Through the Ranks

A new web features follows an entering class of Fifers and Drummers on their journey through the ranks.

Learn more: Through the Ranks


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today’s show serves as an introduction to a brand new web feature, one with a scope we’ve never attempted before. It will be called, “Through the Ranks,” and it’s a seven-year project that will follow one class of Fifes and Drums, entering class, through the ranks, through seven years, in The Fife and Drum Corps at Colonial Williamsburg.

Joining us today to help us set this feature up are John Harbour, who is a volunteer at Colonial Williamsburg, unofficial fifes and drums historian, and holds the honor of being the first fifer and the first leader in the corps. Also joining us is Dr. Bill White, who is Vice President for Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures here. You’ve been our guest before, it’s wonderful to have you back.

Dr. Bill White: Thanks, it’s good to be here.

Harmony: This blog is going to feature photography. It’s going to feature videos, audio clips, all kinds of historic memorabilia. So we’re going to be exploring the corps from its very beginnings and on through the present day. John, can you talk to us about the very beginnings of the Fife and Drum Corps?

John Harbour: In 1953, the then-Director of Craft Shops for Colonial Williamsburg, Bill Geiger, decided he wanted a militia to represent the military side of life in Colonial Williamsburg. His background was in British military history, and so he knew that he needed music for the militia to keep them in step, primarily. He recruited a couple of drummers from the high school. That worked very nicely.

Then he decided he needed fifes. So one night he appears at my front door with a handful of fifes and asked my father to ask me to learn to play it and recruit some friends. Thus began the corps. This was in the winter of 1957-58. No music, no idea how to play the things, no fingering charts. We had to learn it from scratch. We were all musicians in the James Blair High School Band, so we could read music, but we didn’t have any. So my father and I literally wrote the first music using a piano, my saxophone, and some records.

Harmony: It’s amazing to think this is such an honored and iconic part of Colonial Williamsburg today that it began so simply.

John: It began rather inauspiciously. And if you had asked me in 1961, when I left to go to college, if it would be what it is today, I don’t think I would have had any idea that it would grow to be the “Pied Piper” for Colonial Williamsburg. I mean when you call the Colonial Williamsburg phone number and you get put on hold, you listen to fife and drum music.

Harmony: True, and when you listen to this show, the first thing you hear is fife and drum music. Tell us about fifes and drums in the Revolution. This isn’t something we invented, it’s something we are sort of echoing through revolutionary tradition.

John: And much of what I know about that, I’ve learned since I came back. We had no context in the late ‘50s for the role of the fifes and drums played in The Revolution. We just knew we needed them, but we didn’t know for example, a lot of this is the research that Bill did on the Virginia State Garrison Regiment, that each company of soldiers had one fifer and one drummer to provide the duty calls for the soldiers.

When the regiment got together, the full field music got together, 20-odd drummers and fifers. I’ve often wondered what they sounded like if they only got together a couple of times a year, get all 20 of them. That was their primary role, was communication. I didn’t know that when we started back in the ‘50s, we were helping the militia guys stay in step. Certainly there was fife and drum music in the 18th century. Everybody knew that, but its exact role was less clear and certainly was not interpreted.

Harmony: So Bill, John has put his finger on the exact moment that we found a piece of history and began recreating it and preserving it, and helping teach other people about it through reinventing some of this music, and reinventing the tradition. Talk to us about how the Fifes and Drums teach us about history just through the act of being.

Bill White:  I think one of the really remarkable things is that The Fifes and Drums sort of embody everything that Colonial Williamsburg is. I mean, it’s an environment. It’s some place you go into where everything is around you. The Fife and Drum Corps sort of embodies all of that. It’s history, but it’s moving, and it’s sound, and it’s visual. And you can stand right in the middle of it and it’s like you’re surrounded by history.

That music for Americans, that fifer and drummer, has always, I guess sort of struck that visceral chord with Americans. It goes way back. Fife and Drum Corps became popular in the early republic. All through the 19th century and into the 20th century, particularly up in New England, there were these civic groups that got together and played this fife and drum music. They recalled the past, they recalled The Revolution. And I think that’s what happens for Americans when they hear The Fife and Drum Corps, they hear that American Revolution recalled. All those ideas, all those principles, all the things that The Revolution stands for sort of there in this one moment. It’s really sort of a remarkable thing.

Harmony: What I really want to capture here is that there was this little scrap of history that had almost fluttered away before that winter of ’58, was it John?

John: ’57-‘58.

Harmony: The winter of ’57 for Colonial Williamsburg at least, this is not something that we were preserving, but by capturing this teeny little idea, we’ve built something really grand, and we have surfaced so much of this history. We've been able to preserve it and propagate it in a way that’s really remarkable to think about how tenuous that beginning was, how that piece of history almost wasn’t saved, by Williamsburg, at any rate.

Bill: Well, what Williamsburg ended up doing was actually jumping back 100 years because most fife and drum corps in the 20th century were focused on music that came from the 19th century, from The American Civil War. What a group of people here did was to jump back. They went to the archives. They started to pull out the music. There actually are fife instruction books from the 18th century that do have fingering charts.

John: Which my brother got when he joined the corps.

Bill: Just a couple of years later, right?

John:  Yeah, ’61.

Bill: It didn’t take long for people to begin digging out that material, that content. The Fife and Drum Corps now has a remarkable library of 18th and early 19th century sources to research the music, to figure out where it came from, figure out where it started, to figure out what it originally sounded like, to try and recreate those drum beats from the 18th century, which actually, for the most part, aren’t written down anywhere, because drumming in the 18th century was a phonetic thing. You describe the drumming in words, and you passed it from one drummer to the next by describing the patterns that drummers play. Recreating that is really hard, there are just a few snippets of written drum music from the 18th century to try and figure that out from.

John: Each of the leaders of the corps, up to the present, have continued to build upon that and the library that Bill just mentioned is a huge library down at The Fife and Drum building, which the director in the ‘70s and ‘80s, John Moon, put together. I’m told now that the repertoire that the senior corps plays numbers between 200-300 tunes, which they’ve committed to memory.

Harmony:  And it all began with your father’s piano and your saxophone.

John: Three little tunes, yes! We played three tunes for two years. We got real tired of them.

Harmony: I love the sense here though that this is a story that was saved. There’s something so appealing about that.  John, this blog, or online feature, it’s a much larger project is going to be called, “Through the Ranks” because it follows an entering class of fifers and drummers through the ranks of the corps. Talk to us about how the corps functions and what it means to enter at year one and to leave at year seven. What are they progressing through?

John: I brought with me a book today, which is given to each recruit, which lists everything they have to do from the day they arrive to the day they graduate eight years later. It’s a very disciplined, structured, ordered process. They have to learn to march in step carrying a drum or playing a fife. Every Saturday morning they’re marching around the parking lot over on Franklin Street. Learning how to do that which is not as easy as it may sound.

Then they begin learning tunes. They have one year to learn 14 tunes, learn how to march, pass the music theory test, and become proficient. Then they become a private. Then for the next eight years, they make their way through the ranks, all the way up to Sergeant Major, learning more tunes, accepting more responsibility, more leadership, and preserving the traditions of the corps.

What’s remarkable to me about the organization is, while it’s fairly rigidly structured, the kids are given the opportunity to progress at their own rate as long as they keep learning. It’s basically one new tune a month for the entire eight years. You make your rank based on the number of tunes and the increasing responsibilities that you accept. You probably ought to think of this, particularly for the young ones that come in at age 10, the staff as surrogate parents. It’s their responsibility to help these children grow into young adults and skilled musicians. The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums is a world class organization. This is not fun and games. They’re paid. They can be demoted. They can be kicked out if they don’t make the grade. They’ve played around the world, around this country as well as in Europe. It’s the big time.

Harmony: And more than just learning music, it’s been a process that’s called, “Turning Boys into Men,” now we can even say, “Turning Ladies into Young Women,” since it’s co-ed. What is it about the experience of The Fifes and Drums that is such a character builder?

Bill: I think first of all you have to understand that it’s not adults down there teaching children. It’s older students teaching younger students. Very early on, kids take on responsibility. They take on responsibility for somebody else. They take on responsibility for handing the tradition of the corps onto someone else. So I think that’s one of the elements of this. I think another element is, I’ve tried to describe this a bunch of times and it’s really hard to do, but it doesn’t take too long before you begin to realize when you play in a group like that, when you play in The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums, it doesn’t take very long before you understand that you’re a lot stronger when you work with other people than you are when you stand alone. You can take one really great fifer, and you can set them up over here, and they’re really great. But there’s something miraculous that happens when ten fifers stand together and can play with that kind of coordination and precision. It’s a sound you can’t replicate on your own.

John: It’s a lot like an orchestra. And I think one of the things that has contributed to its success is the fact that we were paid on day one and they are still paid. It’s not a volunteer operation. You’re paid. There are expectations that you have to meet. For young people, having a little money to spend is quite an incentive. That’s not the only reason it has succeeded, but I think it certainly has contributed to its success because Colonial Williamsburg takes it seriously, the kids know its taken seriously, and the expectations are very very clear. Roll call is at 4 o’clock, not 4:01. You better not walk in at 4:01.

Bill: So when you take kids, and you teach and you treat them like professionals, they act like professionals. That’s an important lesson to learn. When kids learn that lesson early, I think it helps them approach everything else in their life.

John: There’s no question The Fife and Drum Corps was a significant feature in my personal development. I mean at the age of 15, going into the tenth grade, I was given responsibility for four musicians. We had to rehearse, we had to show up on time, we had to be at the performances, and I had to recruit through out that three year period. That did a lot for me personally.

Harmony: So we can definitely say it was part of the process of transforming you from a boy into a man.

John: And I would imagine Bill probably feels the same way.

Bill: I don’t think you talk to anyone who’s been a member of The Fife and Drum Corps who doesn’t feel that way.

Harmony: So it helps take children through a path to adulthood. Does it help take residents through a path to citizenship? Is there something about The Fifes and Drums globally, internally, that helps us connect to our communities and to our political landscape, just to be engaged in the world around us? Is there something special about The Fifes and Drums that carries that?

Bill: I guess this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, and that music somehow is just a part of an American’s DNA. I don’t know how that works actually, but I think Americans hear that music, and it calls up all those ideals. It’s a touchpoint, it’s a reference point. And you can, well you see it happen every Fourth of July. People who were so frustrated, angry, and cynical on the 2nd and 3rd of July, are in the Historic Area on the Fourth of July, and inspired.

Harmony: So is there something in this music, in this practice that carries a broader message? Or has a broader function than just musical entertainment? It sounds like you’ve already sort of told us yes.

Bill: Yeah, yeah. It always has. Fifers and drummers, Fifers and drummers playing music for soldiers was always intended to be inspirational. It’s still inspirational.

John: Look at the military bands today: The United States Marine Corps Band, or The United States Army Band when they play, generally at ceremonies, it raises the hair on the back of your neck. It’s very emotional. Something like 30-40 million Americans today have served in the military to date in one fashion or another. They’ve all heard martial music, which is intended to inspire and make you feel good, even if you aren’t inclined to feel good on the battlefield in Vietnam. It was that way in the 18th century, too. These tours that I give, the behind the scenes tours that I give of The Fife and Drum building. It is amazing how many of those people on the tours have been not once, not twice. One lady was on her twenty-eighth visit this past summer when I was giving the tours. They love The Fife and Drum, they follow them down the street trying to miss the droppings in the street. I think Bill’s right, it’s part of the DNA. I really can’t explain it other than the fact that when you hear military music, you stand a little taller. You salute when the flag goes by. It’s part of our culture probably dating back to The American Revolution and winning our independence.

Harmony: Great… Thank you both for being here today. It’s been an honor to sit with you both. It’s been fascinating, and I’m sure our listeners are looking forward to seeing the blog. It’s called, “Through the Ranks,” and it will be available on Thank you both for being here.

Bill and John: Thank you.

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