It’s kind of hard to believe that the Fifes & Drums of Yorktown corps has never actually been to the Yorktown aircraft carrier museum in Mt. Pleasant. It’s not just that they share a name, it’s that Virginia’s own 60-plus member corps of teenaged fife and drum players are a perfect fit for such a historical site. One of the main reasons the Fifes & Drums corps was created in 1976 by York County, Va. was to give young people an appreciation of history, in addition to keeping the battlefield music of the 18th century alive.
The corps actually takes a 3-4 day trip to some sort of historical site every summer, performing in full Revolutionary War-era garb and marching in the same sort of drills and formations of the period as well. They recently performed on the capitol lawn in D.C., for example.
But a trip down South was usually out of the question for the corps, especially during the summer.
“We try to design a trip where we can visit historical spots and find public areas where the corps can perform,” says the Fifes & Drums corps director and executive board president, Sharra Odom. “But coming south can be a challenge because of the weather and the heat.”
But when Odom, a confessed history nut, visited the Yorktown about six months ago on her own, she immediately knew it was too good of an opportunity for the corps to pass up.
“When I discovered that we could actually stay on the Yorktown, and I got to experience some of the colonial history of Charleston, it clicked in my head that this could be a really great opportunity to do something that is historically significant,” she says, “and obviously there’s a connection to the U.S.S. Yorktown for the corps.”
And so a slightly stripped-down contingent (around 33 members) of the Fifes & Drums of Yorktown corps will be in town from July 19-21, playing versions of songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “The World Turned Upside Down” at Fort Moultrie, the Old Exchange and Dungeon, and the Powder Magazine and staying on board the U.S.S. Yorktown. And they’ll be accompanied by an entourage of parents, board members, and supporters that Odom jokingly calls the “camp followers.”
“We’re the ones hauling uniforms and bringing water from place to place,” she says with a laugh. “This is a completely volunteer group with a real love of history. We have four paid instructors, and those are the only paid members of the corps.”
Corps members range from around 10-18 years old, and they rise through three different ranks (recruit, junior corps, and senior corps) as they progress through the 6-7 year program. Odom says that through that process, corps members don’t just learn history or music; they learn discipline and leadership.
“It takes a lot of physical stamina,” she says, “putting up with the heat and the cold. It’s hard work. There’s definitely a discipline aspect to it.”
Odom says that when she talks to parents or other groups about the corps, she focuses on four key elements.
“The first one obviously is the music,” she says. “We expose them to this older form of music. The second is history; we do not consider ourselves a reenactment group, but history is infused in everything we do. But the two last ones are what’s most important to me. Community service is a huge part of it. Most of the performances we give, we track as community service hours.”
In fact, Odom says that by the time a corps member finishes the program, they typically have close to 1,000 hours of community service logged that they can put on college or job applications.
The last element is leadership, something Odom takes very seriously.
“I’m a former military member myself,” she says. “A number of us are. So the leadership aspect is very important to us. We’re teaching and training them to be leaders from the time that they’re young recruits. They’re expected to keep up with their stuff, there are requirements they have to follow, and by the time they get into the red coats in the senior corps, they’re actually leading the corps, leading performances and being given the responsibility of policing the younger members. We try to expose as many of them as we can to leadership concepts.”
Odom says that for her — and for all of the volunteers involved with the Fifes & Drums of Yorktown — it’s worth it to see young people, many of who come to the program with no musical experience, performing with confidence in front of often-massive crowds.
“When they can stand in front of 2,000 people, with poise and maturity, that’s a huge accomplishment,” she says.