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. (more…)