Back in 1950, Othar Turner, of Gravel Springs, a few miles east of Senatobia in Mississippi’s Hill Country region, decided to hold a picnic for his friends and neighbors in the community. He killed and barbecued goats, and he and his friends ate, drank and danced to fife and drum music, a rural pre-blues form of Black music that had once been found across the South. By the time musicologists like David Evans visited Tate County in 1970, the event had been going on for 20 years, and eight years later, the famed musicologist and documentarian Alan Lomax visited the Turner Family Picnic as well. Othar, whose friends called him “Otha”, went on to make two full-length record albums, and contribute a song to the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York , and by the time of his death on February 27, 2003, he had passed the tradition of his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on to his granddaughter Sharde Thomas.
Unfortunately, last year, a family dispute within the larger Turner family led to the eviction of the annual picnic from Otha’s old homestead, as well as the demolition of most of the structures that had been used for the event. While there was something different about this year’s picnic due to the necessity of relocating it from Gravel Springs, it is also true that Sharde Thomas chose a location in Coldwater that greatly resembled the old location, with a number of old wooden structures. Attendance was somewhat light at the beginning, as the weather had been quite hot on the Friday of the first night, but the crowds soon grew larger, as bands like blues-rockers 78 (named for a major highway in the Hill Country) and artists like Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones and Robert Kimbrough Sr performed on the stage under a tent. The Thomas family’s stand was selling catfish and goat sandwiches, and RC’s Soul Food Restaurant from Como had a stand as well. A large, full moon (some said a “blue moon”) shown overhead. But the high point of the evening, at least for me, were the interludes between stage acts when Sharde Thomas, alternately playing djembe or fife, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, marching across the picnic grounds. Occasionally, these processions developed into djembe vs. bass drum battles between Sharde and Chris Mallory, one of her drummers, and on other occasions, dancers came and got down low to the ground to the rhythms of the bass drum. Despite the new location, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was a success.
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.
Despite the importance of Hill Country blues on Memphis music, and despite the short distance between Memphis and Holly Springs, it is rare to hear Hill Country blues in Memphis, sadly. So on the rare occasions when Hill Country artists perform in Memphis, I try to be there. Overton Square’s venerable Lafayette’s Music Room is fairly good about booking Hill Country blues artists, and has featured Duwayne Burnside on at least two occasions. His June appearance this summer was preceded by an acoustic set featuring blues scholar and musician Dr. David Evans, and then Duwayne played more than two hours of the best blues. Of particular interest was his unique reading of the standard “Stormy Monday”, and his cover of the Willie Cobbs Memphis blues classic “You Don’t Love Me.” Although he is firmly rooted in the style of his hometown, Burnside has incorporated more modern blues styles as well, and shows amazing versatility. Before the evening was over, dancers had filled up the narrow space in front of the stage.
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.
Think of Mississippi Blues and you are likely to think of the Delta. The long highways and crossroads, the endless flat land, broken only by the occasional bayou, small towns, juke joints and Robert Johnson. But there was also blues in Northeast Mississippi, the Hill Country, particularly in Marshall County, and the style of blues in that region was an especially primitive and basic form of the music that perhaps has more in common with the music of West Africa than any other African-American music form. Hill Country blues is based around guitar drones and repetitive patterns that seem to almost induce trance. Unlike the Delta blues, Hill Country blues remained largely unknown until the late 1960’s, with some awareness coming through the rediscovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell in Como. The efforts of George Mitchell and Dr. David Evans to make field recordings led directly to the discovery of the two great figures of Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, both from Marshall County, whose records in the 1990’s made Hill County blues familiar to people all over their world. Since their deaths, their children have endeavored to continue the tradition, and so there is a growing interest in Holly Springs for blues tourism. Every Thursday night, from July through the end of September, there is live blues on an outdoor stage on the Marshall County Courthouse square. It is usually well-attended each week, but all the more so when one of the county’s favorite sons is appearing, such as guitarist Duwayne Burnside. On this particular night, Duwayne was joined by his brother Garry Burnside on bass, and by his nephew Cedric Burnside on the drums, and they proceeded to give the audience a musical history of the blues, venturing into any number of different styles, and covers from as diverse a collective as R. L. Burnside, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, B. B. King and Tyrone Davis. Duwayne has always been one of the great living blues guitarists, but over the last two months or so, he seems to be hitting a new stride, playing some of the best music of his life. And to watch his face while on stage is to see the sheer joy of creation in progress.