The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.
Saturday is generally the biggest day of the Otha Turner Picnic each year, and this year was no exception, with a bigger crowd inside the gates, and a much bigger crowd at the informal block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as well. Although the police were stopping all cars coming and going on Highway 310 near the picnic, I was eventually able to make it to the grounds, arriving just before R. L. Boyce went on stage. Several other acts performed, including a decent blues/rock band called Mississippi Shakedown, with whom I was not familiar at all. But as always, Sharde Thomas and her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band were the stars of the show, marching through the crowd motivating a number of dancers, and even playing across the fence to the young people at the block party along the road. All too soon, the picnic came to an end for another year, but the block party was still in full swing along the road outside.
Black fife-and-drum music is endangered, and everybody knows it. But there may be more of it in remote rural areas than was thought just a few years ago. I had not heard of the Hurt Family and their fife-and-drum picnics near Sardis, Mississippi until I read something about them at a superb blog called 50 Miles of Elbow Room. While they have had a Fourth-of-July picnic in the past, nowadays they are focused on growing their two-day Labor Day Picnic, which they have at a small picnic grounds constructed on a knoll in the Mount Level community, west of Sardis. The spot is not particularly easy to find. One has to start in Sardis, ride west on Highway 310 to the Mount Level Road, then take a right on the Mount Level Road up to Burdett Road. There on the corner is a small space with a bar/food preparation area, and some outdoor wooden picnic tables and benches. Unlike the better-known Otha Turner Picnic, the Hurt Family Picnic is a smaller, more intimate and low-key affair. There is no admission charge at the door, and in the early afternoon, even the food and drink are free (they begin charging for them later). There also are no tourists or out-of-town blues fans here, mostly members of the Hurt family and their friends and neighbors from the area. When I arrived this year, the Greg Ayers Band from Senatobia was on the outdoor stage performing. But when they took a break, Larry and Calvin Hurt came out with the snare and bass drum, beating a powerful cadence as they paraded around the grounds. Someone near me said that the fife player had not been able to come on Saturday (he had apparently been there the night before), but that there were quite a few people present who knew how to “beat the drums”. As the day progressed into evening, there were several cycles of DJ music, the live blues band, and the drums, producing more and more enthusiasm from the dancers. Although I was the only “outsider” present, I was welcomed warmly, and told that the family picnics had once been huge affairs and that the goal was to grow them again and to recover that tradition. Certainly, I enjoyed the opportunity to encounter the fife-and-drum music tradition in what must be its authentic setting. It was truly a rewarding experience indeed, and proof that there may be far more fife and drum picnics surviving than those we know about.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.
The Home Place Plantation was founded near Como in 1869, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. From then until now, it has belonged to members of the Bartlett family, and was until recently a traditional farm raising cattle as well as cotton, soybeans and similar crops. But the youngest generation of the family has converted the Home Place from a plantation to Home Place Pastures, an organic, sustainable pig farm raising high-quality pork that is sold in regional farmer’s markets. As such they are on the cutting edge of a number of popular movements, including the locavore movement that seeks to source food from areas close to where one lives. The new vision for the Home Place also includes special events, including a live blues experience called the Home Place Throw Down, which this year was held on August 20. Because of periodic rain, the organizers decided to move the stage across the road from where it had been the previous year to a roofed pavilion on the opposite side, and moving the stage was easy, because it was a yellow school bus with its front wall cut away so as to make a stage, and it actually still runs. Despite the risk of rain, more than a hundred people turned out to hear such artists as the Rev. John Wilkins, the Home Place Blues Band (which seemed to be an alter-ego for the Como-tions), the legendary R. L. Boyce and Kenny Brown. In between acts, Sharde Thomas led her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band through the crowd, with Como musician R. L. Boyce on one of the snare drums. With a rather eerie moonlight in the east, the hypnotic drumming gathered a crowd of dancers in the twilight, reaching back before the blues to something more fundamental. Besides the great music, there was plenty of beer, as well as barbecued pork (Home Place pork of course) that was some of the best I’ve ever eaten, and although I was told that the barbecue sauce was a vinegar-based Carolina-style sauce, I surprisingly loved it, and found it to be just sweet enough for me to enjoy. After Kenny Brown’s final rousing set, Sharde Thomas and her drummers were back to lead the crowd out to the front gate to close out the evening’s festivities. It was a truly amazing blues experience in a perfect setting with great food, in a community known for its legacy of blues, Black gospel, and fife and drum music.
Black fife and drum bands were once ubiquitous in the rural South, but time has not been kind to this style of music, a sort of precursor to the blues with heavy African influence. By 1970, only four counties in two states were known to have active fife and drum bands, and by 1980, that had dwindled to two counties in Mississippi. Most fife-and-drum activity centered around Senatobia musician Othar Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which was later taken over by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas after his death. Other bands included a pick-up group that R. L. Boyce from Como occasionally put together and a band within the Hurt family from Sardis that played at family picnics. So when Andre Otha Evans, a relative of Othar Turner, decided to put together his own fife and drum band, I was thrilled, as his group puts the number of known active fife and drum bands up to four. Their performance at this year’s Juke Joint Festival was rousing, with an unexpected guest appearance from Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, who is also an excellent fife player.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
For fans of the blues in Mississippi, the summer is somewhat framed by two major events, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in June, which celebrates the Hill Country blues tradition, and the Otha Turner Picnic at Gravel Springs near Senatobia, generally held in August on the weekend before Labor Day. But the latter event is all the more important because it celebrates a type of African-American music that is older than the blues, Black fife-and-drum music. Tate and Panola Counties have always been a center of the fife-and-drum style, and picnics were frequently held on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Fife master Otha Turner became famous for his pre-Labor Day picnic featuring fife and drum music and barbecued goat. Upon his death, the picnic tradition and the music tradition were continued by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who has kept the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band together and who remains an advocate for this endangered form of Black music. Under her administration, the picnic, held at the Otha Turner homestead in Gravel Springs near Senatobia, has become a two-day festival of many different artists and styles of music, including bands like Blue Mother Tupelo and the North Mississippi All-Stars, to solo artists like Dr. David Evans or Lightning Malcolm. There’s plenty of good fun and good food, and several processions of the fife and drum band across the grounds each evening. As the night progresses, the dancers become more exuberant, getting low to the ground and shaking in time with the beat of the bass drum, and the scene is reminiscent of other similar processions in African cultures, including New Orleans second-lines, and Haitian raras in Miami. On this year’s first night, there was also a brilliant full moon which threw a strange light on the proceedings. As in previous years, the festival inside the gates lead to another festival outside the gates, in which young people from the rural community parked and gathered along O. B. McClinton Road, listening to music and hanging out.
Since blues is one of the unique genres of music invented in America, I can think of few better ways to spend the Fourth of July than at a blues picnic. While there weren’t many public blues events in the Mid-South advertised on the Fourth, I had been invited to a private picnic in Sardis, Mississippi where R. L. Boyce from Como and Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs were performing with a band fronted by a harmonica player named Al Reed. The band was playing on a truck trailer that had been pulled into a residential yard on the west side of Sardis, and there was quite a crowd there, even a young blues fan who had come down from New York. The music was great, and kids from the neighborhood nearby were shooting off fireworks, but rains kept coming, and because the instruments were electric, the show kept getting interrupted. My friend and I decided to go to Batesville to dinner, and heading back through Como heard what sounded like a fife and drum band coming from a house near the intersection of Highway 310 and Highway 51. We pulled back around and in front of the house, but the sounds were apparently from a recording rather than an actual fife and drum band. Later, R. L. Boyce sat in with the Greg Ayers Band (Greg is apparently no kin to Little Joe) at a private event facility in Senatobia. This was more of a southern soul gig, but R. L. played a couple of Hill Country tunes, and the crowd was enthusiastic indeed.