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The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps: 50 years and still marching strong.


Story by Staff Sgt. Alexander Borisov

HONOR, pride and duty: principles the founding fathers lived by more than 200 years ago. From our colonial past to the present day, these values have been held as pillars of a great democracy. Today, The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps embodies them through patriotic music, precise drill and unwavering dedication.

The Corps--dressed in uniforms patterned after field musicians of the First American Regiment of 1784, and playing music that stirs early patriotism--has become an American treasure. Created in 1960 as an element of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), the Corps is one of only four premier musical organizations in the Army, and is located on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

Original signal corps Further distinguishing this elite organization are the unique instruments its members play. Soldiers perform on handmade, rope-tensioned drums, single-valve bugles and 10-hole wooden fifes, giving The Corps a sound that is unmatched in both quality and style.

During the American Revolution, fifes, drums and bugles were used in the heart of battle as the primary means of communication. Commanders used the shrillness of the fife, directionality of the bugle and boom of the drum to relay orders to troops signaling precise tactical maneuvers, making those musicians the first, and only, signal corps of that time.

While fifes and drums earned their fame during the Revolutionary War, this American tradition was documented as early as 1756, when they were used under the command of Benjamin Franklin, then a colonel in the Philadelphia militia. The sounds of the fife and drum were heard alongside his artillery regiment almost 20 years before the birth of the U.S. Army.

Ranging from advance to retreat, and reveille in the morning to taps at night, these field instruments proved invaluable on the battlefield and in the camp. Additionally, the fife and drum played vital roles in maintaining esprit de corps and morale among Soldiers on campaign.

The fife traces its lineage to early 15th-century Switzerland, where it was used by mercenary armies. In American history, the fife was the key signal instrument used for light infantry units. During World War I, the German Army was still using fifes as an effective means of communication in trench warfare--while cables could be cut by enemy forces, restricting conventional messaging, the sound of the fife would still carry on.

The martial drum is perhaps the most notable field instrument. Its roots date back to the time of Alexander the Great, when drums were used to effectively move his army across Eurasia.

While the American Army didn't officially use bugles during the War for Independence (the signal instrument for American dragoon troops was the trumpet), they have always played an important role. As heard on military installations across the world today, bugle calls are used to regulate garrison life.

Escort to the president

The Corps has taken the tradition of fifing and drumming from the battlefields of Revolutionary-era America to the world. The Corps' individual style has made it a staple of official military ceremonies in the nation's capital, and a favorite of audiences throughout the world.

The Corps represents the U.S. at every White House arrival ceremony, having performed for such foreign leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope Benedict XVI, and Queen Elizabeth II. As the symbol of American precision and patriotism, its members perform their stately and traditional troop step as they pass in review in front of the White House for the president and attending dignitary.

As a part of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, the Corps holds tightly its primary mission as the "escort to the president of the United States." Since the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Corps has led the presidential procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Every leader arrives in honor, and so too must they depart. To this end, the Corps has given the last salute to former commanders in chief, participating in the state funerals of John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.


During the American Revolution, fifers and drummers had only basic musical knowledge and education. Today, however, the men and women of the Corps have extensive musical training, ranging from a lifetime of fifing and drumming experience, to advanced degrees from the nation's top conservatories.

The Corps comprises one commanding officer and 69 active-duty noncommissioned officers, who hail from throughout the U.S. Ever since Congress approved the plan for fifers and drummers to be picked from the enlisted ranks in 1781, musicians in the American Army have assumed the role of Soldier-musicians. The training these NCOs receive enables them to lead, make difficult decisions and assume duties beyond the scope of their musical mission. Members of the Corps ill this role in earnest, and stand ready to heed the call of duty.

One such call came Sept. 11, 2001 when a jetliner crashed into the Pentagon. As first-responders located on adjacent Fort Myer, Va., the Soldier-musicians of the Corps served as liaison officers at the National Capital Region emergency operations center, and as access control to Fort Myer. Most notably, select Soldiers aided in the search, rescue and recovery of victims at the Pentagon crash site.

The Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. While honoring the men and women who served throughout the organization's five decades of service, the Corps aims to maintain its unique musical traditions.






Perpetuation of those traditions is held in the hands of each generation's curators. The Corps' Soldiers keep the flame of American fifing and drumming alive in both their performances, and outreach efforts.

The Corps' annual Juniors Workshop, a weekend-long symposium, gives aspiring fifers and drummers the chance to work one-on-one with Old Guard musicians. Students not only learn about the basics of music, but also get a glimpse into the life of a Soldier through presentations by Tomb Guard sentinels, Caisson Platoon Soldiers and others.

The Corps is also active within the professional music community. Its Soldiers host master classes at such venues as the International Trumpet Guild, Percussive Arts Society and International Flute Association, exposing professional musicians to Army musical careers.

The addition of the Baroque Trumpet and Flute Ensembles has further expanded the Corps' capabilities and range of music. These specialty groups within the Corps allow it to offer a broader range of music to such venues as state dinners and formal galas.

To mark its 50th anniversary, the Corps will host a national musical tattoo, travel throughout the country on a muster tour and hold anniversary concerts throughout the 2010 season.

Whether performing for school children, or representing the nation worldwide, the Corps represents the strength of the Army: the honor, pride and duty that have embodied the American spirit for more than two centuries.

For more information on the Corps, and the unit's 50th anniversary events, visit

Staff Sgt. Alexander Borisov serves as both a fife instrumentalist and public affairs NCO with the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
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Author:Borisov, Alexander
Publication:Soldiers Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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