Sherry Madden — professional interpreter, translator, editor, and part-time flutist and fifer —has always been a bit of a revolutionary. “I was a Cambridge leftist for a while,” she chuckles. In the early eighties, she went to Los Angeles to sit in on a meeting of insurgents from El Salvador’s civil war. “The electricity of that room when these leftist exiles got up and spoke — it was like listening to Baby Che or something. It was great.”
Madden might still be considered a bit of an upstart this coming Monday, April 17th, when she co-leads the Lexington Minute Men in the town’s beloved Patriots Day parade as “the Spirit of ’76”, outfitted in her revolutionary duds, fife in hand. A woman at the head of an historically male outfit? Laughing, she admits “You know, honestly, it’s personality. I’m really loud….I’m as loud as three people playing!”
Madden has been one of the few women to consistently accompany the Lexington Minute Men since she was approached about 10 years ago by one of the corps reenactors. She is not considered a formal member of the group. The Minute Men is, to date, an all-male organization, a policy that has roiled many in town and resulted in a decision for them not to participate in the opening ceremony of this year’s Town Meeting. But even the former rabble rouser can see both sides.
“[Today’s emphasis on] inclusiveness bumps into the idea of being authentic,” Madden explains. After all, authenticity is the hallmark of the Minute Men, down to the smallest of details like the buttonholes on their period costumes. And the fife and drum corps wasn’t technically part of the original militia.
“I know a little bit of their conflict with this whole women thing,” Madden goes on. “But they’re great guys. Some people think they’re all old-boy network and all that, but they’re really not. There’s definitely a critical mass that [wants women in the group]. But they have to deal with the people that want to keep tradition.” The Minute Men, after all, are in the national spotlight, she points out, due to the unique nature of their role in the founding of the nation and their allegiance to historical facts. As a result, Madden often jokingly refers to herself as their “token female.”
There is nothing token, however, about Madden’s musical skills, honed over more than half a century of playing for fun and for show. “[When] I was in third grade, I played flute and took lessons from a woman who was in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra….a really cracker jack musician.” She went on to play with a statewide prize-winning high school ragtime ensemble (“That was really cool”), all the while being inspired – or prodded — by her very musical family, especially her father, a professional musician.
“I met Louis Armstrong when I was a kid,” she remembers, and her dad played at times with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. “My father wasn’t an insurance salesman or lawyer; he was a musician. So that kind of made us a little bit different.”
The former flutist, now fifer, took about 30 years off to have kids and “do my thing.” She had a change of heart when she returned to the states from a Fulbright in Argentina and happened to see a fife and drum corps in action. “Wow, look at those guys,” she remembers thinking. “I wanna do that. I wanna wear the wig!”
Since then, Madden has played with several different outfits, in the state and well beyond. A career highlight: clad in a “colonial wig like George Washington,” accompanying the Boston Pops on the piccolo in 2010 during their July 4th Hatch Shell concert. “It was about twenty seconds,” she chortles, but extraordinarily memorable. “I was at the very first July 4th extravaganza concert back in the early seventies. So, for me, it was just like a culmination of being there as a spectator off and on over the years.”
While Monday’s Patriots Day parade may be lower keyed and less well attended, it is very meaningful for Madden in other ways. “I feel very proud to be American and the [Lexington parade] makes me feel more proud. We have a lot of flaws, no doubt.”
Because Madden works with immigrants and teaches immigration procedure for people who want to be interpreters, she often thinks about the Constitution. “I always get back to the 14th Amendment that established who is a citizen, due process under the law, and equal opportunity.” She calls it “a game changer” for the country, also providing the rationale, over time, for such critical policies like those embedded in the Civil Rights movement. “That is the most beautiful document,” she reflects. “That’s what I feel American ideals should stem from,” – no doubt a sentiment she will channel as she toots loudly at the helm of Monday afternoon’s parade celebration.