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 a bugle call replaced it.1 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 1780.2 It is much older; the precise date and place of origin are 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.3
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. During the 1800s, the 11-stroke roll, now standard, was frequently written as a 7-stroke roll, or as a 9-stroke roll. The oldest notations, including Ashworth’s, indicate no time signature. We assume Ashworth intended it to be counted in 2/4 because the companion fife melody is in 2/4 time.
In 1862, George B. Bruce penned it in 2/4 time.4 In 1869, Gardiner A. Strube transcribed it to 4/4 time.5 During the 20th century, 4/4 time versions were the most common.
The “Three Camps” may be written in 2/4 or 4/4, but the rolls should be interpreted with a triple pulse division and feel. Because of the triple pulse nature, notations written in 6/8 or 12/8 time have become the accepted standard.
As a reveille, each roll is distinctively and separately expressed to compliment the phrasing of the fife melody. It can be helpful to remember that the rolls commence with an unaccented double stroke and resolve on a single accent. The tempo of the reveille is between 140 to 150 bpm.
As an exercise, it is acceptable to play “Three Camps” as a continuous roll with accents. For that purpose, the rolls can be thought of as inverted—commencing with a single accent and resolving with double strokes. The tempo as an exercise is as fast as possible.
Regarding the name, “Three Camps.” During a lecture he delivered in 1988, William F. Ludwig Jr. claimed that the name derives 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.”6
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 exists in traditional 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.
1. U.S. Marine Corps, Prologue, Manual For Drummers And Buglers (Washington D.C.: Department Of The Navy, Dec., 1971), viii.
2. Longman, James & Broderip, Francis. The Young Drummers Assistant (London: Longman and Broderip, 1780), 4-5.
3. Ashworth, Charles S., and George P. Carroll. A New, Useful, and Complete System of Drum Beating (Williamsburg, VA: Geo. P. Carroll, 1966), 12-13.
4. Bruce, Geo B., and Dan D. Emmett. The Drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide (New York: Wm. A. Pond & Co., 1862), 28.
5. Strube, Gardiner A. Strube’s Drum and Fife Instructor (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1869), 29.
6. From a lecture by William F. Ludwig, Jr. on Revolutionary War Drumming given on January 24, 1988 at the Percussive Arts Society Day of Percussion (Maryland/Delaware) held at Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland.