Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi | Folkstreams

Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi

Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi

One of the most interesting types of black music to have been recorded in recent years is the fife and drum band. Such a group was first found in 1942 by Alan Lomax near Sledge, Mississippi.1 Its instrumentation consisted of a cane fife, two snares, and a bass drum. Yet these same four musicians could also constitute themselves as a string band of violin, banjo, guitar, and bass drum, and on two recordings one or more of the drums were played with the four- or ten-hole panpipes, known amongst most black musicians as "quills."

Lomax returned to the same area, Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi, in 1959 and recorded the survivors of the group he first recorded, Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith, on quills and drum 2 as well as another fife and drum band, the Young family, consisting of a fife and two drums.3 In 1968 George Mitchell recorded another band, a fife and two drums, in this same area,4 and since 1969 I have recorded several groups. The normal combination is a five-hole cane fife, a snare drum, and a bass drum, but occasionally the fife has six holes or there is a second snare drum. One 'group I recorded consisted of simply a bass and snare drum without any fife.

My recent field work has been able to show that the fife and drum tradition is more widespread than earlier work had indicated. Such bands are found not only throughout Tate and Panola Counties but also in adjacent Marshall and Lafayette Counties. This area is located in far northern Mississippi just to the east of the Delta lowlands. The total population is about half black, but in the rural parts the black percentage is much higher.

Field research this year by Bengt Olsson has uncovered a fife and drum band in Fayette County, Tennessee, just across the line from Mississippi5 Marshall County, and has revealed that such bands existed not long ago in rural Shelby and Lauderdale Counties, not far from Memphis.5 Thus the tradition is or was until recently quite strong in the hill country outside Memphis on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Another fife and drum tradition has been reported by Harry Oster around the turn of the century "in Franklin County in the southwest corner of Mississippi, almost three hundred miles away from Memphis. The group was described as "an old field band" consisting of cane fife, snare, kettle, and bass drums.6 Finally, George Mitchell located a fife and drum band in Talbot County, Georgia, near Columbus, Missouri the western part of the state, which I recorded in 1970. It consisted of a six-hole cane fife with kettle and bass drums.

The above twentieth century accounts are supplemented by reports of black fife and drum bands from earlier centuries. Eileen Southern in her recent book, The Music of Black Americans; A History, has suggested that as early as the seventeenth century blacks may have "picked up" the skills of fife or drum playing from the militia units in New England and the Middle Colonies, since all slaves were compelled to undergo military training until the 1650's.7

During the eighteenth century there are numerous reports of black fifers and drummers." In fact, during this time Negroes and Indians were allowed to enroll in the colonial militia only as drummers, fifers, trumpeters, and pioneers. For the elections of slave "governors" in Hartford and Wallingford, Connecticut, in the 1750s parades were held with marching to the music of fife and drum bands. Later in these celebrations songs were sung in African languages to a different combination of instruments: the fiddle, tambourine, banjo, and drum.9 in 1765 two black drummers were used to call the citizens of Philadelphia to a town meeting.10

Numerous advertisements for slaves or notices of runaways during this century attest to their skills on a variety of instruments including drum and fife as well as the "German flute." Numerous black fifers and drummers served during the Revolutionary War, and the names of several are known.12 Between 1818 and 1844 Frank Johnson's Colored Band working out of Philadelphia was one of the most popular groups in the country. They were primarily a marching band of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments; but on occasion a fifer and drummer would play to give the regular bandsmen a rest during parades. They could also constitute themselves as a string band for dances.13

In 1832 Dan Emmett, a white man who later became a famous minstrel showman, received instruction in fife and drum at Newport Barracks, Kentucky, from John J. "Juba" dark, almost certainly from his nickname a black man. A large number of black fifers and drummers served in the Union army during the Civil War,15 and there is even one recorded case of such a group in the Confederate army. Josephus Blake and two other slaves played fife and drums for the regiment of their master. General John B. Gordon. Blake acquired his skill on the drum originally by imitating on the bottom of a tin pan the beats of the white drummer of a regiment drilling near his master's plantation.16 General Gordon, incidentally, was from Upson County, Georgia, only about thirty miles from where I recorded a fife and drum band over a hundred years later. Thus in this one area at least we seem to be dealing with a tradition of long standing.

The early accounts indicate that black fife and drum bands were modeled on and did not differ considerably from their white counter parts. Through the time of the Civil War such bands were a part of almost every militia unit. They played for military drill, parades, and various festivities. Their repertoires consisted mainly of marches and the popular tunes of the day. After the Civil War, fife and drum bands declined in importance in the military and were largely superseded by marching brass bands.

Another factor in their decline was probably the demise of the local militia. In the Northeast among whites there are still some bands that play for parades. Until a few decades ago there was a thriving tradition of these bands in western Pennsylvania which has been described by Samuel Bayard.17 One or more six-hole fifes would be combined with a bass drum and any number of snare drums. They played for a variety of public occasions, either parading or standing in formation and often with a special costume. In the South, however, the fife and drum bands since the Civil War have been black. ' None of my informants in either Mississippi or Georgia has ever seen or heard of a white player, although one black player in Mississippi was given a six-hole metal fife by a white man after playing for him at a picnic.

That the present-day tradition among blacks in the South goes back at least to the time of Reconstruction is confirmed by older people there today who remember in their childhoods seeing old men play fifes and drums. The black and white traditions then would seem to have diverged some one hundred years ago.

Having established the existence of antebellum black fife and drum bands based on their white counterparts and the probability that these early black and white bands were the inspiration for the black tradition that exists in some Southern communities today, I wish to spend the rest of this paper accounting for the divergence of the present-day black bands from the military tradition. First, however I should point out a number of respects in which the original military tradition is maintained. There is still, for instance, an attachment to the large bass drum of the marching band. I have in my possession a bass drum made over eighty years ago by a man in Pope, Mississippi, with rope-tightened cowhide heads. All the other drums I have seen are factory made. Some musicians have switched to a smaller bass drum taken from a jazz drum set, but this is only because marching drums are hard to obtain in rural areas as the older ones deteriorate. Still, the larger bass drum is preferred for its greater volume.

The Mississippi bands play at large community picnics during the summer and especially on holidays like Independence Day and Labor Day. These picnics are all-black affairs, although in earlier years some of the bands reputedly played for white picnics. In Georgia the band I recorded played for Christmas Eve serenading and "school closing" in June. Such playing for holidays and public functions would seem to be a continuation of the early tradition.

In Mississippi the moving around of the band is called "marching," and several of the tunes are known generically as "marches," such as "When the Saints Go Marching In." Finally, the recordings made by Alan Lomax in 1942 of Sid Hemphill's band show that the group's fife and drum repertoire consisted largely of the popular tunes of its members' youth, roughly the first decade of this century. The four fife and drum pieces that Lomax recorded were "Jesse James," "After the Ball is Over" (in waltz time), "The Sidewalks of New York," and a piece called "The Death March." The latter title suggests that Hemphill's band may have marched at funerals, though Luclus Smith, its surviving member, does not recall doing so nor do any other fife and drum players among my informants. Some even seemed shocked at the suggestion.

The above-listed survivals of the military tradition can be shown to be merely superficial trappings of a music that is today fundamentally altered from its prototype. Indeed, an antebellum militia officer would turn over in his grave if he could witness a picnic in northern Mississippi. These are held during the summer, generally from around the Fourth or July to a couple of weeks after Labor Day,. these two holidays being the occasions for the largest picnics. Another large picnic is held by the black Masons in late August.

During the first week in August picnicking is halted because of church revivals. Generally picnics are held on weekends, beginning on a Friday night and continuing on Saturday. On three-day weekends they may resume on Monday. One man east of Senatobia who frequently sponsors picnics will have dancing to fife and drum music on Friday night, a baseball game Saturday afternoon followed by more music and dancing, another ball game on Sunday, and more music and dancing Monday afternoon and evening. Sandwiches and drinks are sold all the while from a stand. Additional attractions include a crap game, a pool hall, and an indoor dancing area with a juke box. The high point and focus of the whole picnic, however, is the fife and drum music and dancing at night in the field in front of the food stand.

At large picnics several hundred people may attend, many of them from as far away as Chicago, St. Louis, or Memphis, the picnickers usually having returned home to visit relatives. Even on Independence Bay or Labor Day there is nothing at the picnics to indicate that they are patriotic celebrations of any sort. They are attended purely for fun and socializing and sponsored with the purpose of raising money through the sale of food and drink. Few firecrackers are lit and no orations delivered, although this summer a few white candidates showed up to solicit votes in an upcoming election.

The so-called "marching" is also a far cry from the neat rows of a military unit. In fact, the musicians really dance and sway while they play. They generally begin from a bonfire built behind or next to the picnic stand for the purpose of warming and tightening the drum heads in the damp night air. The "march" is usually led by a dancer who emerges rear-end-first so that he is facing the musicians. He is followed by the fife blower and the snare drummer or drummers. The bass drummer brings up the rear. Sometimes the musicians break their single file and bunch up. The fife player rocks and sways and sometimes sings a line or two. He may be joined by moaning or whooping of one of the drummers. The main requirement of any vocal effort in such a situation is volume, since the drums can be heard six miles away on a calm night.

Usually only one or a few people dance at any time, and generally each person dances without a partner. Most of the people simply stand around watching and shouting encouragement to the dancers and musicians. Oftentimes someone will dance for just a few seconds and then retire. But others may dance until they drop from exhaustion into somebody's arms. Once a man and a woman became possessed by the drumming and began crawling in the dust directly beneath the bass drum. The man repeated this behavior for about three pieces in succession. Although such behavior is strongly reminiscent of certain African and West Indian cult practices, it should not be assumed that such possession by drumming in Mississippi was of a religious nature, even though it could probably be described as a spiritual experience.

Picnics are purely for fun and have no connection with religion, and, in fact, any such association is strictly avoided. Fife and drum music is never played on a Sunday or in a church, and. the musicians maintain the convention of ending Saturday's festivities at midnight with a spiritual to usher in Sunday. Actually though, a close account of the time is seldom kept, and the picnics often run past midnight and often end not with a spiritual but simply the dwindling away of the crowd. But in any case, dancing is never done while a spiritual is played.

Spirituals constitute only one part of the repertoire of the fife and drum bands. Popular songs, such as Lomax recorded in 1942, seem to have lost their popularity, although some of the commercial blues hits of the last few decades are now played. Chief among these are "Sitting on Top of the World' and "My Babe." None is in the standard twelve bar AAB blues pattern because it would require breaks in the melody at the end of each line; and all fife melodies are continuous. Another group of songs consists of old minstrel pieces such as "Granny, Will Your Dog Bite? No, Child, No," and "Mama's Gonna Cook a Little Shortenin' Bread."

These generally contain either rhymed couplets or a phrase one measure in length repeated endlessly. The subject matter of the lyrics is usually inconsequential. A final group of songs is known by the generic name of "Shimmie She Wobble," which was a popular dance of the 1920's. These pieces consist of variations on a few musical ideas, and sometimes they are given individual names if the thought strikes the musician. These names of the pieces are usually whatever phrase happens to be on the musician's mind. Sometimes the fife player will stop and sing a bluesy vocal.

There are a number of factors that have brought about this fife and drum music in addition to the early military tradition. One is the tradition of African music previously alluded to. In addition to many accounts of black military fife and drum players in the eiteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are many references to African drumming in various Southern states and occasionally in the North. I have even recorded a recollection of African-style drumming in southern Mississippi as late as the 1920's.

Undoubtedly this African tradition was in great part responsible for the popularity of the fife and drum band among blacks and it would seem to have introduced considerable syncopation and polyrhythm into the drumming. Fife and drum ensembles are known in Africa, especially in the Sudan region, although a more common sight is the reed oboe with two or three drums of different sizes. The African concept of "talking drums" has also had some effect on Afro-American fife and drum bands. Spectators will often urge the drummers to "make the drum talk it," and in some of the old minstrel pieces the drum beats actually do correspond to the syllables of the words. In general, the drums are primary in the ensemble, taking precedence over the fife in importance. They do not simply play a rhythmic accompaniment but actually beat out complex patterns of poly rhythms with considerable variation and improvisation on set themes.

Another important consideration is the fact that there seems to be a tradition of fife playing among blacks without drums. In the only two instances found of this type, the instrument is called a "quill."20 One is from East Texas during slavery21 and the other from Central Mississippi in this century.22 These instances may represent a survival of African transverse flute playing, although without recordings nothing definite can be said. Conversely I recorded a band consisting of two drums with which a fife was used only occasionally. This band strongly emphasized the idea of making the drum beats correspond with the syllables of the words and thus represents another close link with the African tradition.

African and Afro-American musical traditions in general emphasize percussion, and certain other percussive elements in these traditions seem tOi-have influenced the direction of fife and drum music. For example, body slapping* such as the well-known "Hambone" routine, utilizes the same one-measure repeated patterns as much of the fife and drum music. The same can be said for tap and buck dancing. 1 recorded some excellent buck dancing from members of the fife and drum band:'-in Georgia. The rhythms of the feet and the drums were the same. Another percussive influence is the music produced by many black children. A man I recorded in Mississippi imitates a fife and drum band by whistling and beating on a washtub. He plays the bass drum notes with his thumb and the snare drum notes with his fingers. He attributes this style of music to "play picnics" in his youth and performs it today only around his house. I once recorded him with a large group of teenage children all beating on chairs, milk cartons, and wood blocks. Some real poly-metric playing occurred but it was never sustained over a very long period.

Another fact to be kept in mind in order to understand the fife and drum tradition is that many of these bands could also be constituted as string or brass bands. Sid Hemphill's band played more often as a string band, while the band I recorded consisting of two drums often added a slide trombone, cymbals, and tambourine. Country brass bands have been reported elsewhere in Mississippi,23 and Frederic Ramsey recorded two such groups in Alabama in the 1950's.24 All three types of band developed together over the last hundred or more years in black communities, but it would seem that the fife and drum band is the most enduring type today, the others having become practically extinct.

One final factor is the possible influence of black music on the early military fife and drum bands. These bands always played many popular songs of the day, and it should be kept in mind that in the 1830's and following years black music was in great vogue. This was the age of minstrelsy, and everyone was whistling and singing "Ethiopian tunes." Many of these were originally genuine slave folk-songs, while others were probably more or less accurate white imitations of black music. Undoubtedly such tunes were played by. fife-and-drum bands, especially in the South, Thus by the end of the Civil War when blacks were ready to develop their own independent tradition of fife and drum music, they could identify with the already existing military tradition through previous participation in it, its emphasis on percussion in accordance with the style of African music and the fact that plantation and minstrel music had already influenced this military music.

We are led to the conclusion that the pre-Civil War military fife and drum band, for the most part a white product, provided the basic framework and some of the superficial characteristics of the more recent black fife and drum bands. This framework, however, has been largely filled with African and Afro-American influences to create the sound heard at picnics in northern Mississippi today.

David Evan, 1972

Postscript: A selection of the author's fife and drum recordings from Mississippi and Georgia, including some pieces from Alan Lomax* 1942 session, is on "Traveling Through the Jungle", Testament T-2223, 12 inch LP. Other selections is on an album a Rounder CD for the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress, to be entitled "Afro-American Blues and Folksongs from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi".


1. These recordings, made for the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress, are listed under Sid Hemphill in John Godrich and Robert M. W. Dixon, Blues and Gospel Records: 1902-1942 (London, 1969), p. 827.

2. Two pieces from this session were issued on commercial records. They are listed under Sid Hemphill in Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven, Blues Records; January, 1943, to December, 1966 (London, 1968), p. 114.

3. Six pieces from this session issued on commercial records are listed in Leadbitter and Slaven, p. 368.

4. One piece recorded by Mitchell has been issued on Arhoolie ST 1041, Mississippi Delta Blues, Vol. 1. Three more pieces by the band, recorded in 1969, have been issued on Blue Thumb BTS 6000, Memphis Swamp Jam.

5. Personal communications from Bengt Olsson, 1971.

6. Harry Oster, Living Country Blues (Detroit, 1969), p. 8.

7. Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York, 1971). pp. 42-3.

8. Ibid.. p. 43.

9. Ibid., pp. 40-50.

10. Ibid.. p. 30.

11. Ibid.. pp. 29, 47.

12. Ibid., pp. 74-5.

13. Ibid.. pp. 112-3.

14. Gilbert Chase, America's Music o (New York, 1955). p. 269.

15. Southern, pp. 228-30.

16. Bell Irvin Wiley, Southern Negroes: 1861-1865 (New Haven. 1938). pp. 136-7.

17. Samuel Bayard, "Martial Band's in Western Pennsylvania," Folkways Monthly I, (Jan., 1963,), 34-45.

18. Originally recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks and issued on OKeh 8784 and Vocalion 03188.

19. Originally recorded in 1955 by Little Walter and issued on Checker 811.

20. Recently Tony Russell has suggested that Big Boy Cleveland's "Quill Blues," (recorded in 1927 and issued on Gennett 6108), long thought to have been a panpipe solo, is actually a fife solo. He has also adduced evidence to suggest that Cleveland may have lived in Tate or DeSoto County, Mississippi. The whole matter, however, remains in need of further evidence. For Rus-sell's argument see his "Quills, Reeds and Things," Jazz & Blues I, (Aug.-Sept», 1971). 25.

21. Norman R. Yetman, Life Under the "Peculiar Institution" (New York, 1970), p. 170.

22. David Evans, notes to "It Must Have been the Devil: Mississippi Country Blues by Jack Owens and Bud Spires," .lestament 1-2222, 12-inch LP.

23. Ibid., Tommy Johnson (London, 1971), pp. 17-9.

24. Frederic Ramsey, Been Here and Gone (New .Brunswick, N.J., 1960), pp. 66-73.