from http://www.sohl.com/Quills/Quills.htm:

The Quills are a early American folk panpipe, first noted in the early part of the 19th century among Afro-American slaves in the south. They are aerophones, and fall into the panpipe family. They are assumed to be of African origin, since similar instruments are found in various parts of Africa, and they were first used by 1st and 2nd generation Africans in America.

The “Quills” are a set of cane pipes, numbering from two to at least 8, with each piece of cane stopped at one end by a node, and open at the other. The pipes are often bound together and are played by blowing across the open ends of the tubes.

The Quills would probably be forgotten today if not for the excellent recordings by the entertainer and early bluesman Henry Thomas, made in the late 1920s.  Alec Lomax and others have recorded traditional players in the field as well.

Only a few players have been recorded playing an instrument called the quills prior to the folk revival.

  • Big Boy Cleveland, Gennet 1927.
  • Henry Thomas, Vocalion 1927 and 1929.
  • Sid Hemphill, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942.
  • Alec Askew, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942.

Big Boy Cleveland

Cleveland’s Quills Blues can be heard at this site: Document Records (search for “The Songster Tradition 1927 – 1935”.

It is likely that Cleveland is actually playing the cane fife (also called the quills).  For more information on the cane fife, see the following pages on folkstreams.net:

Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew

Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew were recorded by Alan Lomax, and their playing is included in the Alan Lomax collection, Southern Journey, Vol. 1.  A clip of Hemphill’s playing can be heard on Amazon.com’s page for this recording. Another interesting recording is Traveling Through the Jungle, which features a different performance by Hemphill.


There is another recording from Alan Lomax’s field recordings featuring Alec Askew playing the “4 hole quills” included on the Document CD Field Recordings Vol 15 (DOCD 5672), where Lomax asks Askew to play the individual notes–this makes analysis easy, and I’ve included the tuning of this set of pipes after the section on Henry Thomas below.

Rock Me, Shake Me: Field Recordings Vol. 15:... by Various Artists

Henry Thomas

By far, the most information we have about this instrument comes from the early blues recordings by Henry Thomas.  I became interested in the Quills because I study woodwinds, and some friends who listen to (and play) a lot of early blues played Thomas’s “Bull doze Blues” for me. That’s about all it took–Thomas’s music is so strong and vibrant, even through the medium of a 78rpm recording, that I was hooked. We started to discuss what it would take to build a set of pan-pipes as close to Thomas’s as we could.

Thomas left little in the way of documents about his life, and no sets of his instruments have survived. I’ve heard that some instruments cataloged as Quills can be found in small, southern museums, and I have heard a rumor that a set of quills was donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1800’s along with a dulcimer. The quill’s whereabouts are currently unknown however.


The Quills are first mentioned in early American plantation slave histories, some dating back to the late 1700s. At that time, the instrument appears to consist of two or more cane pipes, played for recreation and dancing, accompanied by shouts, whoops and songs.  They are mentioned fairly often in oral histories but little structural and musical information has survived. Considering how popular they appear to have been, it is surprising that they are almost unheard of today.  Quills were also used by free blacks in New Orleans in the 1800s.  Two bluesmen recorded songs with the Quills in the 1920, and a rural folk tradition has survived to this day in the American south.

I’ve heard that the word “Quill” is an colonial era term for a hollow tube of any sort, but have been unable to confirm this.

Surviving African Traditions

A number of villages in Zimbabwe and Mozambique maintained a tradition of pan-pipe playing well into this century, and a few continue to play to this day.

The earliest recordings of these ensembles are from the field recordings of Hugh Tracy, who traveled through southern Africa between 1935 and 1955, making a series of exceptional recordings of traditional music. His recordings are available from the International Library of African Music (ILAM).

The earliest examples that I am aware of are from the field recordings of Hugh Tracy, many of which can be heard on the recording Flutes and Horns. This recording can be previewed and ordered from this web site in South Africa: http://ilam.ru.ac.za/moa/moa030.htm

Some of these recordings bear a striking resemblance to the American recordings of Sid Hemphill.

Another great recording is of the Nyanga panpipes from Mozambique is “Traditional Music of Cancune, Mozambique“,

recorded by Joel Laviolette around the year 2000. Joel now teaches how to make and play panpipes in this tradition at workshops around America, particularly at Zimfest. Currently, instruments in this style are made out of plastic plumbing tubing, softened over a fire and worked  by hand, rolling the end of the pipe until the pitch is correct.

It should be noted that southern African nations never had a substantial slave trade with the United States, and so it is unlikely that the tradition came directly from these tribes in southern Africa. The instrument may have had greater spread in west Africa in previous centuries, but perhaps has died out since then.

Are there any original surviving quills?

Lomax reports that when he revisited some of the locations where he had recorded Quills players, the tradition had pretty much died out.  I hope that there are still some players from that tradition, and the skills of making sets of quills has not died out entirely, however I am not aware of any.

I also hope that older instruments still exist.  It seems reasonable to think that these instruments survive, perhaps still kept in the family of the players, and perhaps in small museums in the south.  If you know of the location of any, please let me know!

I was told by banjo scholar Scott Odell that the collection in the Smithsonian once contained a set of Quills that had been donated in the late 1800s along with a Mountain Dulcimer. Its current whereabouts is unknown, and it may have been lost.


4 Responses to “Quills”

  1. Hunter Robertson Says:

    Have you run into these recordings of Joe Pat playing quills? There’s some great stuff: http://web.lyon.edu/wolfcollection/songs/patbilly1287.html (there are others by him in the collection too).


    • oldtimeparty Says:

      Never heard this. Fantastic find. Thanks for sending the link.

      • Hunter Robertson Says:

        Yeah, there’s all kinds of great stuff in the Wolf Collection. There’s a good banjo player named Joe Craft. I’d written them asking about Joe Pat a while ago, but they couldn’t give me any more information on him than is on the site.

  2. Joe Brennen Says:

    I believe the mysterious Mack MacCormick of Houston has ome quills in his collection. He even encountered Henry Thomas in the late 1940’s. A great article about him appeared in Texas Monthly about ten years ago. Well worthh checking out.

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