Published April 20, 2009
From my first visit in 1975 to my most recent last year, Colonial Williamsburg’s fife and drum corps ranks high as one of my favorite historical attractions at my favorite town. I could watch the corps play and march for hours. CW’s corps recreates the military maneuvers of the American Revolution, when fifes and drums acted as timepieces in camp and as message-bearers in battle.
The fife is a transverse flute (held at a right angle to the body) with six tone holes. It has no keys, all the holes being open and covered with fingers to change pitch. It is pitched in the key of B flat and plays a B flat when all the holes are covered. The traditional fife is made of wood and requires regular oiling, compared to modern flutes and piccolos that are made of metal.
Music for the fife is written in the key of D, and fingering patterns are the same as a D instrument, so the B flat player reads in D but plays in B flat. Fifes can produce nearly a three-octave range, the upper octaves used outside, where the higher pitch can be heard above snare drums and the sound of battle, and the lower octave reserved for indoor use.
Kate Van Winkle Keller’s “Fife Tunes From The American Revolution,” published in 1997 by The Hendrickson Group, compiles tunes from fifer Giles Gibbs’ 1777 manuscript music book and includes historical background on the tunes.
“Giles Gibbs’ manuscript tells us of the specific music used by fifers in the militia during the earliest years of the American Revolution,” writes Keller. “Gibbs collected tunes to accompany drummers’ cadences for marching, tunes to play as signals, tunes to dance to, and tunes to sing songs and psalms ...” The basic military signals were known by fifers of Washington’s army throughout the country and by fiddlers, dancers and singers. With the exception of working duty calls, the collection reflects popular music of the day, she writes.
Gibbs was born on May 25, 1760, the sixth son of Giles and Rachel Davis Gibbs, in the Ellington parish of Windsor, Conn. Five generations earlier, his ancestor Giles Gibbs had been one of the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and helped establish Windsor in 1633.
Gibbs was 15 and too young to serve when the Revolution opened with the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. In the spring of 1777, a muster of militia was held in Ellington, and unless exempted, every able-bodied man 16 to 60 had to train and take his turn in local emergencies. The roll from this muster is preserved at the Connecticut Historical Society and includes Gibbs’ name. Gibbs was 17 and a member of the Ellington militia when he transcribed the tunes during the spring and summer of 1777.
After serving, Gibbs accompanied his friend Simeon Belknap to Randolph, Vt., in 1780 to help with a house-raising and was captured and killed by raiding Indians. His great-nephew Sidney Stanley gave the music book to the Connecticut Historical Society in 1864.
Watermarks on several leaves identify the paper as made by Christian or Henry Friend at their paper mill on Sandy Run in Springfield Township, Montgomery County, Pa. Eight leaves were folded into four sets of two and each set folded in half into a signature measuring 10.2 by 16.4 cm, a ninth leaf wrapped around the signatures as a cover. Gibbs wrote his name and other notes on the cover and secured the book with four stab stitches near the folded edge. Much later, another leaf was added, possibly by Stanley when he donated the book, and at some time a heavier cover was added.
Keller also discovered Benjamin Clark’s 1797 drum book, in 1974. Compiled by Susan Cifaldi and published by The Hendrickson Group in 1989, “Benjamin Clark’s Drum Book” shows the drum beatings used in military maneuvers in the 1700s. Cifaldi wrote that the book was an important step toward authenticating the 18th-century style of drumming.
The original was a small paperbound notebook containing 36 handwritten entries, 29 march beatings and seven military calls or signals. Cifaldi correlated 30 of Clark’s beatings with associated melodies.
Several reenactment fife and drum corps preserve the fifing tradition of the Revolution and of the 19th century, some have recorded CDs, and Williamsburg’s corps has recorded CDs and a DVD. The Keller and Cifaldi books and many more books of colonial tunes for marching and dancing can be purchased at colonialmusic.org, and Colonial Williamsburg fife and drum corps CDs and DVD are available at history.org.