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.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic was much more crowded than the first, as crowds came out to hear such artists as R. L. Boyce, Kody Harrell, the French blues band Pin’s Downhome Blues, led by Pascal Pinede, and Robert Kimbrough Sr. In addition, of course, there were frequent performances by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, occasionally joined by fife played Willie Hurt from the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band near Sardis. This year’s picnic was free, and some had thought that this fact might cut down on the degree of informal partying along O. B. McClinton Road, but if anything, this year’s Gravel Springs Block Party was bigger than the last. Unfortunately, at about 11 PM, the police moved in to shut down the block party along the road. While enjoying breakfast at the Huddle House in Senatobia afterwards, I overheard that the reason for the police break-up of the block party had been a shoot-out that had occurred at LP’s Ball Field on Hunters Chapel Road between Como and Senatobia. Still, the trouble stayed far away from the annual picnic.
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.
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.
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.