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Passing Along Traditions in the Mississippi Hill Country

Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band

Shardé Thomas began learning to play the fife at the knee of her grandfather, the great Otha Turner. Turner was a mid-century musical elder of the North Mississippi hill country. He was one of a handful of rural artists who cut, cured, and blew fifes out of locally grown bamboo cane. The fife is a small, high-pitched flute-like instrument that was common in military and marching band music. Similar instruments can be found in cultures around the world.

Gravel Springs Fife and Drum

William Ferris’s film Gravel Springs Fife and Drum (1972) is a mini-documentary about Otha that shows how he made fifes (starting at timepoint 1:35).

Beginning in the 1950s, Otha held annual fife and drum picnics in the backyard of his Gravel Springs, Mississippi home. These events were the stuff of legend in the hill country. They were celebrated for their unique dance music and giant cast iron pots of rich, gamey goat meat that stewed over an open flame at the edge of the yard.

The picnics were festive gatherings for the local people of Gravel Springs. The music called folks together. Rumbling sounds of syncopated bass and snare drums could be heard across the hill country. Turner’s cane fife pierced the Mississippi air deep into the night. The music combined the sounds and instruments of military music with the tunes and traditions of the hill country. Today, Shardé Thomas continues to hold picnics in honor of her grandfather Otha, but they have taken on new meaning and function in the changing musical landscape of North Mississippi.

Otha Turner and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band play “Ida Reed,” recorded in 1978 by Alan Lomax.

Otha Turner and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band play “Shimmy She Wobble” from the 2003 album “Everybody Hollerin’ Goat.”

Otha was a farmer and an artist. He lived and worked in the North Mississippi hill country, a region stretching across the red clay and bluff hills in the Northern part of the state. The music of the hill country is diverse and varied, and Otha was a dynamic and versatile musician. Mississippi is often known as the birthplace of the blues, but musical life in the hill country cannot be understood through just one genre. In Mississippi and across the mid-South, a network of musical traditions have overlapped and spoken to each other for generations. This is still the case today, just as it was in Otha’s time. Back then, many musics mixed together: blues, fife and drum, string band music, and spirituals all influenced each other. Otha played the fife, but he also sang the blues. Today these musics are also mixed with the sounds of R&B, funk, contemporary gospel, country, rock, and even hip hop.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, folklore researchers regularly visited Otha and documented their experiences. These researchers came to think that fife and drum was rooted in West African drumming rhythms. They heard it as a forerunner to the country blues of the region. They also worried that it might be on the brink of disappearing forever.

Otha Turner’s performance of the song “My Babe” with Luther Dickinson. This song is a standard of the Chicago blues era, and is based on an older traditional gospel tune called “This Train (is Bound For Glory).”

In the late 1990s, Shardé was still a young girl, but word was beginning to spread in the region and among fans that Otha had an apprentice. Perhaps the fife and drum tradition was not fading just yet. Sadly, Otha passed in 2003, before Shardé could master the craft. Instead of completing her training directly under Otha, she found herself looking up YouTube videos of her grandfather to finish her education.

Folklore is often understood as the study of cultural traditions that have been passed down over time, younger people learning from older generations “orally,” or without the use of books or formal education. Shardé began her training in this way, guided by her grandfather, but had to finish in the same way that many young artists of her generation learn their crafts: online. This is a powerful and innovative way to sustain traditions, and it reflects the ever-changing landscape of musical life.

Traditions always change as they are passed along. Many of the traditions that twentieth-century folklorists feared would disappear still exist in new and expanded forms today. They are passed on across increasingly diverse platforms. If we look closely at how music is handed down, we may see new strategies for sustainability, even in old music. Paying attention in this way helps us understand what artists do, and how their work relates to particular times and places. It also helps us to see that musical traditions are rarely at risk of dying out completely. Music is a dynamic art form: it constantly changes and renews as it is learned, listened to, and practiced.

Shardé Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum band performing at a blues club.

Shardé at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Shardé still holds the fife and drum picnics annually, and her family still barbecues goat meat for the occasion. But these events have taken on new meaning and an expanded format. The picnics are now featured prominently in the dense calendar of blues festivals held in the region. They contribute significantly to the state’s heritage tourism industry. At the picnics today there is a stage, bright lights, a stylistically diverse lineup, and tourists who travel from around the world to attend. Shardé crafts a presence for herself that honors her grandfather, carries on the traditions he imparted to her, and sustains some aspect of her community and livelihood.

An earlier folklorist might have rejected these connections to commerce and contemporary culture. But Shardé’s music is modeled after her grandfather’s, and it is deeply rooted in the hill country where she still lives. The goat is still gamey, the rhythms still drone across the hills, and the fife, still handmade from bamboo cane, continues to pierce the North Mississippi air as Shardé and her family develop and carry on Otha’s tradition and legacy.

Ben DuPriest

Ben DuPriest researches, writes, and teaches about music and aural cultures in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the intersection of cultural heritage and race in the American South. His current project is a study of the history of blues folklore and tourism in North Mississippi. Learn more…

Learn more about this topic:
Otha Turner

Scott Barretta and Shardé Thomas. “Otha Turner.” Mississippi Folklife online journal, 2022.

Everybody Hollerin' Goat

A studio version of “My Babe,” performed by Otha Turner and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band on their album Everybody Hollerin’ Goat.

Voices of Missippi

Shardé Thomas performing her version of“My Babe” as part of the “Voices of Mississippi” live show.