The Fife & Drums of the Lincoln Minute Men Through History

Donald L. Hafner, Drum Major
The Lincoln Minute Men

     In October, 1774, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress called upon all towns to organize militia and minute man companies independent of British control, the Congress adopted a standard military requirement of the time, that each company should have at least one fifer and one drummer.  The role of the musicians was to stand near the commanding officer and to convey the officer’s commands through distinctive tunes and patterns of drum beats — signals that could be heard by all the soldiers, throughout the camp, on the march, and over the noise of battle.

      On April 19, 1775, the Lincoln minute and militia companies were the first to arrive in Concord, to aid in the defense of American liberty at the North Bridge. In the ranks of the Lincoln Minute Men as fifers were the Mason brothers, Joseph and Elijah, whose house stood at the Bloody Angle on the Battle Road, and Daniel Brown as their drummer, Joseph was 24 years old; Elijah and Daniel were 17.   (The Lincoln militia company was separate from the Minute Men, and according to Parks’ family tradition, they were accompanied at Concord by one other fifer, 14-year-old Leonard Parks.)

      A somewhat comical moment involving the Lincoln musicians occurred on that historic April day.   As soldiers from the neighboring towns gathered on the Concord green at sunrise, they had only unconfirmed reports that the British column was marching their way.  So a group of Lincoln and Concord soldiers set out on the road toward Meriam’s Corner, with the fifes and drums setting the pace, to see where the British might be.  As one of the Concord soldiers later recalled years later, “We marched down towards Lexington about a mile or a mile and a half, and we see them a’coming.  We halted and stayed until they got within about 100 rods, then we was ordered to the about-face and marched before them with our drums and fifes a’going and also the British.  We had grand musick.”

      It may have been grand music, but it likely was also hard on the ears.   Each militia fifer and drummer brought his own instrument.  Perhaps it had been made by skilled hands and sounded pretty good, but likely not.   One story has it that when George Washington took command of the Continental Army, he found the music so out-of-tune and dreadful that he had all the fifes confiscated, divided into bunches that were in tune with each other, and then redistributed.

      We have some record of what tunes were played during the American Revolution because a number of copybooks have survived in which fifers wrote out their own sheet music.   The repertoire (or at least the ambitions) of these fifers was impressive.  Young Thomas Nixon, a fifer with the Framingham militia, kept a copybook for two years, and during that time he meticulously transcribed the music for 104 tunes.   And they were tunes from all over Europe.  Some were ancient even by Thomas Nixon’s time.  The core melody for “Yankee Doodle,” for example, goes back to the 12th century.  Others were as fresh as fancy country dance tunes (gavots, as they were called) by that “modern” composer, George Frideric Handel.   Most were tunes well-known and played by both sides during the Revolution, so that on occasion, American fifers would be playing tunes such as “Bellisle” or “Lilliburlero” that originally celebrated English victories in earlier wars.

      We know very little about what the drummers played when accompanying the fifes.   Drum parts (called “beatings”) were not written in musical notes but instead as symbols or words.   Drummers learned “rudiments,” or patterns of left- and right-hand strokes.  These rudiments each had names, such as flams, rolls, drags, flamacues, and paradiddles.   Instructions for a drummer could then be written out as words.  In Baron von Steuben’s drill manual from Valley Forge, for instance, the drum signal for the front rank of soldiers to halt on the march was: “Two flams from right to left, and a full drag with the right, a left hand flam, and a right hand full drag.”   Unfortunately, no written drum manual seems to have survived from the Revolution, so although we know something about how field commands were beat on the drums, we know almost nothing about what beatings were played with specific fife tunes.

      The tempo played by the fifes and drums set the cadence for the marching soldiers.  At the time of Revolution, there were two basic cadences for marching used by both the British and American armies: the common or ordinary step of 60 steps per minute with a stride of twenty four inches, and the quickstep of 120.   When Baron von Steuben revised the drill manual at Valley Forge in 1778, he increased the cadence of the common step to 75 paces per minute, and the soldiers seemed to like the change.  The music tempo played by the fifes and drums of the modern Lincoln Minute Men is even more brisk, at 92 steps per minute.  For the annual Gravesite Ceremony of the Lincoln Minute Men in April, the fifes and drums slow the tempo down to the original 60 steps per minute and play a “dead march” from the Revolutionary era while entering the old Lincoln cemetery.

      For some reason, fifers and drummers got paid more than musket soldiers, although we don’t know why.  The roster for the Lincoln Minute Men on April 19, 1775, shows that the musicians were paid 44 shillings per month, while musket soldiers got only 40 shillings.  The higher pay doesn’t seem justified by any greater danger faced by musicians.  Fifers and drummers did stand next to officers on the battle line, but surely the musket soldiers on the line were in just as much danger as musicians.   Perhaps skilled fifers and drummers were in short supply, so the higher pay was needed to recruit them.  Yet if that were so, it is hard to understand why did the Continental Congress soon passed resolutions complaining that there were too many musicians in the ranks, and directing that if a company needed drummers, they could be pulled from the common ranks when the need arose and trained within a few weeks.   (Anyone who thinks a drummer can be trained within a few weeks has never tried to be a drummer.)   So even when musicians were low-skilled and numerous, they still got higher pay.   A plausible explanation may be that because fifers and drummers were vital in relaying commands, in camp and in battle, they were regarded as part of the officer corps.  And of course, officers got paid more than common soldiers.

      Like musicians through the ages, the fifers and drummers of the modern Lincoln Minute Men play for the sheer joy of it.  But they also see their music as a path back into history, to the times and lives of Joseph and Elijah Mason and Daniel Brown.  The modern fifers and drummers of the Lincoln Minute Men perform only music from the time of the American Revolution.   The Fifes & Drums of the Lincoln Minute Men are always eager to have new members.  Contact the Drum Major.

Donald L. Hafner is a fifer and Drum Major with the Lincoln Minute Men, and a professor of Political Science at Boston College.