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The Beat Goes On

Alumni recall the beginnings of the Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg


More than 60 years ago, before Colonial Williamsburg created the fife and drum contingent that would become world renowned, a few Foundation employees assumed the role of a militia modeled after the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. They needed a drummer to set the beat and in the summer of 1955 turned to a rising high school senior, Lew LeCompte, who came equipped with a modern drum borrowed from his school band.

The next two to take on the role were Allen Lindsey and Jim Teal.

“I had learned how to play the drum in the school band,” Teal recalled. “I wore a Colonial costume and I fell in with the militia and beat a cadence — a modern one, not hip-hop, but certainly not authentic 18th-century drum music.” Not so long after, William “Bill” Geiger, who was director of Colonial Williamsburg’s trades shops as well as in charge of the militia, decided he wanted fifes to go with the drums. He visited his neighbor on Duke of Gloucester Street, John Harbour, who was Colonial Williamsburg’s director of exhibition buildings. Harbour’s son John played the saxophone in his high school band.

“I am not sure I even knew what a fife was,” Harbour said. “And I certainly did not know how to play it. I taught myself the scales and fingering on the fife by playing the scales on the saxophone and clarinet while my father played the scales on a piano.”

The next problem was music.

“We had none,” Harbour said. “Bill Geiger collected military music records and he provided them as a source. With my father picking out the tune on a piano and me playing the corresponding note on the fife, we learned and wrote down the music for our first tune — Yankee Doodle.” Next came British Grenadiers and Washington’s Quickstep.

The Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg debuted July 4, 1958, with two drummers — Allen Lindsey and Jim Teal — and two fifers — Chuck Miller and John Harbour.

In the summer of 1960, George Carroll, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Band at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, began instructing the musicians on weekends and brought with him 18th-century music he had found in the Library of Congress. By then, the Fifes and Drums had grown to 14 members, for whom Carroll provided classes in music and military drilling. In 1961, Carroll was hired to lead the Fifes and Drums.

“He put the spit and polish on us,” Teal said.

Also in 1960, Colonial Williamsburg produced a film, Music in Williamsburg. The Fifes and Drums had a small part, marching across Market Square and playing new tunes. That same year, it took part in its first competition, and in 1961, it took home group and individual medals at the Southeastern States Ancient Muster.

Over the years the Fifes and Drums has replaced its handful of tunes and high school drums with hundreds of pieces of authentic 18th-century music and replicas of 18th-century instruments. It has organized into junior and senior groups, added girls (who dress as boys when performing) and played around the nation and the world.

The Fifes and Drums now has nearly 1,000 alumni. Ten years ago, for the 50th anniversary, so many alumni returned that, Teal recalled, “when we marched down Duke of Gloucester Street, every window rattled and we shook the whole town.”

“The [Fifes and Drums] is very special to me,” Harbour said. “Not just because I was involved in its creation, but for what it did for me. It taught me leadership. It taught me discipline and responsibility.”

Alumni will gather again in Williamsburg for the 60th anniversary on Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday, May 26, the alumni will march, along with the Senior and Junior Fifes and Drums from the Capitol to Market Square, where there will be additional programming.

(Tom Green/The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

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