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!