“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Como in Panola County, Mississippi — The American South (East South Central)

Otha Turner

Otha Turner Marker (Front) image. Click for full size.
By Mark Hilton, April 8, 2017
1. Otha Turner Marker (Front)
The African American fife and drum tradition in north Mississippi stretches back to the 1800s and is often noted for its similarities to African music. Its best known exponent, Otha (or Othar) Turner (c. 1908-2003), presided over annual fife and drum picnics and goat roasts on his property in nearby Gravel Springs, and performed at numerous festivals. His music was featured in several documentaries as well as in Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York.

Black Fife and Drum Music The fife and drum ensemble is most closely associated with military marches, but African American bands in North Missisippi have long used fifes and drums to provide entertainment at picnics and other social events. Many scholars believe that such groups formed in the wake of the Civil War, perhaps using discarded military instruments. Prior to the war slaves were largely forbidden from playing drums out of fear that they would use the instruments for secret communication, though African Americans did serve in military units as musicians, playing fifes, drums, and trumpets. North Mississippi fife and drum music is often described as sounding “African,” but it was not imported directly from Africa. Instead it appears that African American musicians infused the Euro-American military tradition with distinctly African polyrhythms, riff structures, and call-and-response patterns. Fife and drum bands have performed spirituals, minstrel songs, instrumental pieces such as “Shimmy She Wobble,” and versions of blues hits including the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting
Otha Turner Marker (Rear) image. Click for full size.
By Mark Hilton, April 8, 2017
2. Otha Turner Marker (Rear)
On Top of the World” and Little Walter’s “My Babe.” While the black fife and drum tradition is identified with northern Mississippi, researchers have also documented the music in other areas, including southwestern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and west central Georgia.

In 1942 multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill and his band made the first recordings of Mississippi fife and drum music for Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax. His granddaughter, blues singer-guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, later played drums in local fife and drum bands. Lomax also recorded fife and drum music by brothers Ed and Lonnie Young in 1959. In the 1960s and ’70s folklorists George Mitchell, David Evans, and Bill Ferris recorded groups featuring Napolian Strickland (c. 1919-2001) on fife and Otha Turner on bass drum.

Turner, born in Rankin County around 1908—various sources suggest birth years ranging from 1903 to 1917—moved to northern Mississippi as a child together with his mother, Betty Turner. He learned to create his own fifes by using a heated metal rod to hollow out and bore a mouth hole and five finger holes into a piece of bamboo cane. Turner, who spent most of his life as a farmer, eventually became the patriarch of the regional fife and drum tradition. He recorded as leader of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band for various American and European labels and appeared in several documentaries, including Gravel Springs Fife and Drum, Lomax’s Land Where the Blues Began, and Martin Scorsese’s Feel Like Going Home. Following his death in 2003 his granddaughter and protégé Sharde Thomas inherited leadership of his fife
Closeup of photos on reverse side. image. Click for full size.
By Mark Hilton, April 8, 2017
3. Closeup of photos on reverse side.
and drum band.
Erected 2009 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. (Marker Number 82.)
Marker series. This marker is included in the Mississippi Blues Trail marker series.
Location. 34° 30.772′ N, 89° 56.485′ W. Marker is in Como, Mississippi, in Panola County. Marker is at the intersection of Main Street and Sledge Street, in the median on Main Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 217 Main Street, Como MS 38619, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 8 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Mississippi Fred McDowell (a few steps from this marker); Napolian Strickland (within shouting distance of this marker); Como (approx. 0.2 miles away); Sardis (approx. 5.4 miles away); Jessie Mae Hemphill (approx. 5.8 miles away); Bethesda Cemetery (approx. 7 miles away); Tate County World War I Memorial (approx. 7 miles away); Senatobia (approx. 7.4 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Como.
Also see . . .  Alchetron website on Othar Turner with photos. (Submitted on April 17, 2017, by Mark Hilton of Montgomery, Alabama.)
Categories. African AmericansArts, Letters, MusicEntertainment
Marker, in the far distance, in the median of Main Street. image. Click for full size.
By Mark Hilton, April 8, 2017
4. Marker, in the far distance, in the median of Main Street.
Credits. This page was last revised on April 17, 2017. This page originally submitted on April 17, 2017, by Mark Hilton of Montgomery, Alabama. This page has been viewed 160 times since then and 26 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on April 17, 2017, by Mark Hilton of Montgomery, Alabama.
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