About Fife and Drum

Where did fife and drum come from?

Fife and Drum music has very ancient roots. The fife has been played for centuries in Switzerland and Western Europe. Tradition holds that the fife and some of the music for it had its origins in the music of the Turkish Janissaries who invaded Europe in the Middle Ages and were the target of the crusades. In any event, the fife became an integral part of the military music tradition, first in Europe and later in the New World, as its shrill tone could pierce the din of battle to give commands. It also provided an entertainment for soldiers on the march, breaking the monotony with a song.

The snare drum also has a Middle Eastern origin. Naqqam, as the Arabs called them, were a pair of rope tensioned drums carried by horses into battle, used to give commands to keep the riders together. In England, these were called Nakkers, and became the precursor both to modern timpani and to snare drums, including ours today. Strings were stretched across the heads to give a "snap" sound to the drums to make it more piercing. Many other influences had a role in the creation of our modern snare drum, but it too became a part of signaling in the military, providing a steady marching beat or giving specific commands like "charge" or "retreat" to a whole army.

During the Revolutionary War, young soldiers around 12 years old were usually selected to learn to play the instruments. After very brief training, they were assigned to their groups, one fifer and one drummer worked together with a group of troops. When a larger group of soldiers marched together, their fifers and drummers would join into a corps. This provided them with an opportunity to play together, learning more songs and getting critique of their playing.

The fife and drum tradition continued, using fifes, drums, and bugels to give orders and provide music for the military. Everything from getting up to curfew was sounded by the fifes and drums. There were calls for each step in the musket drill, for daily tasks like gathering wood, and for marching commands. Even through the civil war, fifes and drums were popular, and during the civil war an important training manual by Bruce and Emmet was published for fifes and drums, which included arrangements of pop songs of the era, like "Grandfathers Clock" and "Dixie." It was also during the civil war era that the bass drum was added to fife and drum music.

The many trained musicians leaving the military after the civil war sparked a lot of interest in the music of fife and drum. Many soldiers went back to their towns and continued to play, forming community fife and drum corps all over the country. Many corps competed to play the most interesting and challenging music and the standards of playing rose.

Today, there are still many corps throughout the United States. Some date back as far as the late 1800s. Hanaford's is a much younger corps, but it is keeping the traditions of ancient military music alive in Vermont. The music we play is draws on traditional Irish, British, French, and American tunes from the mid-1800s, as well as some of our own arrangements of old favorites.

Josiah Raiche - Snare Drummer with Hanaford's