Since the death of the legendary fife and drum musician Othar Turner, his granddaughter Sharde Thomas has done stellar work in preserving that musical tradition, as well as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band which Turner started, but in addition to the annual GOAT Picnic in August which she sponsors, she has occasionally looked for other opportunities to throw festivals. The new Rising Star JuBallLee this June was held at Cherry Place, a rural complex out from Waterford, Mississippi, and the event seemed geared to the fans of the annual Fool’s Ball, a three-day music festival held every fall at the same location. The venue is a strange one, a former restaurant located in front of what appears to be a horse track and rodeo complex with a grandstand, although it is unclear to what extent the facility is used anymore. Occasional rock, country, blues and Latin events are held outdoors at the site during the warmer months, and this event was very warm indeed, coinciding with some of the hottest weather of the entire year.
The event kicked off around 6 PM with the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band playing in front of the stage, and then Memphis folk/blues/soul songster Moses Crouch appeared. He was followed by the North Mississippi blues/rock band Woodstomp, which features Kody Harrell, a guitarist who has occasionally played with Duwayne Burnside. Sharde and her drummers appeared again after Woodstomp’s performance, and then the band Solar Porch from Isola, Mississippi came on stage. But by that point, heat and fatigue had taken a toll on me. I headed back to Holly Springs and grabbed a late breakfast at the Huddle House before hitting the road back to Memphis.
Each year, Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of legendary fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, holds an annual picnic in her grandfathers’ memory at Gravel Springs, a community a few miles east of Senatobia in Tate County. But this year’s festival, the 67th annual Goat Picnic, was a struggle and almost didn’t happen. A factional dispute within the larger Turner family led to the event being exiled from Otha’s homestead, where it has always been held in the past, and even the demolition of some of the historic structures on the property. With a fence erected to keep attendees off the homestead, this year’s picnic was held in a much smaller space to the east of the former location. But this year’s festival was also a free event, after several years of admission charges, and a crowd of a few hundred gathered to enjoy such artists as Lucious Spiller and Robert Kimbrough, and of course the great fife and drum music of Sharde’s own Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which played throughout the night. On the first night, both the picnic and the Gravel Springs block party along the road outside the picnic seemed somewhat subdued this year. But there was good food, good fun, perfect weather, and lots of great fife and drum music from one of the best bands in the genre.
I had driven out to Covington for the inaugural Isaac Hayes Day in Frazier Park, but found it disappointing, as there were no live bands or musicians on the stage when I arrived, and the lack of instruments or equipment led me to believe that whatever musicians had played were done and that there would be no more music at the event. So I drove back into Memphis and went to Crosstown Concourse, which was celebrating their grand opening with lots of food trucks and great local music on two stages, one indoors and one outside. When I arrived, I ran into Sharde Thomas and the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, who had played earlier, and a neo-soul singer named Candy Fox was on the outdoor stage with a first-rate band. But I was hungry, so I went inside to Farm Burger for dinner, and despite the truly huge crowds, I was able to get served fairly quickly. A classical music ensemble was on stage downstairs, and somewhere upstairs a marching drumline was performing. When I came back outside after dinner, a large crowd was enjoying Melina Almodovar, a former Memphian of Puerto Rican descent now based in Miami, and her Orchestra Caliente, and they sounded really good. But my friend Sherena Boyce was wanting to go out to Benton County, Mississippi to a blues yard party, so I left out to head to Mississippi.
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.
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.
This year’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival was a far cry from last year’s, when Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band had played in front of a nearly-empty VIP compound directly in front of the stage. Although this year’s acoustic stage was inside the VIP tent, non-VIPs had no problems getting access to the area for the performances, and the interaction between performers and audience was really good.
Otha Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas sponsored an End of Summer Festival yesterday at Otha’s Place on O. B. McClinton Road at Gravel Springs, which is just out from Senatobia and Como. The event featured barbecued pork and goat, and live music from the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Dr. David Evans, the D.J. Fitzgerald Band, Ruby Wilson, Leo Welch and others. The weather was perfect, and everyone had a good time.
Sharde Thomas is the granddaughter of Otha Turner, and leads her grandfathers’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from Gravel Springs,in Tate County, Mississippi, which would seem to be the last African-American fife-and-drum band in the country. They are frequently featured at festivals in North Mississippi, and are always a crowd favorite.
Sharde Thomas leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on stage at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park during Bristerfest in Memphis on Saturday April 27, 2013. The event was to raise money for GrowMemphis, a non-profit that helps neighborhoods in Memphis start community gardens
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.