The Quills - a Historical Account
by Douglas Bishop
The son of a former slave, Prof. Thomas W. Talley (1870-1952) was recognized during his lifetime primarily as a chemist (he was chairman of the chemistry department from 1902 to 1927), teacher, and administrator at Fisk University. However, he was also Tennessee's first African-American folklorist. A native of Bedford County, he began collecting folk songs around 1900, and published many of them in his book, "Negro Folk Rhymes" in 1922 (download the original book). On pages 303-308 of "Negro Folk Rhymes", Professor Talley recounts his childhood experiences with the pan flute form known as the quills, and describes their appearance, construction, and mode of playing in detail. Professor Talley's account can be read below:
"Under all the classes of Negro Rhymes, with the exception of the one Marriage Ceremony Rhyme, there were those which were sung and played on instruments. Since instrumental music called into existence some of the very best among Negro Rhymes it seems as if a little ought to be said concerning the Negro's instruments. Banjos and fiddles (violins) were owned only limitedly by antebellum Negroes. Those who owned them mastered them to such a degree that the memory of their skill will long linger. These instruments are familiar and need no discussion."
"Probably the Negro's most primitive instrument, which he could call his very own, was "Quills". It is mentioned in the story, "Brother Fox, Brother Rabbit, and King Deer's Daughter" which I have already quoted at some length. If the reader will notice in this story he will see, after the singing of the first stanza by the rabbit and the fox, a description in these words, "Den de quills and de tr'angle, dey come in, and den Br'er Rabbit pursue on wid de call." Here we have described in the Negro's own way the long form of instrumental composition which we have hitherto discussed, and "quills" and "tr'angles" are given as the instruments."
"In my early childhood I saw many sets of "Quills". They were short reed pipes, closed at one end, made from cane found in our Southern canebrakes. The reed pipes were made closed at one end by being so cut that the bottom of each was the node of the cane. These pipes were "whittled" square with a jack knife and were then wedged into a wooden frame, and the player blew them with his mouth. The "quills" or "reed pipes" were cut of such graduated lengths that they concentrate the Negro's peculiar music scale. The music intervals though approximating those of the Caucasian scale were not the same. At times, when in a reminiscent humor, I hum to myself some little songs of my childhood. On occasions, afterwards, I have "picked out" some of the same tunes on the piano. When I have done this I always felt like giving its production on the piano the same greeting that I gave a friend who had once worn a full beard but had shaved. My greeting was "Hello Friend A, I came near not knowing you."
"'Quills' were made in two sets. They were known as a "Little Set of Quills" and a "Big Set of Quills". There were five reeds in the Little Set, but I do not know how many there were in the Big Set. I think there were more than twice as many as in a Little Set. I have inserted a cut of a Little Set of "Quills." (Figure I.) The fact that I was in the class of "The Little Boy Who Couldn't Count Seven" when I saw and handled quills makes it necessary to explain how it comes that I am sure of the number of "Quills" in a "Little Set". I recall the intricate tune that could be played only by the performer's putting in the lowest pitched note with his voice. I am here with presenting that tune, and "blocking out" the voice note there are only five notes left, thus I know there were five "Quills" in the set. I thought a tune played on a "Big Set" might also be of interest and so I am giving one of those also. If there be those who would laugh at the crudity of "Quills" it might not be amiss to remember in justice to the inventors that "Quills" constitute a pipe organ in its most rudimentary form."
"The "tr'angle" or triangle mentioned as the other primitive instrument used by the rabbit and the fox in serenading King Deer's family was only the U-shaped iron clives with which its pins were used for hitching horses to a plow. The ante-bellum Negro often suspended this U-shaped clives by a string and beat it with its pin along with the playing on "Quills" much after the order that a drum is beaten. These crude instruments produced music not of unpleasant strain and inspired the production of some of the best Negro Rhymes."