Cane fife player, guitarist
The death of Otha (or Othar) Turner in 2003 marked a milestone in the tradition of African-American music. Turner played the cane fife, one of the oldest instruments in American black music, and one with roots stretching back to Africa. Living and working for most of his life as a farmer and sharecropper in North Mississippi's hill country, Turner played the fife and led his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band without gaining much recognition beyond his immediate geographical area. He was discovered late in his long life, however, and made his recording debut at the age of 90. After his death, his descendants were ready to carry on the fascinating tradition he had nurtured.
The early facts of Turner's life are somewhat obscure, but he was quoted as saying in the book Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts that he was born "east of Jackson and Canton" in Mississippi on June 2, 1908. His parents, Hollis and Betty Turner, were both sharecroppers, and they parted ways soon after Turner was born. During his infancy his mother took him north to the area of Gravel Springs, Mississippi, near Senatobia and Como, where he spent much of the rest of his life. As a child, Turner later remembered, he would watch his mother behind a mule, plowing a field. As soon as he could, he asked an older man to show him how to handle a plow so that he could take over from his mother. He went to school only through the third grade.
His few moments of respite from hard work came mostly through music. He developed a knack for musical instruments early on, and his mother bought him a harmonica and two snare drums, both of which he broke. Turner started to use a 50-gallon lard can as a drum, but his mother demanded that he stop making so much noise. Finally he met an older man, Arnie Williams, who played a cane fife, something Turner had never seen before. Williams taught Turner to make a fife, and the boy then learned to play it on his own. He constructed his own fifes from lengths of bamboo he found growing on a nearby riverbank, burning the finger holes in the cane with a hot poker.
Turner also learned to play the guitar when he was 17 and, like other black musicians from northern Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s, he played the blues. His life followed some of the patterns common among African Americans between the two World Wars, as he traveled in search of work, first laying ties on a nearby railroad and later moving north to Muncie, Indiana, for a time. For the better part of eight decades, however, Turner farmed and raised livestock on a plot of Mississippi land. Virtually self-sufficient, he was a cotton picker, a butcher, and a blacksmith who made his own horseshoes.
Sometimes Turner made money on the side as a musician. The tradition of the African-American fife-and-drum band proved especially important to Turner in this regard. Not well known outside of Mississippi, fife-and-drum music adapted the music of colonial military troops in a distinctive and heavily African-influenced way. A few examples of the music were recorded by historians and folklorists, and Turner was recorded by Memphis blues historian David Evans in 1969. Turner would play a simple blues or dance motif on his fife, and a group of drummers would pick up its rhythm and elaborate it. At the picnics on Turner's farm where he performed, a single piece of music could last for many minutes if others in attendance picked up the feel of the rhythm and started to contribute to it with their shouts. Writer Dolly Carlisle of the Nashville Scene described it as "raw, pulsating music"; it sounded more African than almost any other form of surviving African-American music. Eventually Turner began to pass on the tradition to his nine children (six by his wife of 40 years), some of whom, along with their own children, joined forces with Turner to become the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.
Turner probably never had an income greater than $2,000 in a single year, but between farming and the income from his picnics, he succeeded in buying the property he farmed and the small house that rested on it. His Labor Day picnics, survivors of a tradition a century old or more, became more and more popular, drawing white as well as black residents from nearby towns. Turner and his family offered goat barbecue and sold homemade cassette tapes of his music. Late in Turner's life, two influential people became aware of his unusual music: Nashville, Tennessee, lawyer Bill Ramsey and musician Luther Dickinson, leader of the roots rock band the North Mississippi All Stars.
Ramsey, who encountered Turner on a family visit to northern Mississippi and befriended him, began to serve as Turner's unofficial manager and to spread the word about his music. Turner began to appear at such venues as the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the venerable King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, and the giant Chicago Blues Festival. Often Turner opened the musical proceedings, providing a backdrop with music that was really a blues ancestor. Turner and his music were featured in an early 1990s dance composition performed at Nashville's Tennessee Dance Theatre. He agreed to perform in exchange for 200 pounds of dog food and two live chickens, but a cash payment had to be arranged after dance company personnel brought him frozen chickens and he refused them.
Ramsey also began to hire Turner to play at parties, which soon swelled to overflow crowds of 1,500 guests as word spread about his music. On one occasion Ramsey invited the musician to stay the night and cooked breakfast for him the next morning—a gesture that cemented the friendship of the two men. "Where Otha came from, as Otha put it, 'The white man was over the black man,'" Ramsey recalled to the Nashville Scene.
Luther Dickinson featured Turner on an album by the North Mississippi All Stars, and then decided to release an album that compiled recordings he had made over several years at Turner's picnics. Thus Turner made his album debut in 1998 at age 90, with Everybody Hollerin' Goat, a recording named one of the Essential Blues Albums of the Decade by Rolling Stone magazine. Other honors conferred upon Turner near the end of his life included a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award, a Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Charley Patton Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival. In 2003 he received a W.C. Handy Blues Award nomination for Best Instrumentalist. His fame became national after he appeared on such programs as ABC television's Good Morning America and National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
For the Record . . .
Born on June 2, 1908, in Jackson County or Rankin County, MS; died on February 26, 2003, in Como, MS; son of Hollis and Betty Turner; married; children: nine.
Entertained at picnics and parties on own farm in northern Mississippi; playing recorded by historian David Evans, 1969; formed Rising Star Fife and Drum Band; performed at Tennessee Dance Theatre, early 1990s; performed at various blues festivals including Chicago Blues Festival, 1990s; recorded with North Mississippi All Stars; released debut album, Everybody Hollerin' Goat, 1998; released From Senegal to Senatobia, 2000; appeared in Martin Scorsese television special The Blues, 2003.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award; Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement Award; Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, Charley Patton Lifetime Achievement Award.
Addresses: Website—Otha Turner Official Website: http://www.othaturner.com.
In 2000 Dickinson produced a second Turner album, From Senegal to Senatobia, which successfully teamed Turner with West African musicians, and demonstrated the close connections to Africa that his music retained. Turner was filmed twice in the early 2000s by director Martin Scorsese, once for a segment of his Public Broadcasting System television series The Blues, and once for the opening scenes of his epic filmThe Gangs of New York. Turner died on February 26, 2003, at the age of 94. Sadly, his daughter Bernice, who had performed with him for years, died later the same day. But the Rising Sun Fife and Drum Band has continued to perform and to introduce new audiences to the music Turner brought from American music's distant past.
Everybody Hollerin' Goat, Birdman, 1998.
From Senegal to Senatobia, Birdman, 2000.
Ferris, William, editor, Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts, University Press of Mississippi, 1983.
Nashville Scene, March 6, 2003.
"Biography of Otha Turner," Otha Turner: An American Music Legend, http://www.othaturner.com/bio.html (September 20, 2004).
"Othar Turner," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 10, 2004).
"Otha Turner kept the fife-and-drum tradition alive," Blues Music Now!, http://www.bluesmusicnow.com/otha_obit.html (September 10, 2004).
—James M. Manheim