Final Notes, Othar Turner

Othar Turner passed away on February 27, 2003. He was 94 and lived in Gravel Springs, Miss., near Senatobia. Turner played a cane fife that he made from reeds that grew on his farm. He led the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, described as “the last survivor of a tradition that had transformed the sound of a Civil War military band into music with clear African roots: a syncopated drumbeat behind sharp, riffing melodies in pentatonic modes.” Turner’s “Shimmy She Wobble” was included in the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. He was born in 1908 to sharecroppers. His first instruments were a harmonica and a 50-gallon lard can that he used as a drum. When he was 16 he heard a fifer named R. E. Williams, who made his own cane fifes, and asked him for one. Mr. Williams replied, “If you be a smart, industrious boy, listen to your mama and obey her, I will make you a fife.” Turner promised, and got his fife. He was discovered and rediscovered by folklorists. In the ’50s he directed the folklorist Alan Lomax down the road to the bluesman Fred McDowell; in 1978, Lomax returned to record Turner for his documentary The Land Where the Blues Began. In the late ’60s Turner was recorded by George Mitchell, music that was released on Traveling Through the Jungle: Fife and Drum Bands of the Deep South. He is also heard on Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Vol. 1 (Arhoolie). In 1992 he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award for traditional American musicians, given by the National Endowment for the Arts. He made his first full-length album, Everybody Hollerin’ Goat, in 1998, followed a year later by From Senegal to Senatobia.

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