October 4th, 2007
I was thrilled as pie to find the recording from which this week’s show was culled. Othar Turner died at the age of 95 a few years ago and I suppose that, if fife and drum music had a superstar, it was Turner.
My introduction to fife and drum was by listening to the Alan Lomax collection, Sounds of the South. There you’ll find some great performances by Ed Young, his brother Lonnie, and Lonnie’s son, Lonnie, Jr. and a the duo of Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith. Those recordings were made in 1959 and meant to document the rapidly disappearing folk music traditions of the American south. And so I was surprised and very happy to hear Othar Turner briefly on Shake Hands With Shorty, the debut album from the North Mississippi All Stars released in 2000. Fife and drum hadn’t gone the way of the dodo as Lomax feared.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. If you happen to be one of those folks whose idea of Southern American folk music is contained completely in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, then I’ve got some explaining to do. First let me urge you to check out either Sounds of the South or the Southern Journey series on Rounder Records which contains more recordings from Lomax’s late 50s trek which yielded Sounds of the South. Or even better, get both. So what is fife and drum music? For the fullest explanation, check out David Evan’s “Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi”. I’ll give a couple highlights of the article.
The basic configuration of the fife and drum band is cane fife, snare, and bass drum. It is possible that the black fife and drum tradition started in the first half of the 17th century when there was mandatory military training for slaves. There they would have encountered the fife and drum playing of the colonial militias. In the 1700s, the role of blacks in the militias was limited to drummers, fifers, trumpeters, and pioneers. Their military role began to wane after the Civil War and the tradition moved from the military to civilian life. I’ll leave the reader to check out Evan’s essay for a fuller explanation but know that fife and drum bands were fixtures at community picnics and played on holidays. They played a diverse array of songs including marches, spirituals, and popular songs of the day.
Evan wrote his piece in 1972 and I can honestly say I do not know the state of fife and drum music today. Alan Lomax and the fifers and drummers he recorded are gone and Othar Turner passed away in 2003. I don’t doubt that the tradition lives in pockets of northern Mississippi but the interest in Southern folk music at the beginning of this century has certainly waned. If anyone has any info on fife and drum in 2007, please forward it on to me.
Now, as for Othar Turner, I’m going to generously quote from his official webpage.
Otha Turner was born in 1907 to Hollis and Betty Turner, both sharecroppers, in Jackson County, Mississippi.
At 94 years old, Turner was the oldest (and perhaps only) living African-American fife player in America. He was also the leader of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Corps, the only Mississippi fife and drum corps band left in America. Today, this small band consists of his daughter, Bernice, his grandsons, his granddaughter, and his nephew.
Until the day he died, he still farmed, raised horses, hogs, cattle, watermelon, black-eyed peas, corn, etc. He hosted an annual Labor Day picnic featuring barbecued goat, barbecued pork, blues, and most importantly, fife and drum music.
On most any summer afternoon, visitors could have received a private backyard performance by Turner and his band, as well as a lesson in fife making. Mr. Turner first found cane growing wild in the “bottom land” of his farm. He then cut the cane into pieces. Next, using a hot poker, Turner burned holes into cane, creating the finished fife.
This week’s show was recorded at the New Daisy Theatre in Memphis Tenn. The date was 18 November 2000 when Turner was 93. It’s a great audience recording.
As best I can tell, the line-up of The Rising Star Drum & Fife Band on this recording is:
R.L. Boyce – drums
Chip Thomas – drums, vocals
Aubrey Turner – drums
Rodney Turner – drums
Bernice Evans – drums, vocals
Shimmy She Wobble
I Wanna Go Home
Shimmy She Wobble
I’m Going Home
YouTube doesn’t seem to have any performances by Othar Turner. But it does have a trailer for a blues documentary called Journey South which has some footage of him. It’s about a minute in.