It’s true. The roster for the Lincoln Minute Men on April 19, 1775, shows that the two fifers, Joseph and Elijah Mason, and the drummer, Daniel Brown, were paid at a rate of 44 shillings per month, while musket soldiers got only 40 shillings. And the practice continued in the Continental Army. The Journal of the Continental Congress for Saturday, July 29, 1775, specified the pay of various ranks and positions in the newly formed Army, including “Corporal, drummer, and fifer, each 7 1/3 [dollars].” Common privates were to be paid only 6 2/3 dollars.
But why were the musicians paid more? The historical records don’t really explain, so we are left to speculate.
Perhaps it was more dangerous to be a musician, standing near the officers and ready to signal the troops with distinctive tunes and beatings of the drums? In the battle at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775, the initial Redcoat volley killed Capt. Isaac Davis of the Acton minute men and wounded young Luther Blanchard, the Acton fifer who presumably had marched alongside the captain. And yet, British soldiers were drilled to “present” their firelocks in the general direction of the enemy when shooting, not to “aim” at anyone specifically. And it was not their practice to fire specifically at officers. Capt. Isaac Davis was probably hit because he was marching in front of his own column of men along the narrow causeway leading to the bridge. But in battle, soldiers were arrayed in long lines, and officers stood to their right, not in front. Hard to believe it was any more dangerous to be a musician than a musket soldier on the battlefields of the 18th century.
Well, perhaps fifers and drummers got paid more because they were in short supply? Perhaps. But don’t underestimate the era. Town dances were popular entertainment in colonial America, and music instructors advertised their services in Boston newspapers, offering their students the opportunity to learn the new music by Haydn or that vulgar young rascal Mozart. It is said that the musicians at the North Bridge played White Cockade as the American soldiers marched down the hill toward the Redcoats. To judge from a hand-scrawled music score for White Cockade which still survives, the tune was played at a slower tempo than the Lincoln Minute Men now play. But as any modern fifer can attest, White Cockade is a challenging tune. No doubt colonial fifers honed their skills at country dances. As for drummers, hard to know where and how they refined their skills, since it seems unlikely they were in demand for country dancing. But fifers and drummers appear to have been an eager bunch. According to tradition, Leonard Parks was a fifer with Lincoln’s militia company at Concord when he was only 14, and he then fifed at Bunker Hill and again at Saratoga in 1777. Joseph Mason, Jr., one of two fifers with the Lincoln Minute Men at Concord, was also in the Lincoln contingent that went to Saratoga. If such musicians were so eager to serve, why was it necessary to pay them extra?
Whatever the reason for the elevated status of fifers and drummers, it eventually wore off. A report of the War Board in the Journal of the Continental Congress recommended in August, 1777, that “all able bodied Fifers and Drummers be obliged to do duty as Soldiers and be furnished with arms.” The Continental Congress soon passed resolutions complaining that there were too many musicians in the ranks, and directing that if a company needed drummers, they could be pulled from the common ranks of soldiers when the need arose and trained within a few weeks. (Anyone who thinks a drummer can be trained within a few weeks has never tried to be a drummer.) So even when musicians were low-skilled and numerous, they still got higher pay.
A plausible explanation is that fifers and drummers were paid more because they served a vital communication role between officers and their soldiers. On muster rolls, musicians were almost always listed with the officers, suggesting that perhaps they were regarded as members of the officer corps. And of course, officers got paid more than common soldiers. But this is only speculation.
• The Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: GPO, 1905), vol. 2, p. 202: Saturday, July 29, 1775 – specifies the pay of various ranks and positions in the newly formed Army, including “Corporal, drummer, and fifer, each 7 1/3 [dollars]”; privates were to be paid 6 2/3 dollars.
• The Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: GPO, 1905): Saturday, August 23, 1777, Report of the Board of War proposed “that all able bodied Fifers and Drummers be obliged to do duty as Soldiers and be furnished with arms.”
Other than these two entries, the Continental Congress Journals seem to be devoid of any mention of fifers and drummers.