fife and drum
The Fife
The Drum


 The fife is a simple flute-like instrument, made of hardwood and used to play melody as accompaniment to drums.  It’s a hollow tube with an embouchure and six finger holes.  There’s a cork just above the embouchure and the ends are finished and protected with brass ferrules. Unlike a flute, which has a conical internal bore, wider at one end than the other, a fife has a straight drilled bore, making it simpler to manufacture than a flute.

Being such a simple instrument, a fife can be made by anyone with woodworking skills and tools.  During the 19th and early 20th century, Boxwood was the most commonly used wood, probably because of its ready availability as bobbins in the linen mills.  There are materials which provide better characteristics than boxwood, and there are many examples of ebony, rosewood, greenheart and even tufnol fifes across Ulster. 

Fifes in other countries are usually tuned to Bb.  Here in Ulster, they’re tuned to ‘D’ but from a time before concert pitch – closer to modern C#.  Consequently playing a fife with modern instruments is difficult if not impossible.  Indeed having a fife perfectly in tune appears to have come a poor second to having a fife that can easily produces a sound that will carry over the drums.  J Jamieson obviously was proud enough to burn his name onto this old fife, yet it must be one of the most tuneless instruments ever made!

Fifes have their origins at the beginning of human history they’re mentioned as early as the 4th chapter of Genesis in the bible. 

Fifes were adopted as a military tool by the Swiss in the 14th century.  The shrill tones could cut through the noise of battle to relay messages to troops spread over a wide area.    A fife is extremely portable and yet it can be heard over a distance of several miles.  Use of the fife as a military instrument was probably spread by Swiss mercenaries who traveled and fought in battles throughout Europe.  Dutch armies would have used fifes in the 1600s, although the British army didn’t adopt the use of military music until the beginning of the 18th century. Historians have uncovered fife and drum calls for all aspects of a soldier’s day, from reveille to lights out, and everything in between, but it was also used on long marches to relieve boredom, to motivate and to bring thoughts of home.  

In Ireland, the use of fifes as folk instruments arose as soldiers returned from fighting on behalf of their landlords.  As neighbours gathered at soirees to share stories and songs, part of the entertainment was provided by jigs, reels and hornpipes played on the fife to the sound of the drum.  While the old tunes recounting military endeavours  – such as ‘leaving the battlefield’ or ‘the battle of Garvagh’, -  and tunes about leaving home - ‘Young men in their bloom’ and ‘the girl I left behind me’ - were still played, more local tunes were played like ‘the banks of Kellswater’ or the ‘Harvest Home’.  As with all traditional musicians, fifers picked up their tunes wherever they went, adapting them and even renaming them to suit their needs and local situation, so there is a large crossover with Irish fiddle music (e.g. Father O’Flynn and Paddy O’Carroll) and with Scottish pipe music (A Hundred pipers is a big favourite).

In conjunction with the ’lambeg’ drum, the fife has evolved into purely folk music with no military trappings or uniforms.  The music is most often heard during the 12th of July celebrations, but unlike the uniformed flute and accordion bands marching in the same parades, or even fife and drum corps in the USA, fifes and drums in Ulster ‘dander’ rather than march; they wear no uniforms except perhaps they may have all agreed to wear similar coloured shirts; and they emit an air of total laid back apathy towards the thousands of spectators lining the route – that is when they’re not arguing and fighting amongst themselves and stalking off in a huff when they don’t get to play as much as they’d like, or when the drummers can’t play good ‘time’!  100% folk tradition, 0% military discipline.