On June 22, 2022, John M. Shaw presented “The South’s Black Fife and Drum Tradition” as part of the History Is Lunch series.
The predominantly rural, instrumental fife and drum tradition generally consists of a musician blowing a handmade bamboo fife, another playing the bass drum, and a third on snare drum.
“Although writers tend to use the term ‘fife and drum band,’ it is more common to hear local residents refer to ‘the drums,’ a ‘drum band,’ or ‘drum and fife,’ to emphasize the importance of the drums,” said Shaw, author of the new book Following the Drums: African American Fife and Drum Music in Tennessee. “This was among the earliest secular forms of Black music after the Civil War, and it became a soundtrack of Black America during Reconstruction.”
The ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax first encountered such a group near Sledge, Mississippi, in 1942. Before his death in 2003, Tate County’s Othar Turner was one of the genre’s most famous practitioners. Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas and the Hurt family of Panola County have continued the musical tradition in north Mississippi.
“It can now be stated conclusively that Black fife and drum music was ubiquitous in Tennessee in the years following the Civil War,” said Shaw. “Although it was later clandestine and out of the public eye, it continued well into the early 1980s.”
John M. Shaw is an ethnomusicologist and a music researcher, writer, musician, composer and blogger. He holds an MA in musicology from the University of Memphis in May, where he is currently a graduate assistant and doctoral student. His emphases are in the musics of the African Diaspora, as well as on the impact that African American music has had on the concert music tradition. Following The Drums, published by University Press of Mississippi, is his first book. Shaw is at work on Action Speaks Louder Than Words: African-American Music and the Recording Industry in Shreveport 1948-1998.
History Is Lunch is sponsored by the John and Lucy Shackelford Charitable Fund of the Community Foundation for Mississippi.