A Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps performance can be a bridge to the music that marked the beginning of a nation. For many of the group’s regularly-scheduled performances in the Revolutionary City, guests line the streets two or three deep to catch a glimpse of the musicians as they march by.
There is a timeless connection to those melodies, and that resonance is the reason so many Americans still carry on the fife and drum tradition. They form bands that faithfully represent the United States’ earliest soundtracks.
Colonial Williamsburg is once again assembling that collective passion for historical music by hosting the 12th annual Drummers Call, a three-day event showcasing some of the best fife and drum corps in the nation. During the weekend of May 15-17, 2015, a dozen ensembles from across the country will participate in a series of concerts, marches and mass jam sessions, all to honor the enduring legacy fifers and drummers have forged in American history. Although inspiring tunes will echo through the streets of this restored 18th-century Virginia town, the corps in attendance represent a much wider swath of places and traditions — much like the people who came through Williamsburg amid the stirrings of revolution almost 2½ centuries ago.
As host of the event, the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps will play a visible role in the weekend’s main events, including the Grand March and Review, a parade down Duke of Gloucester Street culminating in a gathering of all 12 bands on Market Square. Although the spectacle is the music played by the 12 bands, the spotlight will be on the invitees, who together span more than 200 years of fife and drum music legend.
Colonial Williamsburg’s musicians, along with several other groups, such as the Field Music of the American Revolution and the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, represent martial music of the Colonial era. But Colonial Williamsburg Drum Major Lance Pedigo says that this is as much about paying homage to the music’s evolution as it is about honoring the tunes that buoyed patriots’ spirits.
“As an 18th-century military music organization, our job is to preserve that portion of history. But it’s important to preserve the history of different eras, as well, and we strive to feature groups that do that,” Pedigo said. That’s why Drummers Call includes corps from the Revolutionary era all the way through to the early 20th century.
One of the groups returning to the Historic Area this year will be the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Fifes and Drums, a Civil War outfit. Williamsburg was well-known to the soldiers this corps represents; the 2nd Rhode Island was among the units nearby when Union and Confederate forces clashed here in 1862.
Peter Emerick, director of the Uxbridge, Mass.-based fife and drum corps, says that the opportunity to perform in Colonial Williamsburg is as much about a shared appreciation for the past as it is about personal connections to the town. “For us it’s all about the parallels in history. People at Colonial Williamsburg live, eat and breathe history. We’re pretty much the same way up here in New England,” Emerick said.
Emerick’s father began this fife and drum corps in the 1950s ahead of the Civil War’s centennial, and since then, the group has expanded its repertoire and wardrobe, portraying all manner of 18th- and 19th-century military musicians. Across all those varying impressions, one goal remains consistent: faithfully re-creating the genuine sounds of each time period”A lot of people want to see, touch, feel, hear … to truly sense history. When we present the material, we feel the same way. We perform what the author intended. That extends to the instruments and the arrangements. That’s a common denominator among the guys in our group, that commitment to accuracy. It creates a sound that’s virtually unheard anymore. To hear those old sounds, that makes history real.”
Making the past come alive in this case means following fife and drum music along the American timeline as it began to take on more distinctive traits. Whereas colonial-era music drew heavily from its deep European roots, a couple decades later, a Federalist style of composition began to emerge. Flash forward again to the 1860s, and there was a clear American tinge to Civil War music.
“When you get into popular tunes of the post-Civil War era, you get songwriters who made music that could only have been made in America,” says Scott Mitchell, director of the Grand Republic Fife and Drum Corps. The nation’s multi-ethnic traditions had found their way into music by the turn of the 20th century and beyond, expressing influences from African American and Irish culture, according to Mitchell. This can be heard in the music of George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers.
The Grand Republic Fife and Drum Corps portrays musicians from the 1890s, an era when many places, especially in New England, had a town band that played for parades and other special events.
Compared with the tunes of earlier decades, the Grand Republic’s music seems up-tempo and lighter. Mitchell says people often describe his group as the band that plays “happy music.” The ensemble’s repertoire includes nods to Mark Twain. They have a whole medley of tunes about frogs, among them the folk song “Froggy Went A-Courtin.'”
Mitchell acknowledges that fife and drum corps, whatever era they’re being used to depict, are a peculiar mode of folk art. But it is art, he says, that is so embedded in the American character, that someone must pass it on to succeeding generations. “The folks in my group are involved in the preservation of this music and this community. They have a commitment to historical accuracy and to education. Those are goals shared by Colonial Williamsburg.
“All of us in this community talk about how to keep this art form together, how to keep it going. And many of us agree — the best way is to play the music.”
GUEST BLOGGER: BEN SWENSON
Ben Swenson lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife and two sons. His writing career has led him to all sorts of odd corners of the world: he has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, wrestled crab pots on a Chesapeake Bay work boat and taken a helicopter ride through a twisting river gorge. Odds are good you will find him outside with them somewhere when he is not chasing or telling stories.