Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia.
The Frontline has discussed the legacy of Black fife and drum music at length in the past, but I continue to devote a considerable amount of space to it here because it is an ancient musical tradition that is clearly endangered and threatened. As far as we know, it exists only amongst two families, the Turner family in Tate County, Mississippi and the Hurt family in Panola County, Mississippi. But this year’s Hurt Family Picnic west of Sardis gave me reason for hope, because there I encountered young Hurt family members who were learning the snare drum, bass drum and the fife. Nothing will preserve the culture better than young people getting an interest in it and getting involved. Although the weather was hot, the musicians played for the better part of the day, and toward the evening, there were a number of dancers, too. They were also joined by a guest, Kesha Burton, who recently completed the Tennessee Folklife Arts Apprenticeship with Willie Hurt and R. L. Boyce, and who is accomplished on the snare drum, bass drum and fife.
Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.
As I have discussed before in this blog, Black fife and drum music is an endangered form of pre-blues that probably played a role in the development of jazz as well as blues. Although the tradition persisted in some parts of Georgia and Tennessee into the 1980’s, it appears to be limited entirely to two families in two counties of Mississippi today. While Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of Otha Turner, runs the best-known band, the Rising Stars, the Hurt and Burdett families in Panola County continue the tradition in a much more clandestine way. Their picnics, although open to the general public, usually consist of family members and friends, and are held on a remote hill on Burdett Road west of Sardis. Outside recognition of the Hurt family has been minimal, so much so that some writers have proclaimed the Rising Stars in nearby Tate County the only fife and drum band remaining, but the Hurt family holds their picnics generally twice a year, at the 4th of July and at Labor Day. The goal of fife and drum music is fairly simple- to set up trance-inducing drum patterns that motivate dancing. The bass drum beat is the motivator, with people in the crowd exhorting the drummer to “beat that thing” and the dancers going lower and lower to the ground with each beat. Although the fife would seem to be a mandatory part of the proceedings, occasionally at the Hurt picnics, only the drummers come out, and their repetitive grooves are punctuated by the yells of the dancers. As the drummers proceed across the picnic grounds, the event seems something like a rural version of a second-line.
For those wanting to experience Mississippi fife-and-drum music in its authentic settings, Sharde Thomas holds the Otha Turner Picnic each year, usually a week before Labor Day. It is held on O. B. McClinton Road in the Gravel Springs community of Tate County, east of Senatobia. The Hurt Family holds fife and drum picnics in the Mount Level community west of Sardis, generally on the July 4th weekend and again on Labor Day. The place is west of Sardis out Highway 315, right on Mount Level Road and left on Burdett Road. The picnic ground is on a hill.