Photo collage © Anthony R. Alter, 2009
Article by Lois Jackman

Loud, stirring, and unmistakable, the distinctive sound of a fife and drum corps can be heard up to a mile away.  Designed to be audible over long distances and above the sounds of battle, these primitive instruments have carried a rich heritage of folk and military music to listeners all over the world for many centuries.  Although originating in Switzerland in the 1400's, fife and drum music eventually made its way to North America and was the primary type of music used by the military on both sides of the American Revolution.  Its popularity began to wane after the Civil War, but it still thrives today.  Even in our own back yard! 

The Tittabawassee Valley Fife and Drum Corps, one of the oldest in the Midwest, is based in Midland.  Its members, all under the age of 18, perform in parades, concerts and other events each year to hundreds of people.  The Great Lakes Field Musick Fife and Drum Corps draws membership from all over the state, is the made up of primarily adults, and rehearses frequently in the Saginaw area.  Several other groups have resided in Michigan for decades like the renowned 1st Michigan Colonial Fife and Drum Corps, whose director Mark Logsdon sits on the board of the Company of Fifers and Drummers, and the Plymouth Fife and Drum Corps which holds the distinction of being the state's oldest group.  Corps like the Balletre Fife and Drum Corps of Port Huron, the now-defunct Midnight Riders, and the D3 Fife and Drum Corps have sprung out of other groups or other interests such as a love of historical re-enacting.  In all, these groups include several hundred musicians with their families, and perform for thousands across the state and throughout the Midwest every year. 

According to Aileen Kushner, former director of the Tittibawassee group (TVFDC) and currently a member of Great Lakes (GLAFM), the TVFDC has traditionally pulled instructors from the ranks of adult corps or graduates of junior corps.  This type of interaction is typical in the fife and drum world.  The corps help each other out by regularly sharing resources such as music, information and performance opportunities, and love to see each other at parades and concerts.  This provides opportunities for socializing which is a large part of the tradition for these musicians.  In fact, a now well established annual event, Freezer Jam—The Midwest Fife and Drum Conference, is hosted by a different group each year.  At this one-day event, approximately 200 musicians, color guard and other personnel gather to learn, perform and enjoy each other’s company.  At the day’s end, they create a public performance during which each group is separately highlighted, but they all come together for a grand finale with all the musicians performing as one.  This year's Freezer Jam will be held March 13, 2010 at Monroe Community College.

Often when groups meet a spontaneous jam session will erupt during which musicians from different corners of the state, region or across the country will join together playing the same songs they all know.  Standard repertoire of dozens of "stock" tunes and drum beats gives the sounds a cohesive base whether or not the individual players have ever met or played together. This camaraderie, lasting friendships, service to the community, high quality performance standards and a love of history are the rewards to the musicians who keep our musical heritage alive.

So if you happen to be at Greenfield Village for the 12 Nights of Christmas, Port Huron's Feast of Ste. Claire on Labor Day weekend, or at any number of parades or events throughout the year, you just might hear that loud, distinctive, stirring sound and know that the musicians who create it love bringing that heritage to you.

For more information about fif rel="nofollow"e and drums corps, visit the Company of Fifers and Drummers web site at

Lois Jackman is a professional musician, published arranger and private teacher who plays the fife and flute.

© Lois Jackman, 2009