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Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy

Desert Dancer 18 May 12 - 10:38 PM
Bobert 19 May 12 - 07:54 AM
Desert Dancer 20 May 12 - 01:05 AM
Bobert 20 May 12 - 10:46 AM
GUEST 20 May 12 - 06:25 PM
Bobert 20 May 12 - 07:02 PM
Desert Dancer 21 May 12 - 02:38 PM
Bobert 21 May 12 - 04:17 PM
Bobert 21 May 12 - 07:45 PM
Bobert 22 May 12 - 07:31 PM
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Subject: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 18 May 12 - 10:38 PM

The New York Times has a nice article on the Turner Family Picnic, which is still going on and celebrating the legacy of the late Othar "Otha" Turner, Mississippi African American fife and drum music.

Blues Travelers, By Adam Fisher, May 17, 2012
"Otha was a good man, a hardworking country black man," Tamke Sr. said, "and he didn't believe in air-conditioners and stuff like that." Turner refused a tractor too, following a plow horse until nearly the end of his days. He spent his nights playing music on his porch and mentoring the most important younger bluesmen from the area, including Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. "Otha said the tractor was the work of the devil," Dickinson said between sets at the picnic. Turner's insistence on doing things the traditional way meant that fife and drum was handed down, intact, through the generations. When he died, in 2003, his funeral procession was led by his fife-playing granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, then 13. Today, Thomas, now 22, is the picnic's main draw.

The Turner Family Picnic is famous in hard-core blues circles and over the years has attracted the likes of Bill Wyman, Robert Plant and Martin Scorsese, but it hasn't been spoiled by the attention of outsiders. The family still prepares pulled-goat sandwiches for the crowd, though now the meat is U.S.D.A.-approved, not the product of a backyard slaughter. And moonshine is still passed around in pint jars, though no longer sold on site. Cicadas chirp. Neighbors from the surrounding counties ? an overwhelmingly rural and sparsely populated area where in some places 29 percent live below the poverty line ? greet each other and gossip.

The event has the feel of a rural block party, one where black and white, town and country, poor and less-so mix freely. The Turner family dog, a one-eyed snaggletooth pit bull named Gucci, begs for goat bones. It's a relaxed atmosphere, but, to insiders, not without tension: Thomas, the headliner at the picnic for most of her life, and perhaps the only living link to the ur-music of America, may move away to become a schoolteacher. Rumor has it she may want to move on musically, too. I ask Tamke what he thinks of the possibility. "It would be a tragedy," he says.

There's no lineup or set list at Otha's farm, just a rousing hill country blues session with musicians, famous and unknown, hopping up on stage to sit in, then hopping down to fetch a cold one. That is, until Thomas, who's been slinging goat and selling beers from a lean-to at the side of the yard, announces, "I'm going to round up the boys to play some drums." When enough kin have assembled to fill out the drum corps ? kettle, snare and bass ? she draws the fife to her lips. The instrument is nothing more than a piece of cane hollowed out by a red hot poker from the fire. It's got five holes and plays not much more than two notes, but Thomas's high, sweet obbligato bends and stretches them until the fife sings a melody. "Little Sally Walker/Sittin' in a saucer/Ride, Sally, ride!" She begins to sway before the drums. "Shake it to the East/Shake it to the West/Shake it to the one you love the best." A crowd gathers around, because Thomas and her cousins are not playing on the makeshift stage on the back of a flatbed truck but marching in front of it. Before the procession gets going, Thomas stops everything and lashes out at her band: "Y'all, get it together!" She's not feeling it.

It's electrifying to see Thomas crack the whip. She's barely five feet tall, leading a band of formidable-looking men. Bill, her brother, on the snare, has a what looks to be a homemade tattoo across the front of his neck that says "Mr. Ssippi." Thomas's cousin Andre, on the kettle drum, is well over six feet tall and built like an athlete. He spits out his cigarette, grinding it into the dirt with his heel. They start up again, this time with a different rhythm. Whoops erupt from the crowd, which is pressing close. "I come to see ya!" hollers one celebrant, "I want to hear ya!"

The drums beat slowly, but this time the sound is fermenting into something stronger. Thomas is walking backward, rocking her body back and forth, blowing into the fife and waving it like a conductor's baton. She's a snake charmer, and the drummers are under her spell. With a phrase on the fife, Thomas calls the tune ? one of Otha Turner's old standards, mashed up with hip-hop-inflected improvisations. The players keep time not with their feet but rather with their bodies, and the rhythm syncopates and changes with the dance.

The slow burn turns hot. Andre is beating his drum so hard it jumps high into the air with every hit. Mr. Ssippi is bathed in sweat. Much of the audience joins in and is transported, too.

The rhythm of the drums, already impossibly loud and complex, jumps yet another notch. There is a crashing wave of crescendos followed by more whoops from the crowd.

Andre is not only beating his own kettle drum but also a big bass drum strapped to Robert, his cousin. "When I say 'beat it,' " he shouts, "beat it, good!" Thomas is bent over so far backward that she's playing the fife with one hand, the other placed on the ground. What I'm hearing sounds almost like an exorcism, and just as the music can't get any higher, it comes to a screeching halt. The crowd erupts in orgiastic cheer.

The spell takes a while to wear off. In the giddy afterglow, a stranger locks eyes with me and gives me a high-five. And then, slowly, the stage fills up again, and the regularly scheduled blues resumes. It goes like this until late: free-form jam sessions on stage, punctuated every hour or two with fife and drum on the ground. The later it is, the more incantatory the fife and drum gets.

This is an excerpt, see the link for the full text.

The article links to this YouTube video from the Alan Lomax Archive of "Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum band": Picnic night at Othar Turner's farm, Gravel Springs (1978). There are a quite a few other videos of Otha and others that come up as "related".

There is a web site about Otha Turner, he was featured in Lomax's "The Land Where Blues Began", and there's a film at Folkstreams, Gravel Springs Fife and Drum.

There are a couple of short threads and a few other mentions here and there at Mudcat (looks like Bobert's been to one or more of the parties):

Otha Turner

Obit: CaneFife Master, Othar Turner (2003)

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Bobert
Date: 19 May 12 - 07:54 AM

Mr. Ortha's "Goat Roasts" are still going...

I was in Mississippi the summer after Mr. Ortha died and visited with his daughter and his grand-daughter, Sharde... I also got a short tour of Mr. Ortha's farm...

My introduction came thanks to "Reverend Slick" (Daniel Ballenger) who as a 17 year old had spend the summer of 2002 living with Mr. Ortha...

While in Mississippi I was privileged to attend a couple-three "picnics" where some fife & drum was played... I remember one in particular where Great Granny (age 93) was doin' "The Dog"... I mean, something to behold... But all kinds of music gets played at "picnics" so I was able to play some myself... Played one that was so far back off the road that there was no "lectricty...

BTW, Mr. Ortha made the fifes outta cane that grew along creeks and taught all the kids how to make their own fifes...

Maybe more later... I gotta a world of stories from my three pilgrimages into North Mississippi "hill (haha) country"...

B~


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 20 May 12 - 01:05 AM

bump


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Bobert
Date: 20 May 12 - 10:46 AM

This is what I pieced together from Mr. Otha's (Mr. Orthas, like some folks called him life... He was a gentle man of the land... He woke early every day and tended to his farm.. After "dinner" (lunch) he'd get in his pickup truck and ride the country roads if the "hill country" (more later on that), rarely gettin' out of 1st gear and stopping to chat with anyone and everyone he saw... Sometimes he'd have half a dozen folks in the back of the truck playing fife and drum music... When I was there riding the same roads with Reverend Slick he did the exact same thing... Everyone would get at least a neighborly wave...

Now, the "hill country" ain't got no hills... It runs just east of the Mississippi River Delta... The delta is where most all the crops are grown because it is in the flood plain of the Mississippi River and every time it floods more nutritious top soil is deposited... Like any creek or river that floods there is a basin with walls on both sides... The walls of the Mississippi ain't all that high... Maybe 15 feet and once you get out of the basin on the east side you are in the "hill country"... And it's flat as a fritter... I love to tell that story when I perform...

But this hill country in North Mississippi has been a hotbed of blues players... Places like Senatobia and Como have a rich history... Fred MacDowell, Jessie Mea Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford all played in or around these places... Junior Kimbrough had a juke joint outside of Como where folks like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones would come to steal licks... It's burned down now but the blues is still alive and well in those parts with kids and grand kids of the old blues guys carry on the tradition...

It's too bad that Tweeds Blues ain't around 'cause there was a great story about one of my trips to Mississippi with Tweed his self and the folks we met and places we saw... Even has a pic of Great Granny doing the dog at one of them picnics...

Maybe some more later... Break time is up...

B~


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: GUEST
Date: 20 May 12 - 06:25 PM

Great admirer of Mr. Otha, hope he is always remembered and a few can carry on with the fifes.

Meanwhile, the very flat Delta plain ends on the east side with a line of bluffs which runs 100-150' high, and the country above the bluffs is what you would call 'rolling' country, it's not really flat unless you come from the mountains. It's a big distinction locally because the good ground for farming is in the Delta, and the higher ground was much poorer, easily eroded soil where many a small farmer went broke. Much of it is now back in pine timber it's more suited for.

The Mississippi very rarely gets a chance to top the levees and gates which hem it in and flood the Delta any more. In the historic flood of 2011 it did back up the Yazoo and was able to put a lot of ground under water in the south end of the Delta, very rare event.


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Bobert
Date: 20 May 12 - 07:02 PM

I stand corrected on the height of the hill country v. the delta... Thank you GUEST... Didn't seem that much of a climb but I was riding with a whacked out teenager, Rev. Slick, who was busy slamming one CD after another into his CD player and yelling, "This is the real blues, Bobert"... lol...

150 Ft, heh???

B;~)


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 21 May 12 - 02:38 PM

It's always great to read first-person stories about these people and places. Thanks!

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Bobert
Date: 21 May 12 - 04:17 PM

BTW, one of the few remaining "juke joints" up in Memphis (30 miles from Senatobia/Como area) was Wild Bill's... Wild Bill died about 3 years ago and I've heard that it shut down... But it was the real deal..

BTW, on one of my trips I hung out with Waymon "buttermilk" Meeks and he took me touring don "Highway 61" down as far as Clarksdale... Clarkdale is where Morgan Freeman lives and has a restaurant/music joint called "Ground Zero"... Down the street is the "Delta Blues Museum"... Also couple blocks further is the coolest Greyhound Bus station I believe I have ever seen...

BTW, T-Model Ford was in Charlotte a few months back... 92 and still going strong...

B~


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Bobert
Date: 21 May 12 - 07:45 PM

Also, on the way back to Memphis from Clarksdale Waymon asked if I wanted to meet Sam Carr... Sam had played drums for just about any Mississippi bluesman that you can name and he and his wife were living just a half mile of Highway 61...

We spent a couple hours with Sam Carr... Couple things stick in my mind...

First, Sam had about a hundred baseball caps on his wall...

Second, Sam was talking about workin' the "doe" (door) at the juke joint when he was young... Said that the "doe man" had to be the baddest man and he had to go to work with a pistol stuck under his belt... Said that with the cash the "doe man" had that he was a target of anyone wanting some fast cash...

I wanted to ask him if he ever had to shoot anyone but was kinda afraid of the answer so I left it alone...

Sam Carr died 2 or 3 years ago... Very nice man...

B~


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Subject: RE: Mississippi fife & drum - Turner legacy
From: Bobert
Date: 22 May 12 - 07:31 PM

refresh...


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