Meridian Industrial


7/30/2020 | VICKI MITCHELL


What do Broadway shows, the Jethro Tull Band, the Boston Philharmonic, and fife and drum corps across the country all have in common? The answer is that they all use instruments handcrafted by Joseph (Jos) Morneault in Enfield, Connecticut. Morneault is the owner/operator of Musique Morneaux, and his workshop is tucked away in a quiet spot along the Scantic River, on the grounds of the historic Powder Mill Barn. It is there that he turns out the flutes, fifes and whistles that he is known for, and that are used by a diverse group of musicians. He tells about the time that Ian Anderson, lead vocalist and flautist for the British rock band Jethro Tull, commissioned a whistle and was coming to Enfield to pick it up personally. Alas, at the last minute Anderson had to send a representative in his place, but he also sent tickets to the band’s upcoming concert in Boston. Morneault also mentions two solo artists, one in Japan and one in South Korea, both very well known in their fields, who use his instruments, and can be seen and heard on the You-Tube videos referenced at the end of this article. Stores in Japan, South Korea, Germany, and England, among other countries, import his instruments. The fife and drum corps that play his instruments are the Middlesex County Volunteers, Massachusetts; Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums, Williamsburg, Virginia; Fifes and Drums of York Town, Yorktown, Virginia; Corps Values Music Heritage, Abington, Virginia; Fifres et Tambours du 1er Regiment de Province, Fréjus, France; and the USS Constitution 1812 Marine Guard, Boston, Massachusetts.

It is safe to say that Morneault’s heart is with the fife and drum corps he has been a part of, as well as early American and English folk songs and sea chanteys, which he performs at various venues.

Morneault, who took music lessons when he was young and who “came up” through a fife and drum experience, eventually began making the instruments he played. He apprenticed with Cooperman Fife and Drum Company, and when they relocated to Vermont from Centerbrook, Connecticut, he was hired as a shop foreman by Ralph Sweet, whose shop was located in Enfield. Sweet, who passed away last June, purchased the Powder Mill Barn on South Maple Street, adjacent to the Scantic River, in 1959. Originally a horse barn of the Hazard Powder Company, Sweet turned it into a dance hall and his home. In 1969, he built a garage/workshop near the barn, and began making the instruments as a hobby. Eventually, his hobby became a business, known as the Sweetheart Flute Company.

When he retired in 2017, Morneault took over the business, and continues today to make historical, traditional, and contemporary flutes, fifes and whistles. Each instrument is made one at a time in his shop, usually out of exotic hardwood such as Mexican blackwood (from Mexico and Central America), African mopani wood, or granadillo (from South America). These woods are extremely strong, making them very durable and less likely to crack, and they machine well, says Morneault. For a long time, he added, the African blackwood and Honduras rosewood were the favorite woods of choice. However, these woods are very valuable, particularly the rosewood, which has led to population loss from illegal logging, and is now on the CITES watch list. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is a treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. It came into force in 1975 to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of a species, such as the ivory trade did with the elephants. Occasionally, Morneault will use wood from the Eastern, or sugar, maple.

When asked to explain, in simple terms, the differences between flutes, fifes and whistles, Morneault said, “a flute is an instrument for producing musical sounds through air turbulence. There are many musical instruments that fall into this description, but what I mostly make are transverse flutes (played horizontally) for Irish music and early American music, fifes which are more like piccolos, and whistles which are a simplified version of an instrument called a flageolet, almost unheard of today. A transverse flute is designed to accentuate the lowest registers while the fife has a tighter bore facilitating overblowing the harmonics for an easier and louder 2d and 3d register. And there’s some overlap in these days of musical bridging of differences and fusion. The whistle is a fipple flute, which is to say that like a recorder (also a flute), it has a part that works like a straw of some fashion (called a fipple) that the player inserts into her mouth and blows, which channels the breath directly to the embouchure (the exposed hole) and creates the sound.”

Furthermore, a traditional fife, Morneault explained, is made with a larger bore than an historical fife, and can go down in pitch to a B flat. An historical fife is made with a very tight bore, as it needed to be heard over the drums as a signaling device in the military. During times of war, such as the American Civil War, various tunes signaled different military commands, such as when to rise, to break down camp, to sound an alarm, or to engage in battle. Today, these instruments are used by folk musicians, fife and drum corps, and for historical dances. A traditional or historical fife takes Morneault about a day to make, and sells for $180.00 to $200.00. A contemporary fife can take three days to make, and can cost up to $400.00. Whistles take the longest to make…up to a week…due to the mouth piece. Prices for a handcrafted flute start at $400.00

Morneault can play all of the woodwinds he makes, and has played with the Ancient Mariners of Connecticut, originally from Guilford. He is also a member of the group Jovial Crew, which performs every Monday night at the Griswold Inn in Essex, but unfortunately they are on hiatus due to the coronavirus. They perform early American and English folk songs, as well as sea chanteys. Morneault adds, “I also play with David Littlefield and Geoff Kaufman, performing more of the gentler folk songs of the sea and history. I, myself, have a performance of songs of the working class from the late 18th century in New England, but again things are not open for such performances just yet.”

When asked his favorite part of his job, he says, “I don’t know that I have a favorite but generally I derive a great deal of satisfaction from the fife. This is because it was my background - how I got into making instruments in the first place.”

Morneault is assisted part-time in his shop by Amy Bissel (office manager), Jamie Bishop (assistant), and Steven Taskovics (assistant and consultant).


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