A new documentary reflects on five decades of Fifes and Drums. Director Mike Durling talks about building a film that looks through the years and across the country.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Colonial Williamsburg's Fifes and Drums recreate field music that carries across hills, valleys, and centuries. Producer Mike Durling is making a documentary on the musical regiment on its 50th anniversary.
Lloyd: Where did the idea for the documentary come from?
Mike: Well I think it had to do with the 50th anniversary. The fact that they were really organized in 1958 and so that they thought it would be a good thing to do for the 50th anniversary of the Fifes and Drums.
Lloyd: You've got your eye set on this documentary, you must have had an idea of what you wanted to do when you started. What was it? What was it that you're trying to show people?
Mike: We started out trying to show the history of the Fife and Drum Corps and what they are today and what they have been in the past. Somewhere along the line, we decided that we wanted to bring in the larger community of fife and drum. So we actually went and talked to, went up to a muster in Connecticut and saw 60 fife and drum corps, one of which is ours, of course.
We talked to the people that came here for the muster that came here to Williamsburg for Drummer's Call in May, which was a dozen corps. We taped them, interviewed them, talked to them. So we got a sense of the larger community and how we fit into it and also how the larger community works, and the kind of emotional attachment people have to this whole community.
It really, you know, the whole thing evolves as you go along, as you learn more about it, you change your methods and stuff like that. You say, "Hey, I want to see this because this is pretty interesting," and then you find out new things and take it off in new directions. You sort of have a general outline of what you want to do and who you want to talk to, but then you, the details get worked out as you go along.
Lloyd: As a producer of documentaries, what do you emphasize when you're trying to do the story of 50 years of this group? I don't guess anybody's still in it who was in it 50 years ago. All the fifers and drummers I've seen look like teenagers.
Mike: Well, yeah they are. But there are people that go back quite a long ways. There's people like Bill White that go back into the '70s. I had never met him before, but George Carroll, who was the person that really got the corps organized in 1958, is still around and still very active in the fife and drum community. You go back and talk to these people, and just get them to tell their story.
Lloyd: Is there any, in making the documentary, has anything surprised you? That you just didn't know before you started?
Mike: Just the variety of the different styles and kinds of corps there are out there. I never knew that there was just this amazing diversity of different kinds of fifes and drums. I've lived with our corps for nearly 30 years now, and I've gotten to know them. They're just second nature because I see them all the time, I've known the people that run the corps for years and years. But that's all I knew about fife and drum. Just how much diversity there is out there. You know, also, the way that they work here and the long traditions that they had going on here. I just knew them as they were now, but I never knew what they were in the past – the people that started them, how it got going. Just, it's a pretty broad subject.
Lloyd: Another question: in making documentaries, sometimes you have a lot of fun. Has this been a fun documentary, or a working documentary, or a combination?
Mike: Well as you know, it's a lot of work. You've got to go places, and you've got to meet up with people. But yeah, it's been a lot of fun, because they're just great people. You just run into a lot of great people. Our people are just terrific people to work with. Whatever we needed for the documentary, they provided it for us. They threw open the doors.
Lloyd: When you were in New England with all these other groups, did they welcome you as you're doing a documentary about the Williamsburg Fifes and Drums? Did they say, "Fine, come on in, shoot what you want"?
Mike: Sometimes, to some degree. You know, there were some where we had to do a little explaining because they didn't know we were coming and so we had to explain what we were about and everything like that. Most of the time, when people found out what we actually were doing, they were pretty open to us.
Lloyd: The Fifes and Drums from Colonial Williamsburg. Do other fife and drum corps recognize them, or know about what they do, or know anything about Colonial Williamsburg?
Mike: I think the Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg are pretty well known throughout the community. They're very well respected and known for developing a lot of the musical repertoire that a lot of the other corps borrow from and work with, use throughout the years. They've got a very big status throughout the community and lots and lots of friends. When we ran into people that weren't expecting us, the friends of the corps that are within the community really helped us out, and helped us spread the word and who we were and what we were trying to achieve.
Lloyd: So it's not like a little unknown group, it's pretty well known.
Mike: We're really right up there. We're one of the premier corps in the country. I think people recognize us for that. We helped a lot of the corps get going. There are people that say, "Your corps helped our corps get started back in 1976, when we had two weeks before the bicentennial and wanted to get a corps. John Moon helped us get going and we've been doing it ever since." They're just really well respected in these kinds of things.
Lloyd: How old are the kids in the program? They're not in their 20s and 30s.
Mike: No, the kids in the program today range from about age 10 to 18.
Lloyd: So you're always going to have 10 to 18 over 50 years.
Mike: That's correct.
Lloyd: Theoretically, you could have somebody 60 who was 10 in 1958.
Mike: Absolutely. And they come back here and play once a year.
Lloyd: Oh really? I didn't know that.
Mike: Yeah, they come back for the Drummer's Call event, which happens in May. The Fife and Drum Alumni, and I think they do it every year – I know they did it last year and they're going to do it again this year – they come back and they play. Not everybody obviously, but a good number of them come back. They're all ages, from just graduated to as old as they go, I guess.
Lloyd: Most of the people who play and have played in the Fifes and Drums are local people who just were attracted to the idea of a fife and drum corps.
Mike: That's correct. A lot of times, nowadays especially, the kids get signed up at a very young age. They get put on a waiting list. When they get into 5th grade or around 10 years old or so, they get called up and asked if they're still interested. But it is mostly all local kids. They have to be local, because they practice several times a week and perform.
Lloyd: Have you filmed new kids learning how to do the things they do? I think that would be quite amusing.
Mike: Yeah, actually it is. It was great. We went over to the Fife and Drum building this year, and we filmed them – the new group of recruits that came in. It's probably one of their first practices. Just get them coming in, and they look lost. They don't know. But you have the older corps members teaching the younger corps members. It's not the adults that teach them, it's the corps members that teach each other.
It's just a tradition that's gone on forever, for the whole 50 years. It's really an interesting process because they're teaching them how to hold a drumstick, how to hold a fife, and just to go through the very basics of it. You can hear them through all the progressions, just in the group that's there now.
Lloyd: I didn't know that. The older, the guys who have been here last year, year before – teach the new group coming in who have never done this as an assembled group.
Mike: Yeah, sure. That's one of the strengths of the corps, because it, you've got this tremendous continuity through the whole, through all the years.
Lloyd: For people who have never seen or heard fifes and drums, what are they?
Mike: Fife is a very simple six-holed instrument, at least the one we play. A straight bored kind of a flute-class instrument that's transverse blown. You blow across the hole at the end and you finger with the six holes. It's a high-pitched instrument that can be very shrill if it's not played carefully.
The drums are, they have the bass drums, but they also have a snare drum, which is a two-head snare drum with a snare in there. The ones we use are, you know, all sort of one-piece bent wood with calfskin heads and they're tensioned with ropes. Ropes sort of snake up and down in there, and they have these little leather ears on there that tighten the heads. That's a very exact replica of what they would have played back in the 18th century.
Lloyd: So there are two kinds of drum: a bass drum and a snare drum. Are there two kinds of fife, or one kind of fife?
Mike: Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums only plays one type of fife, but there are several styles of fife that people play. There are some that are sort of up to 12 holes – I'm not sure how they finger that because I'm not a musician – it allows you to get the different, the in-between notes that are harder to get on the six-holed fife, which you have to cross finger and you don't get them exactly. The 12-holed fifes played by other corps, it's probably more musically pure, but it's not necessarily authentic to the 18th century.
Lloyd: Are the people here more or less certain that they are authentic to the 18th century?
Mike: They do their best. They go and research music from the 18th century, they try to find original sources for the music from the 18th century. They play the instruments that they would have known about from the 18th century. A lot of these things are very well documented. They told us that the musical books that they had were books sold here in the post office. They have the regiment that they choose to recreate which is the Virginia State Garrison Regiment, which is sort of, I guess, a Virginia local militia. They were very well documented. They know how many people there were, how they were paid, what their uniforms were and everything like that. So they've gone back and done quite a lot of research on these things and attempt to make it very accurate to the 18th century.
Lloyd: You know, I am beginning to get the idea that fifes and drums are more popular than I ever imagined.
Mike: I think it's not only just the music and stuff like that, but I think it's just the community. They talk about the camaraderie and just the social aspect of it. They work with each other and just feed off each other and love to do it.