quite a lovely site. My question is with such great historic material on the fife and the drum, why is there not one example of this tradition expressed within the African-American community? It has a long and large legacy…
Thank you, Scott, for your kind words.
There is a little bit of scholarship available in the African-American tradition, mostly the southern tradition carried on by Othar Turner (and the Rising Star Band). Their is (or was, Othar died in 2003 at the age of 95 and Bernice, his daughter, the same day, so sad) more of a Memphis Blues tradition rather than one that arose from historic military musical traditions. Some years ago they used to perform occasionally on Beale Street in Memphis, and I had the pleasure of getting to know Bernice (everyone was very protective of Othar, who was approaching his 90s at the time), and I did get invited to the barbecue (They used to hold one each June on Othar’s birthday). We exchanged fifes–he couldn’t play mine, and I couldn’t really play his, because there are really a lot of differences, both in construction and style. But we have a great time (I didn’t eat, it really was a goat barbecue) but left with a cane fife and promises to try to get them up north to a muster. If you are interested, there was an article done some years ago in the journal American Music, which you can search for on line (I have it somewhere but it will probably take you less time to find it on line than I can in this mess called “my files.” Also, take a look at the several Wiki articles, not so much for content but for their list of primary sources at the end, which will lead to to present-day scholars.
Of course, there are African-American versions of the British-American military-based tradition, which are mostly defunct. I wrote about Tony Smith and his Dred-Nots (Wallingford, CT 1872) and the Boldon corps (Hartford, CT not sure of the year but going strong by 1906), but these corps participated in the “white” community, so I suspect their music was “white,” too.
There is today (they have a facebook page, so they are still around) the Charles W. Dickerson Fife, Drum, and Bugle Corps who are all-African American. However, their style is a specific kind of “ancient,” that is, as taught to them by one Sanford “Gus” Moeller, who was a drummer in the 7th Regt NYSM. Gus taught what he knew best, which was the 7th Regt style of ancient drums paired with fifes and alternating with bugle solos. It is a fascinating style, which many think is “black,” but it goes straight back to Gus, who started teaching the Dickerson kids back in 1929, when they were a boy scout corps in New Rochelle, and continued teaching until he died ( I believe that was in 1957). If you ever get to CT for a muster, do try to get to Westbrook because I understand that Dickerson still attends that one, and they are definitely worth the trip.
I’m afraid this turned out to be a long answer, and I really didn’t answer your question about why there is not one example of this expressed within the African-American community? I can only guess why. . . I would have to guess at this one, but perhaps they are so busy establishing other aspects of their history that they just haven’t reached this far yet. Let’s face it, secular musical activities have not always been the subject of academic attention until the advent of the “new” social history, so it hasn’t garnered as much attention as political history, which still reigns supreme in the golden college halls. And much of the readily available history on this music is not “pure” African but borrowed, molded, and melded from white culture, so it just might have to wait its turn before it finds someone interested enough in it to study it. And (I think this is an important reason since it affects “white” history as well as “black history”) lots of this stuff is found in aural tradition and thus falls under the auspices of “folk music” (how I hate that term!) And that scares away a lot of academics, unfortunately, who have the training to bring this very important stuff to the forefront of scholarship.
Just my 2, er, well, I think we’re up to 4 cents now. Thank you for your kind words and your questions. If you do end up writing about African-American fife and drum music, I would love to hear about it!
I will think about my answer, but in brief I knew Othar and have peripherally followed his granddaughter Shardé. I want to say that in the NY Historical Society exhibit a few years back they included some ancillary materials on fife and drum/along with sound samples. I will more closely read your text and up the ante, if I can. Writing about the tradition would be swell. Currently, I am on a big field project in Brazil in my primary research area foodways and commensal traditions within the African Diaspora in the Americas. I will keep in touch and take your suggestion to heart. peace & happy/merry.
I think Sharde is the only one left with the tradition in her head. I hope she finds a way to carry it on.
Good luck to you, and I do hope to hear from you again. . . however long it takes. . . sounds like you have some important business to do first.
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