugle call. During the 20th century, it received wide U.S. distribution as an educational resource. Its value as an exercise to improve technique and stamina, and as a performance etude have never been in dispute.

The earliest known written notation of the “Three Camps” is found in, The Young Drummers Assistant, published by Longman and Broderip in 1780. It is believed to be much older. The precise date and place of origin is not known. It has been a standard within editions of U.S. military Camp Duty since 1812, when Charles Ashworth included it in A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum Beating.

The Camp Duty was a collection of military directives that specified the musical repertoire and performance standards, or “duty” of fifers, drummers, and buglers.

The way “Three Camps” is written and interpreted has evolved over time. During the 1800s, the 11-stroke roll that drummers are now familiar with was frequently written as a 7-stroke roll, or as a 9-stroke roll. The oldest notations, including Ashworth’s, indicate no time signature. It is presumed that Ashworth intended it to be counted in 2/4 because he assigned the companion fife melody a meter of 2/4 time. In 1862, George B. Bruce penned it in 2/4 time. In 1869, Gardiner A. Strube transcribed it to 4/4 time. During the 20th century, 4/4 time versions were commonly published.

The “Three Camps” may be written in 2/4 or 4/4 but to play it effectively the rolls should be interpreted with a triple pulse division and feel. Because of the triple pulse nature, notations written in 12/8 or 6/8 time have gradually become more popularly accepted.

As a reveille, each roll is to be distinctively and separately expressed to compliment the phrasing of the fife melody. To accomplish that, it can be helpful to remember that the rolls commence with an unaccented double stroke and resolve on a single accent. As an exercise, it can be played as a continuous roll with accents.

Regarding the name, “Three Camps.” During a lecture he delivered in 1988, William F. Ludwig Jr. claimed that the name was derived from the practice of dividing a company of troops into multiple camps, “For reasons of security.” According to Ludwig, three separate camps were each assigned one drummer. “The drummer in each camp would play a passage and wait for the neighboring camp drummer to repeat it or embellish it as a sign that all was well.”

That is a good story but, like so many examples of drum legend and lore, the source of Ludwig’s information is unknown, and its accuracy cannot be verified. No evidence of this practice is found in historic editions of British or American military Camp Duty. “Three Camps” has long been identified as a reveille call and not as a signal between camps. Its title remains as mysterious as its origin.

Thank you Ed Flack for allowing this story to be shared. You can find additional sources and citations, and  on the original article on Ed’s website: The Drumslinger

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