On November 4, 2017, Senatobia launched its inaugural Blues and Brews festival in Gabbert Park, in unusually warm and wet weather. In fact, dense fog enveloped the whole park, and made it hard to see the crowd from the stage area. But a small crowd braved the wet (although not technically rainy) weather to celebrate the unveiling of an historic marker in honor of Sid Hemphill, and the rededication of another to Black country pioneer O. B. McClinton, as well as beer, good food, and great blues. Of particular interest was the opening performer, Glen Faulkner, a master of the one-string guitar from the Gravel Springs community, which was also home to the better-known Otha Turner and his fife-and-drum band. Faulkner has been recorded little, perhaps because he doesn’t sing, and clearly was not feeling his best, having to be helped onto the stage. But once on stage, he demonstrated his absolute mastery of his somewhat unusual instrument, treating the audience to his version of Hill Country standards like “My Babe” and “When I Lay My Burdens Down.” Faulkner was followed by Little Joe Ayers, one of the original generation of Hill Country bluesmen who for many years was part of Junior Kimbrough’s band, and then by Kent Burnside, one of R. L. Burnside’s grandsons, who rarely appears in this part of the country, although he performs frequently in the Midwest and internationally. Mark “Muleman” Massey was next on the lineup, followed by Garry Burnside and his girlfriend Beverly Davis, along with the seldom-seen guitarist Joe Burnside, to close the evening’s festivities. There were quite a few local food vendors as well, including Alma Jean’s Southern Kookin and Bliss Handcrafted Ice Cream. It was a memorable night of blues on an unusually warm day in November.
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.
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.
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.
To those unfamiliar with the hypnotic power of African-American fife-and-drum music, the sound is far more African than nearly any other form of traditional Black music in America. Tunes are rarely fast, but the rolling waves of sound produced by the bass and snare drums create a trance-like effect, and the fife, generally homemade out of bamboo or sugar cane, is played far differently from the traditional military or marching band usage.
The origin of such Black fife-and-drum bands is not at all certain. There is some evidence that Mississippi allowed Black drummers in the militia units even during the time of slavery. It is certain that during Reconstruction, many of the Black mutual aid organizations and lodges had drummers. Drummers are particularly mentioned in connection with processions of the Memphis-based Independent Pole-Bearers Society, which was a lodge. What appears evident, however, is that African-Americans in the post-Civil-War south saw in the fife-and-drum bands, with their patriotic and military associations, a “cover” for clandestine practices that seemed more African in nature. Observers at rural fife-and-drum picnics have described incidents in which dancers seemed to ritually salute the drums (a practice common in Haiti and West Africa), or in which the dancing seemed to take on something of a sexually suggestive nature (also found in Haiti and West Africa).
However, the African-American fife and drum tradition has been in steady decline since the first field recordings of such bands were made in the 1950’s. By the early 1970’s, only two places in the United States were known to have such bands, one in North Mississippi, and one in Georgia. By the 1980’s, the phenomenon could only be found in Mississippi, and by the 1990’s, only in Otha Turner’s family.
Despite the basic, sparse sound of bass drum, snares and fife, the Bristerfest crowd on Saturday loved every minute of the Rising Star’s performance. The rain had ended, and the crowd had grown to well over a hundred people.
The family of Otha Turner has continued his tradition of having a picnic at his old homestead in Gravel Springs between Senatobia and Como. The event features fife and drum music, Hill Country blues, good fun and barbecued goat (if you dare!).
Perhaps no town is as much a part of the Hill Country Blues tradition as the small town of Como, Mississippi in Panola County. It was the hometown of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and of Otha Turner, whose Rising Star Fife and Drum Band may be last band of its kind in America. Today, it is home to great restaurants like the Como Steak House and the Windy City Grill, the Como Inn bed-and-breakfast, and Jimbo Mathus’ Delta Recording Service, where great music is still being recorded. It’s also worth noting that at some point, Tallulah Bankhead briefly lived there!