Established with just two drummers and two fifers, the first of whom was self-taught, the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums has come a long way in 60 years.
Few people understand that better than John Harbour. Harbour is one of the original four members of the corps, which has grown to about 100 musicians.
One evening in the late 1950s, Bill Geiger, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of craft shops, stopped by Harbour’s home on Duke of Gloucester Street with a request, Harbour said.
“He asked my father to ask me to learn how to play it and recruit my friends to form a fife-and-drum unit. That’s literally how it got started,” Harbour said.
In the early 1950s, Geiger began to explore the creation of a militia unit that would perform military drills and include fifers and drummers.
“He wanted to form a militia and he knew he needed fifes and drums,” said Harbour, who has volunteered with the corps since 2013.
That’s because fifes and drums were an integral part of 18th-century warfare and key to faithfully replicating the period’s military maneuvers.
Amid the crash of cannons and volleys of musket fire, an officer struggled to direct his soldiers in the noise and confusion of battle. The music of fifes and drums could be heard above the chaos, making it vital to communicate orders to troops, Harbour said.
A saxophone player in the James Blair High School marching band, Harbour learned how to play fife without access to music for his new instrument.
“I had never seen one. I had no idea how to play one,” Harbour said of the fife. “We had no fingering charts. No music. We had to literally write our own music.”
Geiger provided military music records to listen to. Harbour’s father, who also worked for Colonial Williamsburg, played “Yankee Doodle” on the piano, with Harbour playing the corresponding notes on the fife. Bob Reveille, Geiger’s assistant, whistled “British Grenadiers” while an orchestral arrangement provided the road map to learn “Washington’s Quickstep,” according to a history of the corps.
In this way, the Fifes and Drums created its initial repertoire.
Harbour recruited Chuck Miller, a senior at James Blair who played clarinet in the school band, to be fifer number two. Along with Alan Lindsay and James Teal — who had been drumming with the militia — the group rehearsed in Harbour’s basement.
The corps made its debut with a performance on July 4, 1958. The boys were paid, kicking off a tradition of paying musicians to retain talent and encourage good performance, Harbour said.
The corps would grow in membership as it performed more concerts and alongside the Colonial Williamsburg militia. The corps performed in Colonial Williamsburg’s first Grand Illumination in December 1959.
“There’s nothing quite like marching down Duke of Gloucester Street to the accolades of the tourists,” Harbour said.
While the corps made an entertaining addition to Colonial Williamsburg, it was held back by a lack of formal, historically accurate training.
But just as Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben whipped the Continental Army into shape at Valley Forge, another soldier, George Carroll, served much the same purpose for the Fifes and Drums.
Growth and change
Carroll, a percussionist in the Army Band with a deep personal interest in 18th century military music, made contact with Geiger after a visit to see another fife and drums corps perform in Colonial Williamsburg in 1959. The pair developed a working relationship, exchanging information and advice. Carroll helped establish the Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps in 1960, which plays historic music and wears Revolutionary War-era uniforms. That year, Carroll and other Old Guard corps members began instructing the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums. Carroll was later hired as the first music master and drum major for the corps, according the history of the corps.
The two organizations maintain strong ties, and some Fife and Drums members have gone on to join the Old Guard’s corps, Harbour said.
While high school students made up the corps at first, in 1963 the corps adopted its current practice of inducting members at 10 years old, according to the corps’ history.
As the years went by, the corps continued to establish its reputation, winning competitions at home and abroad and playing for foreign dignitaries and American presidents.
In 1961, the corps played at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Six years later, the corps made its first foreign trip to Canada, according to the corps history.
Membership became so coveted, there was a time parents would sign up their children soon after they were born, though they wouldn’t pick up an instrument for a decade. Currently, members sign up the year they turn 10 years old, Harbour said.
The organization has seen its share of changes over the years. One of the more notable ones was when the corps opened to girls in 1999.
Eleanor Prott joined the Fifes and Drums in 2002 and was among the first cohort of girls to graduate the program.
“It was really an empowering experience,” Prott said, adding that she credits the experience with teaching her leadership skills.
But change came with its share of challenge.
“It was hard at times,” Prott said, reflecting on her experience as one of the first girls to join the organization. “We had to work a little harder.”
Today, about a third of the corps is made up of girls, Harbour said.
Members age out of the corps when they graduate from high school. Since members spend the better part of a decade in the corps, the organization becomes like a family, where members learn life lessons, Harbour said.
“I think a lot of alumni in this program credit this program as the time they learn personal responsibility,” said Stewart Pittman, the program’s drum instructor and head of the Fifes and Drums department. Stewart was drummer in the corps during the 1990s. “Under the guise of fife and drum music, we teach people to be good citizens.”
While the corps is overseen by a professional staff, much of the teaching consists of older members mentoring younger members, Harbour said.
“That creates bonds that last a lifetime,” Harbour said.
More than 1,000 boys and girls have participated in the Fifes and Drums since its founding. Members have come from virtually every community, high school and neighborhood in the Historic Triangle, corps historian and alumnus Bill Casterline said.
“The Fifes and Drums are an iconic institution that embodies Colonial Williamsburg to many of our guests and the world,” Colonial Willilamsburg spokesman Joe Straw wrote in an email. “More importantly, the corps plays a critical role in the Greater Williamsburg community as an organization that has fostered character, artistic talent, camaraderie and lifelong friendships among so many who grew up in the area.”
Many of those alumni will return to the familiar streets of Colonial Williamsburg this weekend for the corps’ 60th reunion. Casterline expects up to 150 members past and present, including the original four members, to attend the reunion.
“I’m definitely proud to be a part of something that’s managed to last so long,” Pittman said.
The reunion will feature marches open to the public at 8:15 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday on Duke of Gloucester Street. There will also be an open house at the corps’ headquarters, located at 433 Franklin St., from 2-4 p.m. Sunday. Alumni and current corps members will be on site to meet visitors and lead tours of the facility, which includes exhibits of the corps history.
With about 100 drummers and fifers, the first of whom volunteer to assist the next generation of young musicians, the corps looks toward its future.
What’s in store for the Fifes and Drums as they march into the next 60 years? Harbour hopes the corps will continue to faithfully pay homage to fifers and drummers of the Revolutionary War and continue to entertain and educate Americans about their history.
“I certainly hope it continues,” Harbour said. “Anytime a military band marches by, people tend to stand a tad taller.”
Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums performances
- Torch-lit march along Duke of Gloucester Street from the Governor’s Palace to the Capitol at 8:15 p.m., Friday. Free.
- Grand March, featuring more than 125 alumni and current members, from the Capitol to the Market Square for the Grand March 1 p.m. Saturday. Performances at the Market Square will follow the march. Free.
Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.