The History of Fyfing and Drumming
In colonial America, between 1771 and 1786, boys between the ages of nine and thirteen were drafted to serve as fyfers or drummers in a fighting unit. These boys did not carry guns or swords, but fought with their music. The armies of our nation would not have succeeded without these young musicians, as every command was sounded through their instruments, whether on the battlefield or marching down a country road. One called the men to assemble, or summoned the doctor to a wounded solider; another gave the order to advance, retreat or shoot; and yet another called the weary troops together for meals, such as they were. At the end of a long day of battle, the sound of “taps rang through the night.
Granby Memorial Day Performance (2012)
A fife (ancient spelling is fyfe, the spellings are used interchangeably here) is a small, high‐pitched, transverse flute that is similar to the piccolo, but louder and shriller due to its narrower bore. The fife originated in fourteenth century Switzerland, and its use was spread throughout Europe by Swiss mercenaries. In medieval Europe, it was used in folk music and dances throughout all social classes. It is often used in military and marching bands. Someone who plays the fife is called a fifer. The word fife comes from the German Pfeife, or pipe, ultimately derived from the Latin word pipare. The fife is a simple instrument usually consisting of a tube with 6 finger holes, and diatonically tuned. Some have 10 or 11 holes for added chromatics. The fife also has an embouchure hole across which the player blows, and a cork plug inside the tube just above the embouchure hole. Some nineteenth century fifes had a key pressed by the little finger of the right hand in place of a seventh finger hole. Marching fifes typically play in the key of B flat, which is the case for the Marquis
fyfes. Fyfes in the key of D & C are also common, but not used by our organization.
Fyfe music is commonly written in the key of D, and played as though the fyfe played that key, regardless of the key in which the fyfe actually plays. The fyfe sounds an octave above the written music. Six‐hole fifes are unable to play all chromatic pitches, and many of the chromatic pitches they can play sound very out of tune. This tuning irregularity is part of the unique sound of the fife, but also limits the keys in which it can realistically play. The common six‐hole fyfe typically will play only in the keys of G ,D, and sometimes A and their relative minors. An experienced fyfer can play three full octaves, although this takes some practice to achieve. The second and third octaves are the loudest and most penetrating and as such are preferred for marching music.
Fifes are made mostly of wood, with the dense wood of grenadilla, rosewood, mopane, pink ivory, cocobolo, boxwood and others considered superior. Maple and persimmon are also used, but generally regarded as inferior in quality of sound. Military and marching fyfes have metal reinforcing bands around the ends called ferrules, which protect the wood from damage. Fifes can also be made entirely of metal or plastic, as is the case with our beginner fifes. Modern fifes may also have a two‐piece construction which allows for a sliding tuning joint.
The fife was one of the most important musical instruments in America's Colonial period, and its use was even more widespread than the violin or piano. It was important not only for its use in playing folk music, but for its role in the military, and in particular the American Revolutionary War. The fife is loud and piercing, but also extremely small, light and portable. By some reports, a military fife can be heard up to 3 miles away over artillery fire. This makes is very useful for signaling on the battlefield and it’s military use can be traced back to European armies as far back as the 1400s in Switzerland and southern Germany. By the 1500s, the fife was a standard infantry instrument in Europe. Accompanied by a snare drum, the company’s fifer was responsible for conveying orders in battle. These included order to fire, retreat, advance and so forth. The fifers and drummers also gave signals at camp such as the call to arms. While the
infantry company marched, the drummer and the fifer set the cadence. During marches, fifers improvised tunes, creating variations on a theme while keeping the rhythm of the march. While the unit rested or camped, the fifers and drummers played music to entertain the soldiers.
By the 18th century, military use of fifers was regulated by armies throughout Europe and the American colonies. The rank of Fife Major was introduced as a noncommissioned officer who was responsible for the regiment’s fifers, just as a Drum Major was responsible for the drummers. Books of military regulations from that time included standard fife calls to be used in battle or at camp.
By the late 19th century, warfare was changing and fifes were no longer practical as combat signaling devices. British armies stopped using fifers in the 1890s and the United States stopped in 1904. The fife can still be heard in some Appalachian folk music, playing lively dance tunes. American slaves adopted fifes in their musical traditions, which derived from African music. African‐American fife‐and‐drum music was one of the many sources of Blues music. The center of the fife and drum community today is in New England, and most notably in Connecticut. Here there remains an active and enthusiastic group that continues to play fife and drum music in a folk tradition that has gone on since just after the American Civil War. Internationally, the fyfe’s military legacy lives on primarily through historical reenactment Corps in Switzerland and the United
The fyfes played by the Marquis of Granby are unique to our organization. They are historically accurate in appearance and tone to fifes played during the American Revolutionary War. Our fyfes come from the Sweetheart Flute Company, founded by Ralph Sweet here in Connecticut. The Marquis fyfes (known as the MOGs) are specially designed by Walter Sweet, who is the son of Ralph. Our fyfes have subtle but unique qualities of tone and volume. Our fifing members who wish to own their own MOG fyfe (rather than use one on loan from the Corps) should contact the Equipment Quartermaster who will help coordinate your purchase to ensure you procure the correct model. Other model fyfes are not permitted in Marquis performances, as this is likely to result in a less uniform sound and would diminish the overall quality of the presentation.