A History of Fife and Drum Music
and of the Kentish Guards Fife and Drum Corps
The fife and the drum are prehistoric musical instruments; simple in design, they were first made before man's written history. They were
and are used in various forms and combinations in nearly every culture.
The first time that they were used together in a form which we would recognize as "fife & drum" was in Switzerland. The Swiss had
won their freedom in 1291, and had become famous for the bravery and excellence of their military. The needs of extended marches and camp life encouraged the development of fife and drum music in the 1400's. The
rest of Europe took notice of this military musical form at the climatic Battle of Marignano (near Milan, Italy) in 1515.
The Germanic Principalities adopted this military music in the 1500's and 1600's. The French employed Swiss mercenaries in the 1600's and
1700's, who used their fife and drum music and influenced the rest of the French Army. During the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain the English Army had become very disorganized and undisciplined. The Hanoverians
(George I) who succeeded Queen Anne in 1714 reorganized the English Army, requiring the troops to march in step to proper military music. Thus fife & drum music was adopted by the British military (except for
the Scottish regiments). This was the model, which the English colonists in North America followed in forming their military organizations.
In the military pattern, a company of about 100 men would have one or two fifers, and one or two drummers. When 8 or 10 companies were
gathered together to form a regiment, their fifers and drummers were "banded" to form a regimental band. Thus a fife and drum corps is the musical unit of a regiment of 800 to 1,000 men. The regiment is
traditionally the largest military unit "commanded by one voice," and so the fife and drum corps of 8 to 40 men (typically 16 to 20) is the largest size this musical form historically achieved.
The musicians provided music for the army on the march. As Napoleon would prove, music would be very effective in motivating an army to
march long distances. The musicians were also used to broadcast various signals. Military camp life required a succession of daily signals: time to get up, breakfast call, sick call, assembly, lunch, duty calls,
dinner, evening retreat, lights-out (curfew). The "Tattoo" comes from the Dutch die den tap toe which was a signal for the beer sellers to "turn off the taps" so that the soldiers could finish their beers and report
back to camp. This signal consisted of the fifes and drums marching up and down the streets of the garrison town or camp playing as they marched - at the end, they would stop marching, and conclude with a hymn.
While the army was encamped (or billeted in a city) the "officer of the day" (supervising at that moment) would always have a drummer with
him to give impromptu and emergency signals: to sound "alarm" at an imminent attack or to call for a conference of the officers, or the sergeants, or to gather all of the musicians for some formal duty. Contrary to
common opinion, signals generally were NOT given during battles, excepting "cease fire" and related signals. The battlefield was too noisy and confusing, and, as the French discovered when they experimented with the
idea in the 1750's, the enemy can hear your signals. Sometimes the musicians might march in front of their army before the face of the enemy to taunt them and to encourage their own troops, but at a safe distance.
Musical signals, however, were used to position the troops onto and off of the battlefield. Signals were given to make varying formations,
turn in various ways, halt, march, extend and retract lines. An army on the march could be stretched-out or compacted by playing the appropriate music. An important daily duty, whether at camp, on the march, or just
before and after a battle was the Parade. The Parade was a formal assembly of all personnel; here troop strength, and equipment could be inspected, unit orders could be given, awards and punishments conferred, and
formal announcements issued. A "Trooping of the Colors" would display the flags, which the troops were to follow. Music played an important part in this millennium-old ceremony; musical signals were given to
announce various parts of the ceremony and move the troops at appropriate times. This Parade, or Assembly, or Military Review is also the form of the Muster, traditionally called about four times a year to count and
inspect the local militia, and have them demonstrate their military skills.
The British Army and the English colonists confronting each other in the American Revolution both used fife and drum music. Thus fife and
drum music is strongly associated with the birth of America. Fife and drum music, however, continued to be used by the American military into the American Civil War. The increased range, accuracy, and rapidity of
firearms extended and rapidly moved the battle lines, and long marches were replaced by transportation on railway and steamship, making the use of fife & drum obsolete. After the Civil War, the bugle was
preferred, though fife and drum was used by shipboard Marine detachments until 1921.
Civilian fife & drum corps, however, blossomed around the year 1876, the centennial of American independence. Nostalgic, patriotic
Americans of this era recreated this music, which they so strongly associated with the American Revolution. Many local militia companies had turned into fire-fighting companies and supported fife and drum corps as
town bands. The music of these civilian groups rested upon its military roots, but was free to develop for other purposes. This civilian, patriotic music grew into a strong folk-tradition, and as it continues today.
(Claude Levi-Strauss, noted social anthropologist, defines a folk-tradition as an activity, which engages members of all generations.)
Traditional fife and drum corps engage in parades and their form of musters and tattoos, wherein they display their musical abilities,
sometimes in contest, but usually just in fun. Some corps play music within this folk tradition, which grew out of the 1870's, while others specifically recreate authentic music of the American Revolution, or the
Civil War. They are primarily located on the East Coast between Virginia and Massachusetts, with the heaviest concentration in Connecticut; scattered groups exist elsewhere in the United States. There are a number
of corps in Switzerland who play in the American, "Ancient" style, thus returning this musical form to its origins.
The Kentish Guards are a militia company formed in East Greenwich Rhode Island in 1774; they then had two fifers and two drummers,
appropriate for a company-sized organization. The Kentish Guards never disbanded, making them the sixth oldest military organization in the United States in continuous existence. They had a variety of musical units
throughout their history, and in 1966 formed a regimental-sized fife and drum corps, the Kentish Guards Fife & Drum Corps. There are only four fife and drum corps in the United States that are part of an actual
military organization: The Kentish Guards, and Pawtuxet Rangers in Rhode Island, the Second Company Governor's Footguard in Connecticut, and the Old Guard of the 3rd U.S. Army in Ft. Myers, Virginia.
The KGF&DC wears the uniform worn by the Kentish Guards between 1790 and 1820, and readopted in 1928. On the snare-drum shell is the
canton from the Kentish Guards' Flag: a red field with a Rhode Island anchor and a federal eagle; over the eagle's head are sixteen stars and on the eagle's chest is a shield with sixteen stripes, as there were
sixteen states when this coat-of-arms was designed, around 1800.
The Corps plays a variety of music from the traditional fife & drum repertoire as well as authentic pieces; these include a medley of
tunes taught by their original fife instructor of 1774, William Williams. The Kentish Guards Militia, being a legally constituted military organization, offers the KGF&DC many rare opportunities to play in
military ceremonies: ceremonial inspections of the Kentish Guards by the state Adjutant General, at Gubernatorial Balls, and for visiting dignitaries. These are rare opportunities to experience the fife and drum
musical tradition in its military context.
For further information, please contact:
The Kentish Guards Fife and Drum Corps
1774 Armory Street
East Greenwich, RI 02818-3747