Following the Drums: African American Fife and Drum Music in Tennessee

As the Town Rambler was wending his way up Main street the other day he encountered the gayest procession, seemingly, that ever trod the streets of Memphis. There was a brass band in front bursting forth in strains of the gayest music, while behind it followed a long train of negroes, with knee britches, brass buttons, swords somewhat the worse for rust, besides a world of purple feathers and tarnished lace, so that one might have imagined that some whirlwind had blown a millinery shop to pieces and scattered its trinkets to the four winds. The Town Rambler, of course, presumed this to be a crowd on its way to a dance or a picnic but no, it was a negro funeral.  —Public Ledger August 30th, 1888

Like many in my generation, I found my way to jazz through an interest in American folk and roots music; an interest that broadened to include traditional jazz in my longing to know what came before. Through Smithsonian Folkways liner notes and the little bit more to be found online in the late ’90s I developed an image of fife and drum music that, while exciting and unique, was disconnected from other forms. A rural Black Mississippi style with origins lost in history based loosely on military music. An artifact genre that folklorists fawn over but ultimately had little cultural impact. I did not connect it to jazz, or even blues, nor to history.

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Mississippi has gotten nearly all the attention for fife and drum music, in part because the music never died out there, and in part because several artists, Otha Turner most recognizably, have harnessed the style to create an enduring family legacy in folk festival circles. Nearly all of the study of fife and drum music has been confined to the northern Mississippi counties where the style persisted, and has mostly been confined to oral history from the 20th century. The existing scholarship on the form consists of several thesis papers and chapters in books about blues or Black music in the South. There has never been a full length book focused on fife and drum music. Until now.

Following the Drums: African American Fife and Drum Music in TennesseeFollowing the Drums: African American Fife and Drum Music in Tennessee by John M. Shaw delivers on its title in 250 concise but thorough pages. Using keyword searches on digitized period newspapers, a process that would have taken a life time not long ago, he illustrates the story of African American fife and drum music in Tennessee from before the Civil War through to its last gasps at rural picnics in the 1980s. He dashes my misconceptions about a rural and ignored music and reveals, without putting it as directly as I will, that fife and drum music in Reconstruction era Tennessee was synonymous with Black political power. It was the sound track to the community life that freedmen were building as they navigated everything from running for office to healthcare and burial.

He wastes little time in idle speculation, but did send my mind to connecting dots. I do wish the book had covered fife and drum during Reconstruction on a national level, but Shaw has forged a path for others to pursue state-specific research. The book left me to wonder whether a study of Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, or Louisiana would also reveal a rich fife and drum culture during the Reconstruction era. You need not wonder. Watching Shaw’s promotional speaking engagements for this book I learned that he did uncover evidence from many other states that would imply that the Tennessee experience was not unique.

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The simplicity of a fife, often made of a reed or cane, a bass drum, and a snare drum, the classic construction of a fife and drum group, reminded me of Spasm Bands in New Orleans, and the pennywhistle-led Skiffle music of South Africa called Kwela—all involve cheap or home made instruments often taken up by street musicians. I found a video comparing the sound of fife and drum as recorded in 1968 to the Jonkonnu music of Jamaica as recorded in the 1950s and the sonic overlap was startling. Indeed there is a shared polyrhythm connecting all of these styles, and that rhythm traces back to Africa.

Fife and drum music itself is ancient. It is associated with militaries in Europe from the 1500s on. The fife is small and its sharp sound can be heard above a din. Drums have been used for communication in battle even longer. Outside of active engagement they are used to make marching lighter, to entertain in camp, and for patriotic public entertainments including parades. It so happened that fife-like instruments and drums, and even using them in processional activities, also had cultural significance in many African nations.

Whites seem to have recognized and appreciated the skill of Black drummers in a military context as far back as the Revolutionary War. Though drums on plantations were often banned, military mustering for both free and slave was often required by the states, and Blacks were frequently given the roles of drummers in the decades before the Civil War. Some individuals even became well enough known, due to the popularity of martial entertainments directed at the public, to warrant naming in period newspapers. During the war itself there were many Black drummers in both armies.

It is hard to determine when a distinctly African American style of fife and drum emerged, one that would be recognizably distinct to people of the time, but it became widespread immediately after the Civil War and Emancipation. So immediately that it must have been preexisting to some degree. In the wake of Emancipation the black community began publicly asserting itself in the cities of Tennessee. Celebrating with New Years parades in Memphis as early as 1866, and fife and drum music was noted by observers from the start of Black independence.

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Those first parades in Memphis were organized by the Sons of Ham and the Social Benevolent Society, two Black organizations that predated the war. Before modern life insurance, social aid and pleasure clubs, to use the familiar New Orleans term, were widespread in America, often but not always based on ethnic groupings. Members would fundraise and socialize, and when a member died they would help with final expenses. Many new societies formed after the war. The Independent Order of Pole Bearers features prominently in the book, and within that group the fife and drum tradition continued for over a century.

In the period after the war fife and drum bands were a prominent part of Black gatherings, with the more expensive-to-operate brass bands increasingly joining and eventually replacing them over decades. The quotation that leads this review mentions a brass band, but it goes on to celebrate, in the language of the time, the fife and drum, and it is likely the funeral described included both. The ornamentation it describes, feathers and swords, is the wares of a Benevolent society, and the parade would have had only a fife and drum corps leading it in most rural areas, and even in many urban areas just a decade before.

Looking back across the more recent period of segregation it is hard to picture the political power that African Americans enjoyed in the South in the years following Emancipation. While the Reconstruction period officially ends with the withdrawal of Federal forces in 1877, the process of stripping African Americans of their rights and codifying segregation occurred over an extended period. They still had to be considered as a voting bloc as late as the early 1890s. Many know that there were Black members of Congress during Reconstruction but haven’t thought about what that meant on the ground. There were African Americans running for and winning local offices that have greater impact on daily life; you talk to your Ward captain more often than your Senator. It was a time of progress, hope, and backlash.

White candidates had to appeal to Black voters in many districts. Beyond the Republican party that had led Emancipation there were third parties which, to have any chance, needed to draw in both white and Black members. Even the Democrats had to attract Black votes and met with some success. A remarkable thing that I notice is that the white newspapers in this period, while casually racist in their sarcasm, lacked the vitriol of the 1890s through 1920s. It seems that many in power, however briefly, accepted the outcome of the war and that they would need to adjust to a society where Blacks enjoyed the same rights they did… like it or not.

There is a sense conveyed that everyone was cautiously trying to understand the new social order. In 1866 Blacks held Independence Day picnics in public squares, “alone,” as reported by one newspaper. The white population wasn’t feeling like celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Union that year, and wouldn’t until WWII.  These meetings were an assertion by the Black population of their right to use public spaces as equals. Before having such a gathering earlier that year the Sons of Ham asked for clarification from the Mayor of Memphis, his response was “The Sons of Ham and all other sons can do just as they please, provided they do not break civil law.” 1866 was a new world even if some of those same spaces may have been available to gatherings of the enslaved previously.

Hiring a fife and drum band from one of the Black societies was one of the primary ways of conveying that your political party or candidate wanted the Black vote. Campaign events for even small offices like city council were highly public affairs with street oratory, and crowd size mattered. While fife and drum music was also part of parades, picnics, and society events, it most prominently featured in newspapers in relation to advertising a political rally or speech, frequently with all candidates having their own band. Fife and drum became so tied to campaigns that letters to the editor lamented the racket that came with campaign season the way one might complain about wall to wall TV ads in an election year today. Some of these complaints do seem to be justified from a public nuisance standpoint. Drummers parading around your neighborhood day after day might become unwelcome even if you support their candidate. Bands were known to block traffic, or startle horses and send them running.

As years progressed into the 1870s the fife and drum became a ubiquitous part of life in the cities of Tennessee, and less well documented, in the rural areas where the style would persist for a century. Many complaints about the prevalence of the music had to do with appearances. Fife and drum brigades dominating the thoroughfares of a modern city like Nashville made it look “provincial and backward,” which implies that it was widespread in rural communities.

Throughout the 1860s and ’70s fife and drum music prompted discussion in the press. Shaw moves year by year following this discussion with extended excerpts from papers that are flowery and sometimes cheeky. Reporting from picnics and political rallies has the latitude to be irreverent. Reporting on a noise complaint invites poking fun at the complainant. While the language used to describe the gatherings of African Americans is diminutive it is not, at least in the quotations Shaw cites, nasty. Letting these voices speak for themselves opens up the time period in a way no summary could. Reading these newspapers gives you the smell of the street. There were many papers, white and Black, and those supportive of specific parties. He frequently contrasts reports of the same event from several papers representing different angles and narrative objectives.

Some of the criticism throughout the period reveals an obvious resentment of the public display of political power that these fife and drum groups represented. This is especially true in the case of Black militias and the fear that they were off plotting rebellion in the woods. It was, after all, a military music. The very existence of Black militias during Reconstruction is interesting. The primary place they come into the narrative in this book is when they are called into action in Memphis during the yellow fever outbreak of 1878. Around half of the population, mostly the white half, fled to the countryside and Black militias stepped in to run things. Blacks served as policemen, firemen, and guards at the quarantine camps. The city was so hard hit, and broke, that it lost its charter for a number of years. One thing to consider is that Tennessee was still the frontier. The 1880 census gives Memphis a population of thirty-three thousand.

That high point of autonomy during the pandemic came just as Black power was beginning to wane across the south. From that point on, year after year he finds fewer references in the newspapers to fife and drum groups. There are a variety of reasons. In some settings the presence of a band is simply assumed. More forebodingly, reporting on the particular music of an event, or covering a Black social event at all, wanes with Black political power. He cites many proposals for ordinances banning fife and drum music in urban areas, though it is unclear how many are passed or enforced. The few references to fife and drum there are make it clear the bands were still common, especially in politics, and also in general advertising, into the early 1890s. After that point, with Black political power at its nadir, and brass bands starting to cut the first commercial records, he finds very little in the newspaper archives. The last 50 pages cover 1893 through to the present day.

One exception is Nashville baseball. 1886 was the first year a fife and drum groups was used to advertise a baseball game, and it was between two female teams. At least in the city of Nashville the association of baseball and fife and drum would continue for decades. An African American fife and drum corp was used to announce home games of the Nashville baseball team. At one point the group was called the Spirits of ’76 though it was not often referred to by name. They played many patriotic songs as baseball in the early years of the 20th century had become “America’s Game.”

The Nashville team was called the Volunteers, and a 1915 reference calls them the “Vol’s ragtime fife and drum corps”. By the late teens the band was also hired for women’s suffrage and WWI events. 25 years after being seen as a Black menace fife and drum had become old timey and patriotic. In 1917 the Nashville Rotary Club brought the band to an Atlanta convention where they paraded the streets with them. There are letters to the editor calling the band inseparable to Nashville baseball but at some point after 1929 it was no longer used. I hazard a guess not offered in the book that the form of advertising the band was known for, parading the streets to announce an event, had come to an end because radio and literacy combined to serve the purpose. I am also prompted to consider the various Dixieland bands that accompanied Baseball teams in later decades, and to wonder if some memory persisted.

Shaw finds only one mention of fife and drum music in a Tennessee newspaper between 1929 and 1968. It is a 1948 reference to a man as a former member of the baseball band. The 1968 reference was to a fife and drum group discovered by Alan Lomax in 1958 that was from Mississippi but had members who had moved to Tennessee in the interim. They were appearing at a folk festival. Several Tennessee fife and drum bands also appeared at folk events during the next decade, after which it was only the more famous Mississippi groups.

Blues enthusiasts descending on the area in 1960s and 1970s cataloged what remained of fife and drum activity. A Swedish man named Bengt Olsson even recorded fife and drum playing. Through their work Following the Drums tells the story of several groups that were playing picnics, bars, and horse races in rural counties into the ’60s and sometimes ’70s. A set list includes a run of sanctified standards to suit a Sunday morning program at a traditional jazz festival. Several participants attribute the decline of the annual picnics to the inclusion of electrified music of the day, recorded or live. They say it overshadowed the small groups of old men with a fife and two drums who had entertained at them for nearly a century, and invited the wrong element. A more intuitive subject blames the introduction of modern life insurance, which undermined the sustaining purpose of groups like the Pole Bearers who had held these picnics.

In these rural Black counties drums were used to announce the death of a society member as late as the 1950s, fading away only because everyone had phones. The drum would carry at dawn far enough to alert people who would act as runners to inform the rest of the society. This sort of thing sounds like hogwash, telling white folklorists what they want to hear. But in a small rural area with social life built around burial societies, why change it? Rituals around death tend to persist the longest. Drums were still played at society events into the ’80s.

Shaw makes an impressive case for fife and drum music as a central part of African American musical history. This is a period before the blues form, before ragtime—concurrent to only Black spiritual forms like ring shouts, brass bands, and string bands. It is a style focused on drumming, often played with rhythms outside the Western norms. Many oral history sources name the music “drum and fife,” or refer to it as “drum music” without mentioning the fife. Others assert that the fife itself is optional and the music can be played with drums alone.

There are decades between the predominance of fife and drum and jazz developing into a national craze, but there is a chain of influence. Picture the Sons of Ham, marching with a drum band in the 1860s, a brass band in the 1890s and a jazz band in the 1920s—within the lifetime of a member. Indeed, if you approach a brass band with the spirit of an improvisational fife dancing over a polyrhythm you are well on your way to jazz.

Following the Drums:
African American Fife and Drum Music in Tennessee
By John M. Shaw
University Press of Mississippi (May 2022)
www.upress.state.ms.us
298 pages, 26 b&w illustrations; $30 (paper)
ISBN: ‎978-1496839558

Joe Bebco is the Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times and Webmaster of SyncopatedTimes.com

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