By Bill Ellis
February 27, 2003
master Otha Turner died on Wednesday. He was 94."
"Renowned for his picnic
parties, Mr. Turner - who played a homemade bamboo cane fife
or wooden flute and spent much of his life as a sharecropper and
subsistence farmer - was a living link to rural blues and fife-and-drum
pre-blues that extended well into the 19th Century."
"His music was recently featured in Martin Scorsese's Academy
Award-nominated film Gangs of New York."
Nashville Scene, cover story,
otha's friends at BillandOtha.com would like
to extend their condolences to his family. otha will be greatly
missed and fondly remembered.
this year's birthday party, "an ode to
otha." will honor otha's lifetime of music and his legacy as
an american music legend ... >> more
about the party <<
Otha Turner was born in 1907 to Hollis and Betty
Turner, both sharecroppers, in Jackson County, Mississippi.
Turners father left town shortly after he
was born, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings alone.
He grew up helping his mother in the fields, and was often put in
charge of taking care of the rest of his family. His life of hard
work began early, chopping cotton and plowing the fields as a young
Turner demonstrated an unusual musical ability
as a teenager. He started playing on the tin tub when he was 15
years old and began playing the drums at the age of 17. He also
taught himself how to make and play a fife during these years.
Turner got his start as a performer by playing
the fife and drums at local picnic celebrations. Money he raised
playing at these gatherings enabled him to buy the farm where he
still lives in the Gravel Springs Community outside Como, Mississippi
(pop. 789) and where he and his wife Ada Moochie Turner
raised four children.
At 94 years old, Turner was the oldest (and perhaps
only) living African-American fife player in America. He was also
the leader of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Corps, the only Mississippi
fife and drum corps band left in America. Today, this small band
consists of his daughter, Bernice, his grandsons, his granddaughter,
and his nephew.
Until the day he died, he still farmed, raised
horses, hogs, cattle, watermelon, black-eyed peas, corn, etc. He
hosted an annual Labor Day picnic featuring barbecued goat, barbecued
pork, blues, and most importantly, fife and drum music.
On most any summer afternoon, visitors could have
received a private backyard performance by Turner and his band,
as well as a lesson in fife making. Mr. Turner first found cane
growing wild in the bottom land of his farm. He then
cut the cane into pieces. Next, using a hot poker, Turner burned
holes into cane, creating the finished fife.
Turners unique style of fife and drum music
has received national accolades and awards, including a National
Endowment for the Arts Heritage award, the Smithsonian Lifetime
Achievement Award, and the Charlie Patton Lifetime Achievement Award
from the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival. The Rising
Star Fife and Drum Band has become a staple at several blues festivals
including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Mississippi
Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, the Sunflower River Blues and
Gospel Festival, and opening each day of the annual Chicago Blues
Festival. He was perhaps proudest of his recent performance at Nashvilles
legendary Ryman Auditorium, where he, his band, family and friends
recreated a rural Mississippi picnic on the stage and
received more than one standing ovation.
He has been featured on ABCs Good
Morning America and NPRs All Things Considered;
in The New York Times, The Oxford American, Blues Access, Living
Blues; Billboard Magazine; and the French magazine Vibrations.
His recently released first CD at the tender
age of 90 Everybodys Hollerin Goat
on Birdman records was recently named one of the top five blues
albums of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine.