Otha Turner: 1908 to 2003
For a lot of visitors to the northern Mississippi hill country, more than a man, and more than a musician, passed when Otha Turner died on February 27 at age 94. Mr. Otha — and he was known, respectfully, as Mr. Otha — became known to the public as a fife maker, player, bandleader and link on the folklore chain; it was Mr. Otha who in 1959 steered Alan Lomax to Fred McDowell, thus helping to change forever our picture of country blues.
But for many of us, his music was, if not incidental, then certainly secondary, and his manhood evoked far more than his own resourceful self. Mr. Otha was the past — hard black sharecropper days and the flinty dignity they instilled in those who survived. He was the south — that sharp laughter, horse sense, and peculiar inwardness. And he was the country — the work-worn overalls, runty pigs and chickens out back, and, above all, the summer country picnic of barbecued goat and clandestine white whiskey.
Mr. Otha’s fife playing and his Rising Star Fife & Drum Band traveled far beyond his modest farm in Senatobia, Mississippi. He made records (Everybody Hollerin’ Goat, From Senegal To Senatobia) and he toured the festival stages, in his later years performing with the Northern Mississippi All Stars, the younger-generation group featuring the sons of renowned producer Jim Dickinson. In 1992 he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts — the highest official folk arts honor.
But his finest gift was not represented on tape or stage (or film, though his fife turns up on the soundtrack to Gangs Of New York). As the surviving Delta juke joints do for the blues and Acadian dancehalls do for Cajun and zydeco, Mr. Otha’s annual Labor Day picnic kept alive something far more evanescent than fife-and-drum music: It kept alive its context. Open to all comers — local folk, college kids up from Oxford, roots music gypsies, folklore types like me — here it was, the past, the south, the country: a goat on the spit, catfish in the fryer, cold (but forever warming) beer in the cooler, and, passing quietly from hand to hand, moonshine, a brilliantly delicious clear white whiskey that I simply can not begin to accept I will never again share with Mr. Otha Turner.