Celebrating West Tennessee’s Lost Fife and Drum Tradition


Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKJ37szYA-Y
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzRqOmWSzeM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAntBJmxfqA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWFQt5KFojQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgozlCJuHcg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSeKnMPhT-k
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srknhQuoKnI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nf0ZtIU3-Fg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSkS12WbrmM

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