A brief history
Fifes belong to the ancient tradition of simple system flutes that, along with the drum, predates recorded history. The fife, as a martial instrument, originally comes from Switzerland. Swiss mercenaries used fifes and drums to communicate commands across large formations and carried the practice across Europe. By the end of the sixteenth century fifes appeared alongside drums in most European militaries.
The fife made its leap to the new world with early American settlers along with so many other European traditions. By the time of the American Revolution, colonial newspapers carried advertisements for fifes for sale in local stores, as well as noticies seeking fifers to support the local militia. The fife played such a vital role in George Washington’s Continental Army that one of his daily orders stipulated exact times for the fifers and drummers to practice, in order to avoid confusion within the ranks. When the Army was dissolved following the 1783 Treaty of Paris, a single fifer was among the few key personnel retained on active duty at West Point.
In the U.S. Military, the fife remained on active duty as a functional field instrument all the way through World War I until radio communication finally supplanted the role of field music on the battlefield. While, functional field music no longer exists in the U.S. Military, The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, in its role as American cultural ambassadors across the U.S. and around the world, represents the field music tradition and the U.S. cultural art-form that blossomed during the 20th century.
The fife today
Today, the fife is considered a niche instrument and yet it thrives. Though no longer a functional field instrument in the military, the fife continues to play an important social and cultural role in Europe and the US. The fife has become a vehicle for carrying forward traditions and ideals of the past, while at the same time new and exciting music is expanding the the perception of the fife beyond what Shakespeare referred to as "the ear-piercing fife."
In Switzerland, the piccolo is still an important cultural touchstone. Each year in the City of Basel Switzerland, the carnival of Fasnacht begins at 4am with Morgestraich, when 15,000 - 20,000 fifers and drummers march through the streets in elaborate costumes, playing drums and fifes.
Irish Flute Bands are an important part of the “Parading Tradition” in Northern Ireland and “a powerful marker of cultural, religious and political identity within both the Protestant and Catholic communities" ( Witherow, “Parading Traditions in Northern Ireland”). Indeed, two of the 20th Century’s most well known flutists began on fife, Sir James Galway and Matt Molloy.
The popularity of Revolutionary War and Civil War reenacting in the U.S. has maintained the traditional role of fifers and drummers as field musicians. Subsets of the reenacting community, including The Field Music of the American Revolution and The National Civil War Field Music School actively seek to preserve the field music traditions of these eras as accurately as possible.
Beyond reenacting, today, the fife is largely found in community and patriotic organizations. Particularly in the Northeast U.S., VFWs, American Legion Posts, and other civic organizations sponsored “drum corps” as important patriotic emblems throughout the 20th century. The U.S. Bicentennial saw fife and drum corps organized across the country swelling the number of corps to nearly 2,000, many still in existence today. These civic-patriotic corps often represent either the American Revolution era or the Civil War era, and perform music mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, though the arrangements are often quite contemporary. Today, The Company of Fifers and Drummers maintains a museum in Ivoryton, Connecticut which houses artifacts from the last 200 years of American fifing and drumming and boasts a membership of hundreds of American and International fife and drum corps.
Existing almost entirely separate from the patriotic fife and drum corps of the Northeast and Mid-west, the Mississippi Blues tradition has its own brand of fife and drum, best know through the music of Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Today, this form of fifing and drumming is carried on by Mr. Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars. Though stylistically quite different from American fife and drum corps of the Northeast and Midwest, Mississippi Blues fife and drum is yet another contemporary art-form keeping this ancient instrument alive.
My name is Billy White. I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia and began learning the fife from my father at age 7. During my time in The Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg, I rose to the rank of Sergeant Major; served as a Drum Major, Fife Section Leader, and Corps Sergeant Major; and was the 1991 recipient of the Tommy Williams Award. After graduating from the Williamsburg Corps, I briefly worked on staff as a fife instructor and performed as a balladeer in the taverns at Colonial Williamsburg.
I attended James Madison University as a Music Education Major and studied flute with Carol Kneibush Noe (previous flute teachers include: Diana Edwards-Continental Army Band, Francile Bilyeu-Virginia Commonwealth University, Herbert Watson (baroque flute)-Colonial Williamsburg Foundation). I eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from George Mason University and a Master of Arts in US History from The American Military University.
In 1993, I won an audition for a position as a fife musician in The US Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and joined that unit in April 1994 after completing Army Basic Training. As a member of The Old Guard, I was a fifer, librarian, historian, music arranger, Drum Major, Fife Section Leader, Fife Group Leader, Operations Sergeant Major and the Corps Sergeant Major. I was a founding member of The Old Guard’s fife ensemble and baroque flute ensemble.
In 1996 I co-founded the celtic music band Edsall Road with Matt Tourville and Charles White. Edsall Road performed throughout Northern Virginia for 15 years and released two recordings “A Long Time Coming...” and “Tank’s Travels” both available on Spotify and Apple Music.
Most recently I founded Confluence, a contemporary fife ensemble, which released it's first recording "Throw Another Fife on the Fire" in May 2019. A companion book of arrangements featured on the recording was also released in 2019 and a new tunebook of more than 50 original melodies titled "Notes to Myself" was released in 2020.