Type: Aerophones > Flutes > Transverse.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 421.121.12
Description: A fife is a small, high-pitched, transverse aerophone, that is similar to the piccolo. The fife originated in medieval Europe and is often used in Fife & Drum Corps, military units and marching bands. Someone who plays the fife is called a fifer.
Fifes are most commonly used in Fife & Drum Corps, but can also be found in folk music, particularly Celtic music. Some Caribbean music makes use of fifes, which are usually made from bamboo.
Etymology: The word fife comes from the German Pfeife or pipe, which comes from the Latin word pipare.
Fife & Drum in the US: Fife and drum blues is an American folk music form derived from country blues, martial music tradition, and African rhythms. It is performed typically with one lead fife player and a troop of drummers. Unlike a drum corps, the drum troop is loosely structured. As such, a fife and drum band may have a variable number of snare, tom, and bass drum players.
A large military-style bass drum is preferred. Fife and drum performances are often family affairs held at reunions, summer community picnics, and on holidays. Pre-American Civil War military fife and drum bands provided a rough framework which black musicians would fill with African and African-American influences to create a new music. Black fife and drum music persists in a stretch of Southern states stretching from northwest Georgia to an area south of Memphis, namely North Mississippi.
The music is infused with Euro-American military drum tradition and distinctly African polyrhythms, talking drum influence, and call and response patterns. Performers play blues, marches, minstrel show pieces, popular music, instrumentals, and spirituals such as “When the Saints Go Marching In”, “When I Lay My Burden Down”, “My Babe” and “Sitting on Top of the World”. A “march” becomes more of a swaying dance, sometimes led by a dancer, and singing comes in sporadic shouts, whoops, and moans from the different players.
While spirituals are sometimes played, gatherings of drum and fife music are not religious in nature and not held on Sundays or in church. Alan Lomax first recorded black fife and drum music in 1942. He found a group, including Sid Hemphill, near Sledge, Mississippi consisting of a cane fife, two snare drums, and a bass drum. These same musicians constituted themselves as a string band, using violin, banjo, guitar, and bass drum, and also incorporated quills.
Tuning: The fife is a diatonically tuned instrument commonly consisting of a tube with 6 finger holes and an embouchure hole that produces sound when blown across. Modern versions of the fife are chromatic, having 10 or 11 finger holes that allow any note to be played.
Construction: Fifes are made primarily of wood, such as: grenadilla [Dalbergia melanoxylon], rosewood [Dalbergia spp.], mopane [Colophospermum mopane], pink ivory [Berchemia zeyheri], boxwood [Buxus spp.], maple [Acer L.] and persimmon [Diospyros kaki]. Military and marching fifes have metal reinforcing bands around the ends to protect them from damage.
These bands are called ferrules. Fifes used in less strenuous conditions sometimes have a lathe-turned, knob-like decoration at the ends for similar reasons. Some fifes are entirely made of metal or plastic. Some modern fifes are of two-piece construction with a sliding tuning joint similar to some recorders.