Drummers Call

drummers call

The noble tradition of the fifes and drums is celebrated May 18-20 during Drummers Call.

Learn more: Fifes and Drums



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. This time, I'm asking Lance Pedigo, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's drum major of Fifes and Drums. Lance is preparing for the fourth annual weekend of "Drummer's Call," May 18-20 in Williamsburg. I've come across a lot of terms, but I have no idea what "Drummer's Call" means.

Lance Pedigo: Well, "Drummer's Call" is actually an 18th-century tune that summoned the musicians together, so we've taken that title and applied it to today's gathering of fife and drum units from around the country.

Lloyd: What do you do at "Drummer's Call?"

Lance: Well, there's a long history of military music gatherings, some have heard of military tattoos, some have heard of military musters, and this is our kind of reworking of that model, and bringing in period military music groups to perform here at our living-history museum in Williamsburg.

Lloyd: May 18, what's May 18?

Lance: May 18 is a Friday.

Lloyd: What else is it?

Lance: Armed Forces Day is on that Saturday, actually.

Lloyd: So, in a way, it's kind of like an Armed Forces Day thing, but for musical units?

Lance: Yes, sir.

Lloyd: You've gotten these units together to do what?

Lance: To, basically, do their thing, what they do best. A lot of these units have spent countless hours replicating uniforms of particular units and perfecting the music that would have been played. Colonial Williamsburg is known as the foremost venue, as far as an 18th-century living-history museum, so it's really an honor for them to be a part of the weekend here. This is our fourth annual one. It keeps getting bigger -- we even have one unit coming in from Canada this year, from Ontario.

Lloyd: Oh, really? I was in Canada long ago, in '64, and there was, in those days, a costumed fife and drum corps, they called it then. They performed at a rebuilt fort in Toronto, and they were really quite good.

Lance: Fantastic. The Canadians that are coming this year are The Drums of the Crowned Forces, and they're actually doing an 1812 impersonation, their unit. Sometimes we step just a little bit out of the 18th century, just to see where it went after that time period.

Lloyd: A small 12 years, who wants to complain about 12 years? People coming to see this, see what?

Lance: They see a display, which kicks off on the Saturday at 1:00. We do a grand march and review, so all of these units -- there'll be about 12 units marching down the street, down the Duke of Gloucester Street -- they each get showcased for a few minutes on Market Square. So there's plenty of opportunity to watch and hear the patriotic music at that point. Then, in the evening, 6:00, we have a tattoo, a military tattoo. It's just fife and drum, and then interspersed with some period military demonstrations, so we'll have musket men and cannon firings, and then even a dragoon demonstration on horseback, where they cut at the heads – not real heads, but.

Lloyd: Good, thank you. That may build up your audience somewhat. We talked once before, and you were the one who told me that the fifes and drums, of all the units at every place, were the principal means of communication, which I did not know. Does that get explained anywhere in the Drummer's Call?

Lance: Actually, it does. On that Sunday, we have a program called "To Arms," which again, is another 18th-century field music call, which is calling the men to their arms. We will demonstrate -- those units that have come to Williamsburg -- how the musket and fife and drum work together, the weapon and the music. So, their movements and actions are actually communicated through the music of the fife and drum. 

Lloyd: You said earlier -- but I wasn't listening carefully, so I let it go by -- that "Drummer's Call" was a piece of music that played to summon the musicians. But if it's to summon the musicians, who plays "Drummer's Call?"

Lance: Good question. Usually, there would be a fifer and drummer always on post. They would be able to call the sound for an alarm, or whatever they needed to do, and relay that command to the other musicians.

Lloyd: Sometime after I talked to you the first time, I was reading over some history of Yorktown, and did not know that the fighting stopped because a British drummer boy climbed to the top of a parapet and beat the signal for negotiation, or parley, or whatever it's called.

Lance: Parley, and cease-fire would have also been used.

Lloyd: That would have helped, wouldn't it?

Lance: It would get your attention.

Lloyd: I always thought, wow, if I were the little drummer boy, would I have wanted to go out during a siege, when everybody and his brother was shooting at me? But I read a description by one of the Continental forces that, as soon as they saw the boy, everybody stopped firing, even though they could not hear what he was playing. They figured they better listen to what he's got going, we can start shooting again later.

Lance: From what we can tell, there was a mutual respect for the position of the musician. Their uniform was actually the opposite color of their particular regiment, just so you could designate and see that that musician is indeed, supposedly, a non-combatant, and was there to communicate those types of orders.

Lloyd: He's not carrying a rifle, so don't shoot at him. Were there songs used in battle?

Lance: Mostly drum beatings. Drummer is a term that was used interchangeably between a drummer and a fifer. So, it's very hard sometimes, in reading some of this documentation, when they say "The drummer beats, " or, "The drummer plays," this particular tune whether he was actually a drum beating or a combination of both.

Lloyd: Or, all sorts of people going at it as best they could.

Lance: That's right. In a typical day, you would hear beatings such as, "The Roast Beef of Old England:" time to eat. "Pioneer's March:" work details. "Drummer's Call:" to call the drummers.

Lloyd: Both the English and the Continental troops had fife and drums. How did you know each other's signals, or, were the Continentals trained actually, in the long run, by England?

Lance: With those same procedures and the same manuals that the English had learned their beatings from, we are learning that same tradition. So, proximity to your fifer and drummer would help you designate who you were listening to, warfare obviously being very different than it is today. You're basically on the other side of the field from your enemy.

Lloyd: England and what would become the United States used fifes and drums – who else? Obviously Canada, because they're from the same place.

Lance: As far as "Drummer's Call?" Those are basically the regiments that we have represented. During the War for Independence, the Hessians were also involved, the French were also involved, and we have depicted those in the past. We don't have any Hessian units this year.

Lloyd: Little short on Hessians.

Lance: Right, hopefully in the future. The other groups that we do have, we have a group coming in from California – Mountain Fifes and Drums, we have a group from Rhode Island, the Pawtuxet Rangers, near us here is the Yorktown Fifes and Drums, which participate in our event every year. Middlesex 4-H, which is an interesting story, they are totally run, and all the commands on the field are given by the kids. These are kids involved with a 4-H program in the Massachusetts area that actually interprets the fifing and drumming of the 18th century through their fife and drum group. Really interesting to see them play and march.

Lloyd: All their commanders are …

Lance: They're all kids.

Lloyd: All kids. Why not, I guess. If I've read history correctly, the 18th-century fife and drums were all kids. So, why not have kid commanders? Probably work out better anyway – it wouldn't work out worse.  How many people come to see this, what do you expect?

Lance: In the past, when we first started, we were just relying on whatever visitor was in town. We hadn't really started promoting it, we wanted to see if it was going to go over. I would say that about 1,000 people showed up for the day's festivities, for the march and the tattoo, just from those people that had been there. It's since grown, I'd say it's probably doubled.

Lloyd: Oh, good. Actually, I would like to see it, largely because, years ago, I played drums, and I'd like to kind of see where it came from. I assume that's it. But, now that I think of it, where did it come from?

Lance: Fifing and drumming basically began in Europe. Swiss mercenaries began using them in the 14th and 15th century, using instruments that were meant to intimidate their enemies.

Lloyd: Scotch bagpipes, which would intimidate me.

Lance: Sure. And those techniques kept getting developed, borrowed from different units, different countries. It actually became a symbol of your unit's prosperity, especially in the British Army, by how many musicians you could field, and the variety of instruments that you could field. Hence, the military band that started to emerge. Not just as signal instruments, but more for ceremonial pomp and circumstance. These bands and instruments were borrowed from various countries that they had been in.

Lloyd:  Why am I not surprised that the English would get into pomp and circumstance?

Lance: And still going on today.

Lloyd : "Drummer's Call" is May 18-20, in Williamsburg. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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