Othar Turner

by

from http://www.cascadeblues.org:

 Othar Turner lived in the small Mississippi community of Gravel Springs, located not too far from the nearby towns of Senatobia and Como, about an hour south of Memphis. He spent most of his life within these same few miles, working his farm and playing his music. He was born in Rankin County, Mississippi in 1908. His parents had separated prior to his birth and it wasn’t until he was nearly four years old that he met his father. Othar always held an interest in music. As a young child he played the harmonica and would beat on a 50-gallon lard can for a drum.

    He first heard the sound of a fife at age 16 from a neighbor named R.E. Williams and was enchanted from his very first listen. The neighbor gave Othar his first fife and the boy would practice it constantly. His mother disapproved and told him to stop, but Othar continued whenever she was away from home. When she discovered that he had kept up the fife, she broke the instrument. Othar had studied the fife so intently, he was able to remember where the finger-hole positioning was and began to make his own fifes from the cane he found near his home, using a fireplace poker to burn the holes. Othar continued creating his own homemade fifes throughout his entire life.

    He had also heard the sounds of the fife and drum bands played at picnics and other social gatherings and eventually created his own band, known as The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. He performed with Sid Hemphill and later with the younger Napolian Strickland, both of whom considered Turner the patriarch of the style. Still later, Othar’s own family began to take part in his music, in particular, his daughter, Bernice, who played drums alongside her father.

    Othar Turner had been playing his music for many years when music researcher Alan Lomax made his way through Northern Mississippi in the 1950s. While seeking guitarist Fred McDowell, Lomax chanced upon Turner and received directions from him on where to locate the Bluesman, unaware that he had just met one of the most authentic roots performers of the area.

    Turner was eventually found by the music researchers in the early 1960s, though. He recorded tracks for an album titled, “Traveling Through The Jungle: Fife And Drum Bands Of The Deep South,” released by George Mitchell in the latter part of that decade. He was also heard on the Arhoolie release, “Mississippi Delta Blues Jam In Memphis, Vol. 1.” David Evans recorded Turner in 1969 for The Library of Congress and even Alan Lomax returned to record Turner in 1978 as part of his documentary “Land Where The Blues Began.” Othar can also be heard on the 1980 German compilation, “Living Country Blues Anthology” series (recently reissued on Evidence Records), that also included his student Napolian Strickland.

    Through these albums, Othar Turner’s name began to circulate around the country and offers to work at various Blues and Folk festivals started to arrive. The first that he accepted was an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the early 1970s. It was his first trip outside of Mississippi to perform. Other opportunities arose, including an appearance on the children’s television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It is said that having watched Othar Turner on this program, a young Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars first took up an interest in music.

    One tradition that Othar Turner started in the late 1950s, continued to occur up until his recent death was his annual Labor Day picnics. Originally this began as a neighborhood and family gathering, but soon spread to include the entire community. Eventually, word got out and interested music fans started to arrive from Memphis and then from all parts of the world. Best known for Othar’s personally butchering and cooking a goat in an iron kettle every year, it was the source for Othar’s first full-length solo recording’s title, “Everybody Hollerin’ Goat,” on the Birdman label in 1998. That album was selected by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the five “Essential Records of the Decade.” The parties would always conclude with The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band performing for its guests.

    In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Othar Turner’s lifelong commitment to the continuance of fife and drum music by honoring him with a National Heritage fellowship. This is the highest honor given to performers of traditional American music in this country.

    In 1999, Birdman Records followed up the successful “Everybody Hollerin’ Goat” album with “From Senegal To Senatobia.” Produced by the renowned Jim Dickinson, who had also studied under Turner, it was a blend of African musicians with Othar and his band. The mix was incredible, showing just how tightly linked American and African music actually are.

    Othar Turner’s popularity continued throughout the 1990s and into the 21st Century. He appeared on the cover of Living Blues Magazine in 1999 and was nearly cast as the blind prophet in the highly successful Coen Brothers movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Most recently, Othar’s song “Shimmie She Wobble” can be heard in the Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs Of New York.”

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