The Last Mississippi Fifer?: Sharde Thomas

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Sharde Thomas, center, is believed to be the last living link to America’s fife and drum blues music. She plays the fife at an annual party on her family’s farm in northern Mississippi, a tradition started by the late Otha Turner, her grandfather. (photo by Mark Borthwick)

Blues Travelers

By ADAM FISHER | May 17, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com)

“You Yankees,” says my fellow concertgoer Matthew Tamke, wrapping his powerful arms around my head as though it were a football that he was about to rush into the end zone. “We’re not the Mississippi you think we are.” Tamke and I are at the annual Otha Turner Family Picnic, a legendary jam session that takes place every summer behind a tumbledown sharecropper’s shack deep in Mississippi’s hill country. The interracial crowd is a few hundred strong and drawn from nearly every stratum of local life — bikers, college kids, workingmen, toughs, gentlemen farmers. And then there are a couple dozen like me: urban cosmopolites eager to hear the deepest roots of the blues. Tamke calls himself “a redneck,” and he’s attacked me because I’m from The New York Times.

Shouting into my ear over the music, Tamke makes me his megaphone for what he wants the outside world to know: “Our races have melded together, we share everything,” he says, voice trembling. “We love each other.” He’s squeezing my skull so hard it feels like it might pop, and it’s clear that he’s under the influence of something very powerful. The moonshine or the music, I don’t know. Finally, when it seems something is about to crack — my neck, or Tamke’s tenuous hold on sanity, or both — he lets me go. “It’s sacred,” he says, choking up. “It’s ancient, man.”

“It” is fife and drum, an African take on colonial English marching songs, and one of the oldest forms of distinctly American music, played by the slaves of Jefferson’s Monticello and still played today — by one family, once a year, at this, one of the last of the traditional farm picnics celebrating the end of the growing season. I first met Tamke earlier in the day, before the sun had gone down, when the party was still getting going. He sat beside me on a hay bale, friendly-like, and struck up a conversation. He introduced me to his father, John, who sat nearby in a wheelchair, his left leg amputated above the knee due to the ravages of Agent Orange (and who has since died). After coming home from Vietnam, Tamke Sr. became a local judge. Back in those days, he told me, it was a point of family pride to “take care of the minorities,” and he reminisced about his grandfather bringing him outside, 50 or 60 years ago, to hear the drum call the field hands to the picnic.

That was around the time Alan Lomax first recorded the music. In 1942, and on subsequent trips in 1959 and 1978, the eminent ethnomusicologist found what he came to regard as his greatest discovery, a veritable Jurassic Park of fife and drum in the Mississippi hills: the Young Brothers, Napolian Strickland and Sid and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Late in life Lomax wrote a book, “The Land Where the Blues Began,” which made the case that fife and drum is “an outcropping of African music in North America.” The instruments were clearly colonial, but in the syncopation of the beats, in the interplay between the band and the audience, and in the fife itself, Lomax saw and heard a sub-Saharan tradition — the dance and music of the pygmy tribes, specifically. It was an extraordinary claim.

After Lomax published his book, in 1993, blues aficionados began making their way south to hear the sound for themselves. Most of the musicians Lomax found had died, and one of the last known places to hear it was at the farm owned by Othar Turner, known as “Otha,” in Gravel Springs, Miss.

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