Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Colonial Williamsburg’s Fifes and Drums: 60 years of building young musicians

Memorial Day weekend, the Colonial Williamsburg will celebrate 60 years of producing young musicians. (WYDaily/Photo courtesy of Rodney Edmunson).
On Memorial Day weekend, Colonial Williamsburg will celebrate 60 years of producing young musicians. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Rodney Edmunson).

It’s been 60 years since the first four members of the Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg marched down Duke of Gloucester Street. Since then, the organization has grown to more than 1,000 alumni and more than 100 current teenage musicians.

“It’s pretty doggone exciting,” said Jim Teal, one of the two original drummers. “I went to the 50th, 55th and now the 60th reunion, and people come back from all over the world for this because it meant that much to them.”

The beginning

Teal was 13 years old when he became one of the original members of the Fifes and Drums, along with fellow drummer Allen Lindsey and fifers John Harbour and Chuck Miller.

Teal said it was easy to find two drummers from James Blair High School, finding fifers was difficult, though, because there weren’t many students who played the instrument or who were willing to learn to play it. 

At the first performance in July 1958, the four musicians marched using rented drums from the high school and played songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “British Grenadiers.” The music wasn’t historically accurate, Teal said, but it entertained visitors to Williamsburg.

Eventually, Colonial Williamsburg hired George Carroll as the first leader of the Fifes and Drums. Carroll came from the U.S. Army’s Old Guard Fifes and Drums Corps based at Fort Myer in Arlington and helped the Williamsburg corps find historically accurate music from the Library of Congress Archives. Teal also credited Carroll with starting the “spit and polish era” of the corps that continues today.

“When we started we were amateurs; he made us professionals,” Teal said.

After graduating from the corps in 1962, Teal went on to earn a degree in physics from William & Mary and then a degree in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He doesn’t play the instrument much anymore, and he no longer owns a drum.

Jim Teal was one of the original four members of the Fifes and Drums Corps in 1958. Back then, the drums were rented from the local high school band and the fifers had to be specifically taught how to play their instrument. (WYDaily/Photo courtesy of Michael Beatty).
Jim Teal was one of the original four members of the Fifes and Drums Corps in 1958. Back then, the drums were rented from the local high school band and the fifers had to be specifically taught how to play their instrument. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Michael Beatty).

But when he comes for alumni events each year, he picks up the instrument and it’s just like being in high school again.

Gaining traction

The Fifes and Drums has continued to build on the number of musicians who credit their time in the corps as one of their most influential life experiences.

For Rodney Edmundson, who joined as a drummer in 1970, his time in the corps helped him to grow his musical skills, which he has used for the past 26 years as a drummer for country singer Ronnie Milsap.

Edmundson was already a drummer when the Fifes and Drums did a presentation in the school gym one day when he was in tenth grade.

“I saw those rope drums and the costumes and I just knew I had to be a part of it,” Edmundson said.

Carroll was still the leader of the Fifes and Drums when Edmundson joined. In 1972, however, Carroll retired and John Moon, a former drum major in the British army, took over.

The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums has grown from four members in 1958 to approximately 100 active musicians and over 1,000 alumni. (WYDaily/Photo courtesy of Michael Beatty)
The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums has grown from four members in 1958 to approximately 100 active musicians and over 1,000 alumni. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Michael Beatty)

Edmundson credits Moon for many of the changes during that time, including adding a selection of new music and a costume inspection. Moon also added an even more militaristic structure to the corps.

This structure is what members such as Sgt. Maj. Billy White, a member of the Army’s Old Guard, find most important about the organization.

“My dad used to talk about the goal of the corps being to grow good citizens,” White said. “And for any organization to do that for 60 years is pretty incredible.”

White’s father had been a member of the Fifes and Drums and was still on staff with the organization in 1984.

At age 10, though, White wasn’t sure if he wanted to join the corps. Like many members, White had been registered to join the corps when he was born, but he took his name off the list — and ended up losing his spot.

When White’s best friend joined, though, White realized he did want to join the corps. He had to wait for a spot to open, and eventually he was able to join the recruit class of fall 1984.

“For me, looking back on it 30 years later, that was a life-defining moment because now I’ve made an entire career out of playing the fife,” White said.

Many members of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums have gone on to play in the United States Honor Guard according to Michael Beatty, a former member of the organization. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Michael Beatty).
Many members of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums have gone on to play in the United States Honor Guard according to Michael Beatty, a former member of the organization. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Michael Beatty).

Since then, White has used his music and military foundation from the corps to play in the U.S. Honor Guard for the past 24 years, playing in escort to the president and honorary ceremonies.

Bridging the gender gap

For a long time, the Fifes and Drums was a boys-only organization. But in 1999, the organization started allowing girls, and Elenor Trott ended up being the fourth woman to graduate from the corps.

When she was 10, Trott was one of four girls, out of about 100 musicians, to join the organization.

“I think there was definitely a boys’ club culture to overcome,” Trott said. “But it was really cool having all of the girls banding together throughout that.”

Elenor Trott was one of the first few women to graduate from the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums Corps in 2010. The organization first started allowing women in 1999, and now women make up nearly a third of the members. (WYDaily/Photo courtesy of Michael Beatty).
Elenor Trott was one of the first few women to graduate from the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums Corps in 2010. The organization first started allowing women in 1999, and now women make up nearly a third of the members. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Michael Beatty).

Trott found the organization’s strict routines and leadership skills helped her to find confidence to overcome the gender barrier that she encountered at such a young age. Since then, she has found herself thriving in a number of male-dominated fields because she learned how stand up for herself as the minority gender in the corps.

By 2010, when Trott graduated from the corps, two of the other female members in her recruit class had dropped out. But Trott is proud to have been one of the first women to make it through the program.

“It’s incredible going back and seeing these amazing, vibrant women being able to do all of these things because we were the first ones to make that space available to them,” Trott said.

Celebrating 60 years

On Memorial Day weekend, the Fifes and Drums will hold numerous events to celebrate the organization’s history.

Teal expects to see many familiar faces and tell his favorite stories. But what for some, the best part of coming back for the 60th anniversary is being able to see a continuing legacy they helped build.

“These kids in the corps now are every bit as dedicated and impressive as we felt back then,” White said. “It’s 60 years of dedication, leadership and community.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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