Howard County Times
Howard County

Adding a historical note to Memorial Day celebrations

Savage resident, Dave Embrey is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, and is a fifer and re-enactor at gravestone markings, parades, ceremonies, etc. He has two DC area events on Memorial Day. Photo by Doug Kapustin for The Baltimore Sun

With his fife's high-pitched notes soaring over the enthusiastic throngs that gather each year at historic sites to celebrate Memorial Day, Dave Embrey is an attention-getter.

Clad in historically accurate attire, the longtime Savage resident performs on one of his walnut or rosewood fifes, depending on which war he is helping to commemorate.


The notes of the piccolo-like instrument enhance the 15 or so ceremonies he participates in each year.

Welcome to the world of re-enacting with "Fifer Dave," whose musical talent and passion for living history have made him a regular at the National Memorial Day Parade in the nation's capital and at other locales from Mount Vernon to Fort McHenry.


Though he played the fife in the mid-1960s as a Boy Scout in Silver Spring, it was a chance discovery on an online auction site in 2006 that brought the automotive service writer back to the instrument nearly 40 years later.

But it wasn't a fife that initially drew Embrey back to music. It was family history and military fashion.

He discovered that a paternal ancestor, John Eskridge, had fought in the Revolutionary War.

He said his research also showed that Eskridge's grandfather, George Eskridge, was a Virginia lawyer in the 1700s who served as legal guardian to Mary Ball. Ball eventually married Augustine Washington and named their firstborn child — the future first president of the United States — after him.

Uncovering his paternal lineage led him to join the Maryland Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and that association caused him to take notice of an unusual item for sale on the Internet.

"I was searching on eBay one day and found a musician's uniform for sale, and I thought about the color guard," he said.

After deciding to spend $180 on the secondhand ensemble of tricorn hat, overalls, waistcoat and regimental coat — scarlet red with blue trim and silver buttons — he reasoned he would need to put the apparel to good use.

"I thought to myself, 'I guess I'll have to learn to play the fife again.' "


With battles of the War of 1812 being memorialized by various organizations across Maryland over the past two years and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War still being commemorated through its fourth and final year in 2015, Embrey's services have especially been in demand.

On Monday, he will appear at two Memorial Day celebrations — one in Veterans Park in Bethesda for the Sons of the American Revolution, and the other in Washington for the National Memorial Day Parade.

The Washington event will feature floats, marching bands, veterans, service members and celebrities, and will be televised live to U.S. troops. Open to the public, the parade will start at 7th Street N.W., proceed along Constitution Avenue past the White House and end at 17th Street.

Embrey will march, fife in hand, in his finest regalia, all replicas that were made to be as historically accurate as possible.

Since he owns four Revolutionary War uniforms, three from the War of 1812 and three from the Civil War, he even purchased a sewing machine to make his own shirts to help reduce expenses.

"People don't realize the money that goes into this," he said of his hobby.


Wool coats can cost between $300 and $500 and cotton shirts are not permitted, only costlier linen, he said. Any stitching that can be viewed by the public, such as shirt buttonholes, must be hand-sewn to maintain authenticity.

Re-enactors wear shoes that are not made to conform to the right or left foot, though they mold to the wearer's feet after being worn several times.

When not fifing, Embrey occasionally carries a replica of a 1795 Springfield musket and exchanges his musician's garb for a soldier's uniform of blue coat with red trim.

Attire aside, re-enacting to Embrey is about portraying historical events through music. He owns seven fifes and also plays acoustic and electric guitar, banjo and mandolin, and has 30 books of fife tunes from the Revolutionary War to modern times that he selected for authenticity. He has also copied original manuscripts from the Library of Congress by hand.

Musicians were noncombatants who played a prominent role in communications, not just entertainment, he said, calling them wartime "walkie-talkies."

"They were always opposite the infantry [during battles] since the officers wanted to see them on the field," he said. "They would parade up and down past the encampments to wake the troops at daybreak."


They also performed musical commands to signal times to gather wood and collect water, and to announce when to eat and sleep, among other signals.

Steve Davis, a drummer who belongs to the First Virginia Regiment with Embrey, said living history events are "a very important part of Dave's life."

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"He takes his music seriously [and views it] as a way to help the public understand life back then," said the retired Department of Defense cartographer.

"General Washington was adamant about having a fine musical corps for the morale and discipline of the troops, and that's what we try to present," Davis said, especially to the international audience at the Mount Vernon, Va., Fourth of July Celebration each year.

Virginia Apyar, president of the National Society United States Daughters of 1812, said Embrey imbues "the whole feeling of the spirit of 1812" through his music.

"When 'Fifer Dave' appears, all eyes are on him as soon as he sounds his first note," said Apyar, adding that Embrey's performances lend "authenticity and emotion" to the society's annual meetings in Washington.


For Embrey, the most important aspect of his special brand of voluntarism is interacting with the people who attend the events where he performs, many of whom clamor to have their picture taken with him in uniform.

A 1971 graduate of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, he came of age at a time when joining the military wasn't a popular choice, he said.

"I never served, so I share my knowledge with the community as a way of giving back," he said. "It means a lot [to me] to influence somebody to get interested in history."