The Optimists Alumni Drum & Bugle Corps
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
More Than Just a Song
Submitted by: Brian Hogan
Brian provides an educational and thought-provoking commentary on Corps songs.
Just before the Corps went out on stage in Rochester at the St Joe's show, two things happened that caught my attention. We were all gathered in the cafeteria and Barry Bell was addressing the Corps. He asked those who had marched in the Optimists to raise their hands and, in turn, he asked those who hadn't to raise theirs. I think those who had outnumbered those who hadn't, but not by very much. He then thanked those who hadn't for adding their talents to those who had to make US that much better.
The second thing that caught my attention was as we came closer together to sing the Corps song, I heard some people around me commenting that they didn't know the words or tune, but they gave it a valiant attempt. Now I don't know every person's background, but I can just about guarantee that those who did march in the Optimists have a pretty good idea of the importance and significance of that song. If you don't, please read on. If you do, please read on. You can never tell, you might learn something – I certainly did.
Defining the importance and significance of something like a Corps song and why we have one is like nailing jello to a wall or herding cats…..it's a pretty difficult task. I suppose that's because it's different for everyone. Learning the song for me was a bit of a survival strategy. During my rookie camp, if we (the uninitiated) wanted to survive it (the initiation) we had better be able to sing it at the whim of any “Old Guy” who deemed it necessary to ensure we had been properly schooled in the customs and traditions of an institution to which we had mistakenly felt we had become worthy of belonging. Failure to rip off a chilling rendition of the Corps song could mean an added egg shampoo and/or tree branch down the back of your shirt, while slithering in the red mud, sliding into the recently thawed river. Which reminds me – I never did thank Ron Chong for allowing me a couple of extra seconds in the river to clean off at least a couple of layers of that mud. It meant that when my clothes were washed, they came out light pink rather than dark pink. At this point it was very much just a song….learning it was just another task I had to accomplish, like cleaning my “master's” bucks. At our first competition that summer, I think it was in Etobicoke, we gathered to sing the Corps song. Looking around at the other members of the Corps, seeing the intensity on their faces and getting an overwhelming feeling of pride and belonging caused “just a song” to become THE Corps Song. For me, it's just one of those moments that stick in your mind….some call it a defining moment.
Our Corps song was the result of a competition. Around 1963, the Corps decided that something was required to rally the members and they had seen that other corps had used a song for that purpose. So, they decided to run a competition within the Corps. Glen Durish, who was an assistant drum major, won the competition when he penned the words to our Corps song to the tune of “Meadowlands”, which the Corps had used as their OTL in 1960. This, according to both Joe Gianna and Barry Bell, came as a complete shock, because this gentleman was not known to be particularly articulate. What he did write is, as you now know, quite articulate and meaningful. You'll notice that when we sing the Corps song, we put one or both of our hands on the shoulder(s) of other members. Corps is a French word meaning body and it is singular. By placing hands on the shoulders of one another, we become one -- singular.
I wanted to get a sense of proportion for this subject, so I thought I would consult with other Corps that had been around as long or longer than us. I asked the directors of the Cadets, the Cavaliers and the Boston Crusaders if they had a corps song, if they still sang it on certain occasions and why they still sang it. George Hopkins of the Cadets (Holy Name, Garfield, of Bergen County ) said that they indeed still sing their song, “O Holy Name” because it brings the corps “back to their roots”. And deep roots they are. The Cadets are, I believe, the oldest active competitive drum and bugle corps in the world. They maintain certain traditions, while remaining flexible enough to adapt to the changing landscape. I doubt that Mr Hopkins could or would understate the importance of some traditions.
Jeff Fiedler of the Cavaliers told me their corps song, which is sung to the tune of “Semper Paratus”, the US Coast Guard song, changes a little each year as different phrases and words might receive a little more or less emphasis, but the reasoning for singing it never changes. He further states that the Cavaliers remain a strong fraternal organization, while keeping an eye on the future. He said that on occasion, the Corps will sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which has been important to them for many years, much like “You'll Never Walk Alone” has been to the Madison Scouts.
The director of the Boston Crusaders took a completely different tack. He had one of their more senior members, Brandon Marion, address these questions. Brandon, who has been a Crusader since 1999, plays in the pit and has the most seniority, spoke of how the Crusaders are a corps with a great amount of pride in their history. He said that their corps song “Giant”, “…. sums up the belief that the Crusaders have gone through some extremely trying times, and the members have always relied on each other to get through it”. Prior to learning the song, the rookies are given a “history lesson”, which emphasizes the origins and meaning behind the song and why most of their 65 year existence has included the singing of this song before every performance.
You'll note that nowhere in the preceding does it state why. As I said, the “why” is likely different for everyone. I believe that's because it is emotionally based. Explain an emotion…any emotion. It's not so easy, but you know what it is. You just feel it. That's the way you should view the Corps song. Read the words, but also read between the lines. To me, it speaks of remaining optimistic (funny how that works out, eh?), of never quitting, of having pride in what you do and of how what we do says a lot about who we are as a group and as individuals. You are now Optimists. If you perform with this Corps, you have earned the right to sing this song. It's a very exclusive club…there aren't a huge number of people who have earned the right. I'm not about to tell you how to feel about it. That's entirely up to you. Look inside and maybe there's a defining moment for you in there somewhere.
On, march on,
Our battle's not yet won
We'll march and sing,
Defeat shall never come,
Pride of our nation,
Champions in competition,
Arms swinging, bugles ringing, drums resounding,
Legs lifted high come swiftly pounding,
Upon the ground.
The Optimists by name,
The “Green Machine” by fame.
Colour and splendor
Only add to our endeavour,
Marching and music done in glorious fashion,
Pride and perfection is our passion,
Optimist Drum Corps
Of thee we sing
We will march on forever!