Brief History of Music for Fifes and Field Drums

27 Oct

(Program Notes from the 2 December 2000 C.A.D.R.E./University of Toronto Percussion Ensemble Concert at in Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music.)

The field drum is an instrument of unknown age and origin, but paintings and manuscripts show that by the late 15th century when Henry VII brought the drum to England, it had all the major design elements of our contemporary drums. A drum could not be owned except under license from Henry and what a drummer played was strictly limited to approved military beatings such as the “English March”. Since Henry’s reign, the drum has been closely associated with the pomp and circumstance of monarchies and the logistics of military forces.

The flageolet, Arigot and fife have a long-lived partnership with the field drum. Fifes played familiar tunes from the regions where soldiers were recruited and, with the roar of drums, gave soldiers the resolve and passion necessary for facing their enemies. The officers who often paid the salaries, uniform and instrument expenses for heir units musicians, also introduced melodies from Classical music .

Almost 150 years ago, the telegraph made fifes and drums obsolete as directors of troops on the battlefield. More than 100,000 young men and boys had played fifes and drums for both sides in the American Civil War (1860-1865) and of that number, close to two thousand were under the age of thirteen years.

During the 1880’s, Confederate and Union veteran musicians, began making pilgrimages to the famous battlefields of the war. They reminisced, played music together and with the aid of their memories and funds from veterans’ organizations, published collections of the music they had played during the conflict.1

The organization of civilian fife and drum corps began at this time in the state of Connecticut, and the northeastern U.S. remains the center of fife and drum activity in North America today. Corps tend to specialize in the music of a particular historic period: the revolutionary war, the war of 1812 or the Civil War. They are on the whole, very particular about the authenticity of their music, musical instruments and dress.

The history of drum and bugle corps is quite different. Whereas fife corps remained committed to reproducing an “authentic” look and sound, bugle corps gradually evolved into brass orchestras. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that without valves, the original cavalry bugle had a small range of notes – from middle C ascending, C, G, C, E, G, B flat and C. “ and a limited repertoire. (The traditional six- holed fife had a range of two chromatic octaves and a repertoire of thousands of tunes dating back hundreds of years.)

At the end of World War I, drum and bugle corps were organized and run by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the United States. Originally their purpose was fraternal as well as musical and they marched in local parades on patriotic holidays. But the drum corps movement became very popular, went international and spawned junior corps for players under the age of twenty-one. After W.W. II, Canadian Militia Trumpet Bands sprung up all over Canada and some of the world’s greatest drum virtuosos came out of those groups. In the early 1970’s, the junior corps separated from the veterans. They formed Drum Corps International (D.C.I.) and developed corps with expanded instrumentation and created spectacular shows with intricate choreography designed for football fields. In 1997, another breach in the drum corps movement occurred when The Star of Indiana corps left D.C.I., and developed a ‘Broadway type’ show for commercial venues called “Brass Theater” “ later, “Blast”.

There have been periodic surges in the public’s awareness of and interest in the traditional music for fife and drum. The 1950’s and early 1960’s was one of those times. Partially in response to the Civil War Centennial and the looming bicentennial, Fife and drum corps were established at the colonial Williamsburg restoration in Virginia and at Forts Henry and York in Canada. The Canadian drummer, fifer and military historian George Carroll played a major role in the reorganization of the U.S. Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps in Washington, D.C., as well as the development of the Williamsburg corps and music library. Carroll also organized the Epcott Center Fife and Drum corps at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Many of the fife tunes on our program today are versions written by Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) for “The Drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide” a book he co-authored with Drum Major George B. Bruce in 1862. This great work has never been surpassed as an example of the perfect blending of melodies and drum beatings. Dan Emmett was of partial North American Indian ancestry and a famous minstrel musician and actor. He played violin, mandolin, banjo and drums and was called out of retirement to help Bruce write this first U.S. Army approved self-instructor for drums and fifes in modern notation. In 1859 Dan Emmett composed “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land” “ (“Dixie Land”) 2.

Very little is known about George B. Bruce except that he was the Drum Major and principal instructor U.S.A., at Bedlow’s Island and Governor’s Island, New York Harbor during the U.S. Civil War. He ended his military career in the Seventh Regiment “New York State Militia (National Guard) Band”. There is evidence that he moved to Philadelphia and added the middle initial ‘B’ in order to escape his wife’s law suits. Whatever his marital situation, his drum beatings prove that he was a drummer in possession of phenomenal technique and musical acumen.


1. See- Carroll, George: The Fifers’ and Drummers’ Compendium containingg the American Veteran Fifer, General Washington’s Drum Shop, 293 North Fairfax Street, Alexandria, Virginia.

2. See, Sacks, Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks; “Way UP North in Dixie”, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1993. The Sacks present compelling evidence against Emmett’s authorship of Dixie. They suggest a family of black musicians living near Emmett, and with whom he made music,  composed the work and taught it to him.

Copyright © 2003 by Robin Engelman

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Posted by on October 27, 2003 in Articles, Fifes & Drums


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