Eighteen years ago, I found myself standing in the rain in a mud-soaked yard in Gravel Springs, Mississippi, a hare’s breath of a community between the larger Senatobia to the west and the hardly looming Looxahoma to the east.
Otha Turner said hello and put me to work right away. I was there with Nashville attorney Bill Ramsey to help with Turner’s annual Labor Day picnic, a tradition as deep as slavery’s scars where sharecroppers would lick moonshine from their lips, dance, eat and play music in between the labors of planting and harvest.
Turner was already a fixture who suffered no fools and still moved with an urgency and direction of a man pushing forward in life, not resting on the laurels of his 96 years. His broader fame, beyond the rolling hills of North Mississippi, came from those same lips that savored illicit corn whiskey, the lips that would pucker and blow hot Mississippi wind from his lungs through a small hole in a handmade fife.
Turner would conjure notes from West Africa, from Civil War marching bands shrouded in gunpowder smoke, and from the community of sharecroppers who lived on the edge of nothing but had everything when they played together.
For years, Otha Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band’s annual picnic was his primary source of income. I was there to help, to witness the slaughter of two large billy goats, to help dress them, break them down and learn how to cook them.
Three large cast-iron cauldrons awaited the freshly butchered meats, sitting on coals and setting on boil. The meat was cooked with condensed milk to help tenderize and soften the old goat game. We threw in onions and peppers, corn and potatoes for starchy measure.
When the meat was tender enough, we finished it on a smoker/grill until the strands would melt between your teeth.
Earlier in the day, we collected used pint bottles from the town drunk who saved them for this yearly recompense. We washed them and filled them with silver-smooth moonshine and sold them to revelers, black and white, the people who knew the clarion call from Turner’s fife meant music all night long, rain or shine, until the food or musicians gave out.
Clearly off the books and wholly illegal, there was simply an understanding with local law enforcement, until a story on NPR forced them to try to crack down. Turner’s wit bent the truth and sent the sheriff on his way.
While Turner died in 2003, his memory will burn eternal as long as Ramsey has a say.
“I was lucky enough to help him organize (his picnic) in his later years,” says Ramsey, who will host the midsummer fete June 1 in front of his Nashville home on Sweetbriar Avenue just, off Belmont Boulevard. “At that time, I learned that his birthday was the same as mine, June 2. I told him that I would help him with his picnic in August if he would play a party on our birthday in June each year. He agreed.
“At first, the party was just for close friends, but his fame quickly multiplied the crowd that would show up. One year, I agreed to let Second Harvest Food Bank put out a bucket for donations – the party was free back then.
“When Otha saw the person taking up money, he asked me what it was for. I told him it was for people who do not have enough to eat. He responded, ‘Don’t pay me anymore to come and play at your party. I have plenty to eat. You give all the money to them.’”
Turner prided himself on his self-sufficiency, growing what he ate, owning his own home and preserving his musical traditions, not for some greater prosperity, but for his African-American community and family.
That endowment will be on full display when Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, will step forward and lead her own incarnation of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.
The Afro beats of the drums that will accompany her show the evolution of rhythms from distant shores through Delta Blues to modern trip-hop.
Three cast iron cauldrons await goat meat at the 2001 Otha Turner’s Labor Day picnic in Gravel Springs, Mississippi.
-- Photograph Provided By Jim Myers
This year marks the silver anniversary of Ramsey’s party, now dubbed “Ode to Otha,” but the friendship started long before that.
“My Mother is from Como, Mississippi, and I was introduced to Otha’s picnics as a small child,” Ramsey says. “My first cousin, Sherman Cooper, was very close to another fife player, Napolian Strickland, and he was probably Jesse Mae Hemphill’s best friend. (Her father, Sid Hemphill, was a legendary quill player (panpipes played by slaves) and one of the founders of the Hill Country Music style.) So, Mississippi Fife and Drum music is very, very special for me.
“Through a series of coincidences and kismet, I became very close with Otha in the early 90s. We became the closest of friends. We would always tell one another, ‘You name it, and I will claim it.’”
Ramsey either recorded or helped record most of Turner’s music in an effort to capture what was at the time looking to be the end of a genre.
Getting the song “Shimmy She Wobble” in Martin Scorsese’s film “Gangs of New York” during the long opening fight montage secured Turner’s position and earned him a tremendous windfall.
Ramsey has the party catered, so there will be no goats and cauldrons. The block will sway to music 2-9 p.m.
In between performers like Blue Mother Tupelo, Stacy Mitchhart and the Cactus Brothers, the crowd will tighten up, food will be put aside and Sharde will draw her fife and entertain the assembled guests.
As the rampant homogenization of Nashville churns through the parts and pieces that matter and define us, one block in the Belmont neighborhood carries on a tradition worth fighting for.
“Otha was not a wealthy person, monetarily, but his unselfishness, wisdom, integrity and undying enjoyment of life made him “richer” than most people I know. I was so moved by his unselfish act that I vowed to honor him each year with “Ode to Otha,” says Ramsey, who understood long ago as a kid that the picnic communion of food and music forever has the power to change.