FIFE MASTER, RURAL BLUES LEGEND OTHA TURNER DIES; WAS 94
The Commercial Appeal
By Bill Ellis
February 27, 2003
“Mississippi fife 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.”
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OTHA’S FRIENDS AT BILLANDOTHA.COM WOULD LIKE TO EXTEND THEIR CONDOLENCES TO HIS FAMILY. OTHA WILL BE GREATLY MISSED AND FONDLY REMEMBERED.
EACH YEAR’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, “ODE TO OTHA,” WILL HONOR OTHA’S LIFETIME OF MUSIC AND HIS LEGACY AS AN AMERICAN MUSIC LEGEND …
Otha Turner was born in 1907 to Hollis and Betty Turner, both sharecroppers, in Jackson County, Mississippi.
Turner’s 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 boy.
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.
Turner’s 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 Nashville’s 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 ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NPR’s “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 – “Everybody’s Hollerin’ Goat” on Birdman records was recently named one of the top five blues albums of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine.