Fife and Drum Still in Play at Ft. Ticonderoga

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In a tribute to early American martial music, 600 members of fife-and-drum corps convene in Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y. for the annual National Muster. Participants range from teenagers to septuagenarians.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Six hundred fifers and drummers and a few bagpipers convened last weekend for the annual National Muster, a tribute to early American martial music. They met in Ft. Ticonderoga, New York, on the shores of Lake Champlain, a key outpost in the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars. Gregory Warner has the story.

(Soundbite of fife and drum music)

GREGORY WARNER reporting:

The lawns of the fort are covered with tents, both the nylon and the 18th century kind. Thirteen-year-olds in white britches and stockings trade drum licks. Their T-shirted parents sit in lawn chairs around coolers of beer.

Ms. LINDA JENNINGS (Parent of Twins): It's a whole lifestyle. You're all on board if your family's in it.

WARNER: Linda Jennings has twin 15-year-olds in the colonial musketeers from Hackettstown, New Jersey.

Ms. JENNINGS: With 50-plus performances a year, it drives what your family does, but they love it so much that they sacrifice a lot to do it.

WARNER: There are father-son fife teams and teams of seniors. Seventy-three-year-old Jerry Mollen(ph) is dressed as a Revolutionary War commander in a three-cornered hat. He gives an impromptu history lesson to a dozen tourists on the grass.

Mr. JERRY MOLLEN: If I want my troops to prime and load their muskets, all I have to do is turn around to my drummer, `Drummer, sound prime and load.'

(Soundbite of drums)

Mr. MOLLEN: On that command, each musketeer will bring his musket up to the loading position, and I'm not going to load because the fort doesn't like me shooting down in this area.

WARNER: Drums weren't just used for commands but also to lead the march. The tempo was slower than modern marching band music. Don Francisco is a real soldier. He's part of the Army's Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. They play at the White House and other ceremonies wearing red coats and white wigs.

Mr. DON FRANCISCO (Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps): A marching band, for example, dat-da-dah, da-dat, da-dat, da-dah. It's about 120 beats per minute. We march a little slower, da-dun-ta-dah, dah-duppity-dah, sometime 96 beats per minute or slower.

Ms. LINDSEY NACHU(ph) (Fife and Drum Corps Recruit): Oh, I love it over there.

WARNER: The Army's Fife and Drum Corps are like rock stars here. Lindsey Nachu is their newest recruit. She and her friend Karen Nightingale(ph) just graduated high school. They head to basic training next month. She tugs a pewter button on her coat.

So what does it mean in the fifing world to be part of the Old Guard? Can you...

Ms. NACHU: Everybody accepts you.

Ms. KAREN NIGHTINGALE (Fife and Drum Corps Recruit): Oh, my God, like...

Mr. FRANCISCO: You messing with our new recruits, sir?

WARNER: Just then, Sergeant Francisco comes up to the girls. He tells them to grab their fifes.

Mr. FRANCISCO: Daisy chain.

Ms. NACHU: Oh...

Ms. NIGHTINGALE: Daisy chain.

Mr. FRANCISCO: Let's see how many we can get going on this one.

Unidentified Woman: OK, guys. All right...

WARNER: Daisy chain turns out to be the fifing equivalent of the group back massage. Each puts their left hand on their neighbor's fife in a continuous circle. And suddenly, I'm surrounded. Nine teen-agers dressed like George Washington's foot soldiers and an Army sergeant in a white wig dance faster and faster around me. Fifing on the battlefield might have been eclipsed by the bugle, but here, it seems it'll go on forever. For NPR News, I'm Gregory Warner in northern New York.

(Soundbite of fife and drum music)

SIMON: And it's 22 minutes before the hour.

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