Othar Turner & the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band
Everybody Hollerin' Goat
That's called a fife-and-drum picnic. There have been very few recordings of it, and until now I'd never heard one that caught the fullness of the snares, the wallop of the bass drum and the incisiveness of the fife, the way I've heard it played live. Recorded from 1992 to 1997, this extraordinary CD can only be called audio verité -- it sounds like producer Luther Dickinson, who also sits in here and there on slide guitar, just strapped some equipment to his back and marched through the crowd with the band. (That's not what he really did, but that's what it sounds like.) And we haven't even started talking about the music yet.
Turner, who is 90 and can blow all night, hails from the rolling hill country around Como, Mississippi, about an hour south of Memphis, an area which also spawned Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Jr. Kimbrough, among others. It seems to be the last area in the country where fife-and-drum music prevails. It was also the first area where this music "went public" in 1942, when Alan Lomax recorded Sid Hemphill's group. Before those recordings came out it was simply community music, played nearly always at picnics like Turner's periodic weekend affairs of today or the occasional Sunday afternoon events in a field adjacent to the store just outside nearby Senatobia.
It's an ingenious, primal mix of British and early American military fife-and-drum sounds with African polyrhythms and blues rhythm and feeling. The few fife-and-drum bands left in north Mississippi -- and that means Turner and the many relatives and neighbors he's trained, who work in various combinations -- play mainly blues and a few minstrel songs and spirituals. When the musicians thump, clatter and skitter across a tune like "2-Stepping Place," they make a sound both utterly simple and indescribably complex, surprisingly orderly and outrageously chaotic.
Turner's in charge, of course, and he makes a little go a long ways. ("The fife ain't got but two whistles to it, high and low. You gots to catch something yourself," he tells annotator Robert Gordon, who also did some of the recording. "You gots to know how to know it.") Check out the way he makes himself heard on "Short'nin'/Henduck" by playing in the holes between drummers.
It's hard to imagine how Turner (who was pictured on the cover of BA #28) could play so anarchistically on the first version of "Shimmy She Wobble" and then follow with the meditative stretches of the second version, but it's obviously no big deal to him (this is the first tune Turner ever learned, around 1923). "Roll and Tumble" gets an effectively slow reading, a dirge compared to, say, Muddy's take. "Boogie" is as earthy and relentless as John Lee Hooker, "Shake 'Em" (with a tip of the hat to "Matchbox") is aching and hypnotic.
Throughout, the bass drum goes for the stomach, the snares shake things up and Turner's fife floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. The crowd dances, slinks, struts and sashays around the yard to relentless rhythms until it seems like everyone's in heat. And then it gets really dirty. By the time this set closes out with "Glory, Glory Hallelujah," you will surely want to stand up and sing along.
-- John Morthland