Joe Smyth - A Fine Pied Piper

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      Colonial fife and drum corps honors county's Revolutionary War heritage Franklin - Yankee Doodle Dandy has come to town.

      In a county steeped in Civil War history, a handful of students with the spirit of '76 have formed a Colonial fife and drum corps. On Sunday, the Preemptors donned tricornered hats, royal blue waistcoats and black breeches for a grave dedication service at the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home. The ceremony honored Revolutionary War Pvt. David Johnston and his wife, Elizabeth.

      The corps was the dream of local Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) President Fount Smothers, who remembers playing spirited music as a young drummer for the American Legion. Smothers' enduring esprit de corps prompted him to recruit for the Preemptors last summer.

      Smothers had intended to begin the corps with a single fifer and drummer. But Joe Smyth, drummer for the band Sawyer Brown, signed on as director, and in just a few weeks, 10 kids had enlisted.

      The response has been heartening but also a challenge: Each snare drum, for example, costs $400. And then there's the tailoring. Seamstresses from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had to order authentic patterns for breeches, waistcoats and shirts, sew on more than 150 brass buttons by hand, and find additional supplies, like tricornered hats. Those snappy hats, in fact, are the most popular part of the uniform.

      ''They got those tricornered hats and wanted to wear them all the time,'' Smyth said with glee. ''I was afraid the kids might think the uniforms were a little silly.'' Smyth discovered while researching uniforms that early Tennessee soldiers had also worn long frock coats and round hats resembling bowlers. While pondering which uniform to choose, a fellow SAR member offered this advice: ''He said, 'When you see a tricornered hat coming down the street, you know it's either a pirate or George Washington.' And I said, 'That's it!'''

      Flutist Kristen Alldredge, 16, said the Colonial togs were a big draw. ''I loved the hats and the instruments,'' said Alldredge, wearing her own black cocked hat atop a t-shirt and jeans during practice last week. ''And we're all out here having fun.'' Davis Robinson, 10, dreams of playing one of the corps' large snare drums someday but is content serving as a flag bearer for now. The fifth-grader particularly enjoys the pomp and pageantry. ''It's exciting to be in something where you can march around and perform,'' said Robinson. ''I'm ready to explore something I've never done before.'' Davis is also interested in learning more about the young boys who regulated camp life in the mid 18th century -- waking up troops with reveille, closing the evening with a tattoo, playing stirring tunes during tedious marches and relaying commanders' orders on the field with musical signals.

      Smyth, a part-time music teacher at Brentwood Academy, plans to eventually share this history with the Preemptors. ''But we're not to that point yet,'' he said. ''The first thing was to get some legs under the group. Thankfully, the five fifers are all flutists and the drummers are drummers. And the kids learn from each other.''

      The Preemptors -- whose name is a reference to early, local land grants being preempted from later restrictions -- plan to play at a joint DAR/SAR event in February and another grave dedication in the spring. During the next year, the corps also hopes to be trilling and rat-a-tat-tatting at parades and other community events, entertaining audiences and teaching them something about the role of music in the 18th-century militia. But for now, Smyth is satisfied with the group's repertoire.

      ''It's amazing to see the parents' faces at rehearsals, and to hear the kids finish Yankee Doodle Dandy and say, 'That's pretty good!'''

      Fervent young patriots who want to join the Preemptors, Lt. Andrew Crockett Chapter, Fife and Drum Corps, can call Smyth. There's a tricornered hat waiting that's just your size.

copyright  © By Peggy Shaw
Tennessean Staff Writer