Untitled fife tune played by Ed Young, cane fife; Bessie Jones and Georgia Sea Islanders, clapping:
from notes to “Old Mother Hippletoe: Rural and Urban Children’s Songs” (New World NW 291):
The late Ed Young was born in 1910 into a musical family. The whole family sang religious music together, and two maternal uncles were also banjo players. Though widespread and popular, the banjo was by no means the only musical instrument played in Ed Young’s home country, the Yazoo Delta of northwestern Mississippi. Fife and drum, originally instruments of martial music, were played in the Youngs’ community for dancing at picnics.
Of his first encounter with fife and drum at age eight or ten, Young recalled, “When that drum started playing, I didn’t know what to think of it…. I remember my mother holding me….I was just fixing to run.”
He and his brother Lonnie rapidly mastered the instruments and became favored performers at picnics. Other musicians “… didn’t want to see us around… drummers just fall out with us on that account…. …I was a pretty testible little fellow anyhow, and I liked to blow sort of fast pieces that people could get out there and clown some on…. I never tried to run no races or beat no one doing anything, but whatever I was going to do, I just loved to get out there and do whatever I can.”
Ed Young made his cane fife with six holes but played only five; the sixth improved the tone quality. He developed a unique style, playing some of the notes by either sliding his fingers on and off the holes or using his tongue to bend the notes and create a tremolo. “I always had a way of making [the sound] go this way this time, and the other way the next….I don’t care who’s playing fife, if I pick it up, everybody will tell you who got it.”
On this recording Bessie Jones backs up Ed Young with clapping. Clapping, stamping, and pounding a stick on a resonant floor constituted the basics of a polyrhythmic percussive accompaniment for songs on plantations, where slaves were not allowed to make and play drums . The slave owners feared the potential use of “talking drums” to send messages from plantation to plantation, so the percussion music of Africa was adapted to the mediums at hand – proof that you can deny a people their musical instruments, but you cannot take away their music making.