Tea Party winners: Elaine Marie Cooper's novel goes to both Ashley Penn and Mary Ann Hake:, Carrie Fancett Pagels' and Gina Welborn's Blue Ribbon Brides collection goes to: Melanie Backus Carrie's O' Little Christmas Town Collection goes to: Cherrilynn Bisbano

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fifes and Drums

Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper

On a recent visit to Massachusetts, I had the pleasure of listening to a Fife and Drum Corps from New York. I’m not sure what it is about the visceral pleasure of these ancient instruments, but they always stir something inside me. Perhaps that is why, for hundreds of years, fifes and drums were the instruments of choice to motivate armies on their way to battle. It is an inspiring and thrilling sound.

The first known use of these instruments in formation for battle was in Switzerland in the 15th century. The Germanic and French armies picked up on the usefulness of marching soldiers to the beat of musicians. But it wasn’t until 1714 that the English Army began to make use of a fife and drum corps to keep their troops focused and in order as they marched to battle. The Scottish troops utilized bagpipes and drums for their regiments.

The military pattern was to use one or two fifers and drummers for every 100 soldiers. When a company of 800 to 1,000 soldiers marched together, a fife and drum corps was banded together, consisting of anywhere from eight to forty musicians. The musicians were generally boys between ten and eighteen years of age.

The purposes of the musicians was not just to motivate the armies on long marches, but to broadcast signals for long distances. In the camp as well, daily signals alerted the troops to everything from wake up call (“Reveille”), to sick call (for those who were ill to get medical attention), to meals, to assemblies. There was a tune to gather wood or collect water. The soldiers assigned to these tasks were usually accompanied by a drummer to discourage desertion.


The tune for breakfast call was often “Pease Upon a Trencher” and for lunch or supper, “The Roast Beef.” Appropriate melodies for mealtimes!

The officer of the day was always accompanied by a drummer in order to sound the alarm in case of attack. “To Arms” sent the soldiers hustling to grab their gear and muskets, and form into their company.

Of course, if there was no danger and it was time for lights out, “Taptoo” (also called “Tattoo”) was played by the drummers and fifers marching through camp.

Fife and drum musicians were utilized throughout the American Revolution by both the British and Continental troops. This method of wartime communication continued right up until the Civil War when the bugle became the instrument of choice.

But in 1876, the centennial celebration of American Independence, the fondness to revive the use of fifes and drums for patriotic celebrations came alive. Since then, numerous companies of Fife and Drum Corps have sprung up, especially along the east coast from New England to Virginia.

Fort Ticonderoga formed its own corps in 1926, on the eve of the 150th celebration of American independence. They continue the tradition for such celebrations as the anniversary of the capture of that fort by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys on May 10, 1775.

Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia formed their own Fife and Drum Corps in 1958. Boys and girls ages 14-18 participate in this wonderful display of colonial music.

In 1960, the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drums Corps became a part of the 3rd US Infantry. Traditionally known as the “Old Guard,” this infantry unit is the oldest active duty unit in the Army, serving our nation since 1784. Click here to listen to their Fife and Drum Corps, now accompanied by a bugle. Huzzah!

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for this lovely post, Elaine! We have two sets of fife and drum groups here where I live--Yorktown and Williamsburg. Both are wonderful. It is so inspiring listening to them.

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    1. You are so blessed to be able to hear them live, Carrie! LOVE listening to the sounds of the fifes and drums! We bought a CD of he Williamsburg Corps when we visited there years ago. It's still inspiring music to get me moving on my elliptical! LOL!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Ah yes! I found a great CD recently but I was too cheap to buy it...yet. Funny thing is that with all the War of 1812 events I'm visiting I'm hearing a lot more fife and drum. Recently while at my daughter's house, the parade lined up down her street for a firemen's parade. In front of our house was a fife and drum corps. Next street over - a bagpipe group. What a treat!

    Nothing says 18th century like a fife and drum corps! Thank you so much Elaine!

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    1. You are very welcome, Debra! And yes, the sounds of these musicians fills the atmosphere with 18th century spirit!

      Hope you can get the CD. ;-)

      Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

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  3. Wonderful post, Elaine! I wish I could have heard them!

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    1. I must confess, MaryLu, I was torn between sitting inside at my book signing at the Armory and running outside to listen to the fifes and drums!!! I did manage to sneak out for a quick break—that just HAPPENED to coincide with their performance! ;-)

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  4. I never really knew what the fife and drum was all about. Thanks for telling us, Elaine. I enjoyed hearing them at CW last year this time.

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    1. I learned a lot about them in doing my research, Carla. I knew they were important in battle but uncovering all the details (like a drummer always attending the soldiers who were collecting water or wood) was delightful for me as well. I was actually reading through an account (for my current WIP) about a battle and it described so many casualties among the drummers. :( Tough job. But then war is the toughest job of all.

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    2. That is fascinating. The valor of those young men/boys!

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  5. The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums play such a vital part in our community. One can hear them all over town, not just in Colonial Williamsburg. Many of these youngsters start at the age of ten in a junior corps until they get to high school. It's a demanding program and the kids work very hard. I love the sound.
    Thanks Elaine for a great post.

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words! Wish I lived close enough to hear those melodies, Janet. That would be so lovely! And yes, the boys and girls that are in the CW program work very hard; that is obvious in their stellar performances.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Personally, I think satellite technology would have been a whole lot easier and much more accurate! What were they thinking! Great post Elaine-- and great blog! Enjoyed it!

    B.J.

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  7. Hi B.J.! I guess they were thinking...."What on earth is a satellite?" LOL!! Thanks for coming by and commenting! Great to "see" you here! :)

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  8. Elaine, thank you for the great Article, I truly enjoyed learning about the fife and drum, so interesting.
    Thank you and God Bless
    Ingrid

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  9. Great post, Elaine. Never heard the word Taptoo before. I love to listen to the fife and drums. I agree with you that it is a stirring sound. It makes the imagination soar.

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