Mississippi-Style Drum Corps

Grade Level
3-5, 6-8

Selections:Videos from Mississippi Delta & Hill Country

Picnic rehearsal with Napolian Strickland and Como Drum Corps

Picnic with Napolian Strickland and Como Drum Corps, Part 6 of 11

Picnic night at Othar Turner’s farm (1 of 2)”)

Recorded: Gravel Springs, Mississippi (August 1978)

Performers: Napolian Strickland, Othar Turner, the Como Drum Corps

Activity 1: Images of the Fife-and-Drum Corps

1. Examples of the fife and drum are richly documented on the Video from the Mississippi Delta and Hill Country. Ask students “What image comes to mind when you think of fife-and-drum music?” (Answer: Various, including the small American military bands of the Revolutionary War; see, for example, the famous painting by Archibald Willard, “The Spirit of ‘76”.) Lead students into a discovery of the African American fife-and-drum tradition in Como, Mississippi, through video-images of the players, the dancers, and party-goers at the social gatherings known as picnics.

2. Play the video, P. 23, “Picnic with Napolian Strickland and the Como Drum Corps, Part 6 of 11)”. Ask students to look and listen, prompting them with questions: 

“What instruments are being played?” (Answer: Bass drum, two snare drums, flute)

“Who is playing?” (Answer: A woman and several men)

“What is the response of people to the music?” (Answer: Some are dancing, others are watching and listening)

3. Re-play the video (of step 2). Ask students to choose a surface on which to tap the rhythm (lap, floor, desktop, chair rung) as they listen and watch.

4. Play the video, P. 23, “Picnic rehearsal with Napolian Strickland and Como Drum Corps”. Compare to the previous video. Ask the question, “How does this appear to be a rehearsal rather than a performance?” (Answer: The tempo is slower and there is absence of dancers and onlookers.)

5. Re-play the video (of step 4). As before, suggest that students tap the rhythm that they are hearing.

6. Play the video, P. 22, “Picnic night at Othar Turner’s farm (1 of 2)”. Ask students what Mr. Othar Turner, flutist, has to say about the cane flute and how to play it. Direct their attention to these items:

  • Cane-flute playing is a talent: “Can’t nobody learn you how to play the flute…I can take my flute and show you all night long how I work my finger. You can’t work your finger like I can.”
  • The cane-flute is tuned with the hand: “You can blow in this cane. If you don’t tune it with your hand, then you ain’t gonna get no sound. I can tell you that.”
  • The flute can play long, sustained tones and short, quick flourishes.
  • The cane-flute has a mouth-hole and four finger-holes.
  • A stalk of cane from the field is hollowed out, and following the marking of the holes on the stalk, a hot iron is applied to burn them out.
  • As in many bands, a good fife-and-drum band takes interested players and a good leader. A musical group is “just like a good ball team.”

7. Re-play the videos to reinforce the images of sight and sound of this important fife-and-drum tradition of the Mississippi hill country.

Activity 2: Fife and Drum History

1. Encourage students to seek out the historical development of fife-and-drum music internationally, and in particularly in the American northeast and south. See, for example, James Clark’s Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition.

2. Comments by Alan Lomax are noteworthy in inspiring the curiosity of students to know something of the historical and social context of fife-and-drum bands.

(a) “Thomas Jefferson’s slaves formed a fife-and-drum team as their contribution to the War of Independence.” (p. 333)

  • Direct students to find evidence of fife-and-drum corps (a) that is historically early and (b) that features African-American players.
  • Direct them to listening to various small military bands, and to determine how they are/are not like the video images from the northern Mississippi hill country.

(b) “Watching the … fife and drums sashay across the yard, enclosed by their dancing family, I saw in my mind’s eye the jazz parades of New Orleans, where the band is a pulsing artery in the belly of a huge dancing throng.” (p. 331-2)

  • Search out examples of the New Orleans jazz parades, including the second-line music. Encourage students to make comparisons with the northern Mississippi fife-and-drum corps.

(c) “But don’t forget the rhythmic level—the body involvement—the rock-steady beat and the dancing….You have to change your sense of togetherness…you can’t manage that just by counting beats. The beats have to originate in the middle of the body…then flow through the limbs” (P. 332)

  • Suggest that students attempt to dance to examples of fife-and-drum corps recordings they can find, including those from the Mississippi fife-and-drum corps.

Lesson Plan by Patricia Campbell