Watauga Valley Fife and Drum

Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Paying Tribute to the family of John Carter 

MOLLYNOTE: While looking online for coverage of the Independence Day muster at Sycamore Shoals , I happened on this excellent article written about the Fife and Drum Corp , written by Bryan Stevens from an interview with John Large. I reprinted it here in its entirety. One thing I was not aware of is that this group is the ONLY one like it in the WHOLE state of Tennessee. They are sounding so wonderful that it’s something we should all feel so proud of.

Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps Entertains Public While Also Educating

 By Bryan Stevens

Assistant Editor

        Although the adage advises to follow the beat of one’s own drum, at times it’s important to follow the beat of another person’s drum. Historically, the sounds of drums and fifes led men into battle.  

       For some people, like John Large Jr., the director of the all-volunteer Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, the sounds of the fife and drum still offer some direction in life. Large said there is a revival underway nationwide for fife and drum corps, but these musical outfits today play for situations that are not matters of life or death.

 The effort to put together a local fife and drum corps has been a prolonged undertaking, but one that he has pursued diligently. “We have tried to get this together for about four years now,” Large explained. His interest in fife and drum dates back to his high school years, however. “When I was a freshman in high school, I went with my class to Washington, D.C., and saw the 5th Army perform fife and drums,” Large said. That was when he “got bitten” by the performing bug and decided he wanted to some day perform in a fife and drum corps.     

        In some ways, the recently formed Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps is a rebirth of the Old Betsy Fife and Drum Corps. “Ken Northmore originated that fife and drum corps back in 1975 for the Bicentennial celebration,” Large said. In 1976, Large wasn’t able to participate, but nearly 30 years later it has been his pleasure to pick up the reins and revive a local fife and drum corps. In fact, the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps even uses some of the instruments — two bass drums and four rope tension snare drums — first played by members of the Old Betsy Fife and Drum Corps. Large said the fife is a long instrument, similar to a flute, that is most often made from wood. “Some metal fifes have been found,” he added. Large said that, much like bagpipes, people either like or dislike the music of a fife. He prefers to think most people enjoy the music. He explained that the fife and drum are two basic musical instruments. “People have always been beating on drums or blowing through hollow tubes to make music,” he said.    

        So far, Large and his fellow drummers and fifers have performed at Rocky Mount Museum in Piney Flats and Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park in Greene County. “We’re going to be on the road a lot this summer,” Large said.

       Large noted that during reenactments the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps is known as the Washington County Regiment of North Carolina Militia Field Musicians.  

Membership in the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps takes more than talent and music ability. “It takes a lot of time and dedication,” Large said. “We practice for two hours every Saturday except for the weekends of Easter and Christmas.” Large said some of the group’s members drive 70 miles one way to attend the weekly sessions. The group is currently the only fife and drums corps active in Tennessee. “We are getting ready to push for recognition as the state’s official fife and drum corps,” Large said. Students as young as 13 or 14 have participated with the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps.

        In addition to Large, the group’s current membership is comprised of drum instructor Shelbey Smith, fife instructor Jason Ashley, Taylor Morefield, Benjamin Aprile, Larry Lokey, Ty Lokey and Thomas Black. Historically, membership in fife and drum corps was often comprised of adolescent males. “During the Revolution, to join a militia, you had to be 14 years old,” Large said. The younger militia members were often assigned to the fife and drum corps. Large said that for many young men, the fife and drum corps attached to a militia offered a way to stay with a father or older brother. Although members of a fife and drum corps were technically non-combatants, that status offered little real-world protection. Large said they were probably still safer than other members of a militia. He explained that since they didn’t carry arms, the opposing side rarely “wasted lead” taking a shot at them. In addition, the conduct of war at the time strongly discouraged taking out the line of communication, according to Large.  

      There were good reasons behind this rule, Large said. In order to call for a parley or signal a surrender, a force needed to communicate. Communication, he noted, was conducted almost exclusively through the fife and drum corps.

Ironically, the fife and drum corps with colonial militia wore red uniforms that resembled the “red coats” of the British forces. On the other side, the British fife and drum corps wore blue uniforms. “This was the only protection they had,” Large said.

        Large explained that if an enemy solider did aim at a member of a fife and drum corps, he would see someone wearing a uniform in the color of their own side which would, ideally, give them pause before firing.

        Regardless, Large holds high respect for members of the fife and drum corps during the Revolutionary War. “They were brave young men to go into battle like they did,” he said. They also worked harder and longer each day than many of the soldiers. “They were the first to rise and the last to bed,” Large said. A militia’s fife and drum corps dictated the tempo of daily life. “From the beginning of the day, everything was controlled by the sound of the fife and drum,” he said. “From reveille to retreat, they played the call.” Large said that even when other members of a unit retired for the evening, the fife and drum corps often performed to entertain the officers.

        By the time of the Civil War, however, things began to change. The fife and drum corps no longer led men into battle. In fact, members of fife and drums corps were often placed in the rear of a force, behind the officers.

        The tradition of a fife and drum corps marching with an army was brought to the United States by British colonists in the 1700s. However, the concept of a fife and drum corps originated with the Swiss. “Switzerland, today it’s neutral, but at one time, the Swiss had the best trained army in the world,” Large said. Large noted that the Swiss army wasn’t the largest in Europe, but it was the most professionally trained. Part of that professionalism stemmed from its incorporation of a fife and drum corps to lead forces into battle and signal military maneuvers. Large said that fife and drum corps began to appear with British armies by the late 1600s and early 1700s. “All the music played by fife and drum corps in the Continental Army was taken from the British,” Large said. “We just changed the words.” He noted that even “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — widely considered a patriotic American song — started as a British song.

        Large said the Watauga Valley Fife and Drums Corps plays a diverse roster of songs, including “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Malbrouk,” “Chester,” “Country Dance” and “The Girl I Left Behind.” Large said that the song, “Chester,” served as the first American national anthem. Among the patriotic anthems sung during the Revolutionary War, only “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was more popular than “Chester,” which was written by American choral composer William Billings. Billings is widely regarded as the father of American choral music. “Welcome Here Again” served as a favorite tune of the North Carolina militia during the American Revolution. Large said another popular song was “God Save the King.” Of course, that was the title for the song played by British fifers and drummers. The colonists played their own version of the song — “God Save the Great Washington.”

        In addition to playing entertaining music, the members of the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps also try to educate audiences about history associated with the Revolutionary War and the role of fife and drum corps throughout history. What elementary school student in the United States hasn’t engaged in a sing-along of “Yankee Doodle Dandy?” What many people do not realize, according to Large, is that the song, thought of today as a quintessentially patriotic tune, was first used by British forces in the Revolutionary War to poke fun at the Continental Army under General George Washington. Large also likes to recount the story of the surrender of the British after the Siege of Yorktown, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. “General Charles Cornwallis sent his sword by a young officer to Washington at Yorktown,” Large said. Tradition dictated that Cornwallis should have handed the sword personally to Washington. In other words, the British were sore losers. In addition, tradition also dictated that the losing side in a war would be afforded the right for its fife and drum corps to perform during the ceremony. Large said the major in the fife and drum corps under Cornwallis asked for a song list of requests for the ceremony. Washington turned the tables and denied the British fife and drum corps the right to play any American songs. So, the British fife and drum corps played “The King Shall Have His Own Again,” a not too thinly veiled threat of eventual retribution. The Americans still got the last laugh. They had already adapted the tune to their own use, changing the title to “The World Turned Upside Down,” a fitting description of the defeat of the British. “So, their insult didn’t take effect too well,” Large said.

        To learn as much as he can about the traditions of fife and drum corps, Large has visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia to observe the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums, also known as the Field Music of the Virginia State Garrison Regiment, which has been active since 1958. Large believes that the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps can emulate its Colonial Williamsburg counterpart by entertaining while also educating visitors about the importance Northeast Tennessee played in the formation of the nation. “The music adds so much to reenactments,” Large said. “The audiences like hearing the music, and they enjoy learning the history behind the music.”

       The Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps is considered an ancient fife and drum corps. According to Large, this means he and his fellow members perform on fifes and wooden rope tension snare and bass drums. Following the tradition of the Virginia Fife and Drum Corps, Large said the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps wears red waistcoats — a sleeveless coat — during public performances.

        Large has also researched the role of fife and drums corps in Northeast Tennessee, which was once part of the frontier. “We know there was a fifer among the Overmountain Men,” he said. Large said the fifer’s name was Samuel Brochure, and he enlisted with the North Carolina Militia at age 13 as a fifer. Large likes to imagine that the sounds of fife and drum might have preceded the Overmountain Men as they approached the British forces at Kings Mountain, S.C. “You can hear the sounds of fife and drum from three miles away,” he said. In fact, being able to hear the fife and drum over the sounds of battle was of the utmost importance, since the instruments dictated the force’s movements.  

       The public (heard) the Watuaga Valley Fife and Drum Corps during the Elizabethton Fourth of July Parade on Saturday, July 3… and the group (performed) for the (Independence Day)  muster …at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

“We have some very talented musicians playing with us,” said Large, who is a drummer.



Filed under 2010 Regiment activity, commentary, Sycamore Shoals Historical Site

4 responses to “Watauga Valley Fife and Drum

  1. Cheryl

    I’m a fifer in WNC. I would like to find out more about the fife and drum corps…..would be wonderful to have some folks to play with!
    cjonthehill at yahoo dot com


    • Ramona


      I will send your message and email address to Jennifer Baurs who is tghe head ranger ofthe Sycamore Shoals Historical Site. She will probably contact you and pass the information to a gentleman named John Large who is the person you want to talk to about membership and when they get together.

      Thanksk for your interest and look foward to meeting you.


  2. Brothers,

    Do you fellows have a recorded version of “The Girl I Left Behind” or “Brighton Camp” recorded?

    I would love to feature it on our website. Fife and Drum corps for each county’s militia is STILL on the Tennessee lawbooks and still required… though dormant and not enforced.

    BTW, my 7th great grandfather Savanooka was one of 4 Cherokee who leased East Tennessee to the Wataugans.




  3. Rodney Edmondson

    I’m interested in the list of tunes your corp uses.As an alumni of the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corp,I still hold an interest in fife and drum music.Is there a way to access your music by internet?


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