Fife and Drum from Mississippi Hill Country

Grade Level
3-5, 6-8, 9-12

Selection: Oree I, Como
Recorded: Como, Mississippi; September 21, 1959
Performers: Southern Fife and Drum Corps: Ed Young (fife, vocal), Elisha Franklin (clapping), Viola James (clapping), William Major James (clapping), Lonnie Young, Jr. (snare drum, vocal), Lonnie Young Sr. (bass drum, vocal)

Activity 1: Driving the Fife and Drum Rhythms (Grades 3-5, 6-8, 9-12)

1. Play the first 30 seconds of the recording, asking students to listen in order to determine the sources of the musical sounds as (a) instruments-only, (b) instruments and voices, or (c) instruments, voices, and body percussion. ((c) is the correct answer.)

2. Listen to the opening recording segment again, and ask students to conduct the 4-beat meter as they listen to the polyrhythmic components of the music.

3. Practice clapping this rhythm:


4. Clap the rhythm with the recording.

5. In another listening, note the rise and fall of the male voice on a syllable sounding like "lo". Challenge the students to use gestures to indicate the direction of the voice in the first 15 seconds: f, r, r, f, r (where "f" is falling and "r" is rising).

6. Ask students to listen to focus their attention on the sound of the fife (or flute), and to note the use of very few pitches (in the first 30 seconds, just la, do, and re)


7. On recorders, flutes or other wind instruments, try playing some short patterns using just the three pitches heard on the recording.

8. Listen to the recording yet again, now with attention on the drum rhythms which are sounding subdivisions at high speed, applying occasional accents. Distribute congas, djembes, hand drums, and other drums, and invite students to play what they hear; turn up the volume to help guide them in listening to what they should be attempting to accomplish.

9. Put all the rhythms together, such that there are student groups of clappers, drummers, and fifers playing together. The clappers can begin, followed by the drummers, and lastly the fifers who can take 16 fast beats to play improvisations on the three pitches.

Activity 2: Fife and Drum Culture (Grades 6-8, 9-12)

1.Offer students some aspects of the background for fife and drum music:

* First recorded by Alan Lomax near Sledge Mississippi, in 1942
* Recorded in a return trip to Alan Lomax to Tate and Panola counties, Mississippi, in 1959
* Instruments played by groups like the Young family, include the use of cane fife or "quills" (four- or ten-hole panpipes), two snares, and a bass drum. Sid Hemphill's band played similar music using violin, banjo, guitar and bass drum.

2. Share with students that music scholar Eileen Southern, in her landmark work, The Music of Black Americans: A History, suggested that black fife and drum bands were evident as early as the 1650s. The music may have been picked up by black slaves who were required to undergo military training, and who listened and learned fife or drum playing from the militia units of New England. African percussion elements, including syncopation and polyrhythm and the use of body percussion, were evident in the African-American fife and drum style.

3. In transitioning students to a creative activity, note that sometimes, when no instruments were available in rural black communities of the south, people would perform some of the repeated patterns of fife and drum style instead by whistling and beating on a washtub—or on chairs, milk cartons, wood blocks and other available materials. Challenge students to meet in small groups of 4 or 5 to come up with a short repeated pattern of eight beats, utilizing available materials (including the voice and body percussion), that can emulate the sound of fife and drum music they have heard.

4. Search the web for examples of fife and drum culture in African and African-American settings. Ask students to report to the group three pieces of information on the music and culture in a setting apart from Mississippi.

Lesson plan by Patricia Shehan Campbell