I like all kinds of music, although anyone who has read many entries of this blog knows that I'm most partial to jazz of various stripes. But there is one family of music that has always touched me deeply in a strong, primal way. I'm talking about early black American music - music that echoes, at least to some extent, the music of nineteenth-century African-Americans. Amazingly, some of this pre-blues, pre-jazz, pre-ragtime music survived well into the twentieth century, at least in scattered corners of the South. This web of music includes field hollers, work songs, ring shouts, and banjo music. Maybe I'll write about some of these branches of the early African-American music tree later, but right now I want to talk about fifes and drums.
The Africans who were enslaved in The Land of the Free were not allowed, for the most part, to practice the musical, religious, and cultural traditions of their homelands, but they were allowed, even encouraged, to adopt the musical culture of their "owners." This they did, but with their own twists. A simple way to look at early black American music is to say that African music didn't survive in the new world, but African ways of making music did. The reluctant new Americans played music from the European-American tradition, but played it their own way.
Fife and drum bands have a history in America which predates the formation of the United States, so it's no surprise that black Americans took up this instrumentation. We can only guess what early black fife and drum bands sounded like and how the African-American fife and drum tradition developed over the years before they were first recorded. And it seems that this kind of band mostly died out sometime in the nineteenth century - but it didn't die completely.
Folklorists have pointed out that the oldest traditions survive the longest in the most isolated areas. There are a few spots in the American south that, well into the twentieth century, were populated by a fairly isolated black population. These include the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where a rich heritage of spirituals and ring shouts survived, and the Mississippi hill country east of the Delta. The farmland in the hill country is not as rich as that of the Delta, so the white cotton planters of the Delta had no interest in snatching up the hill country land; this area was settled by small farmers, black and white. The hill country gave rise to such amazing African-American musicians as Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. And it is the last place in America where black fife and drum music survives - not as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing music.*
Music from this tradition was first recorded in 1942 by Alan Lomax, who preserved quite a few selections by the great hill country musician Sid Hemphill. Hemphill** had a fife and drum band as well as string band, and was apparently the most popular musician (with both black and white audiences) around Tate and Panola Counties. The Lomax/Hemphill recordings sound like a strange hybrid music drawn partly from a world I recognize and partly from some alien world. The two snare drums, bass drum, and cane fife play nineteenth-century folk ballads and pop songs like "Jesse James" and "The Sidewalks of New York" as well as an unearthly "Death March," which reminds us that this type of ensemble sometimes provided funeral music in the rural South. Hemphill (or his bandmate Alec Askew) was also recorded playing a haunting, very African-sounding "Emmaline, Take Your Time" on the the four-note "quills," or pan-pipe; the notes of the melody (which doesn't match up with any tempered scale) are interspersed with falsetto whoops - an apparently African musical practice which also shows up in the music of blues harpist Sonny Terry.***
Lomax returned to the hill country in 1959 and recorded more tracks by the now-elderly Hemphill, but more importantly, recorded the next generation of fife and drum music. Ed and Lonnie Young's music was harder, funkier, bluesier than Hemphill's. Several of their recordings showed up in Lomax's Sounds of the South series, issued on Atlantic. Tunes like "Jim and John," "Chevrolet," and "Oree," with the fife and drums accompanied by several local women clapping complex cross-rhythms, are extremely powerful, and still seem somewhat other-worldly, even to a Southerner like me.
The distillation and toughening up of the black fife and drum tradition continued in Mississippi through the work of Napoleon Strickland, who retired from playing in the 1980's. But the figure most associated with Mississippi fife and drum music is the legendary Othar Turner, who died in 2003 at the age of 94. Turner farmed the challenging soil of the hill country from his teenage years, and his farm was the site of many legendary fife and drum picnics. On holidays such as Independence Day and Labor Day, Turner would get up early, kill and barbecue a goat, and host an outdoor party featuring non-stop dancing to the fife and drums.
I never attended one of his picnics, but it wasn't for lack of trying. R.L. Boyce, one of the drummers in Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, gave me detailed, semi-intelligible directions to Turner's farm, and I tried to find the place one July 4th about 15 years ago, but I got hopelessly lost driving around the hill country outside of Senatobia. I did hear the Rising Star band a couple of times at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, and both times the impact of the music was strong, visceral, and almost overwhelming. After one of the performances, I bought a tape from Othar's daughter Bernice, who played drums in the band. (Strangely, Bernice died from cancer on the same day her father died; she was only 48.) I found Mr. Turner and asked him to autograph the tape, and he got a strange look on his face. But he took my pen and laboriously wrote a "T" on the card. I thanked him and hoped I had not embarrassed him.
Othar Turner was a somewhat more limited fife player than any of the others I've mentioned. He only had a handful of tunes, and about half of what he played turned into the repeated two-bar riff known as "Shimmy She Wobble." But his limitations were also his strengths; his music was like sunlight through a lens - focused onto such a small area, it emerged as a extremely powerful and haunting expression of a man and a tradition.
When Othar died, it was feared that the Mississippi fife and drum tradition would die with him - there were lots of drummers, but few fife players. But he had been teaching his granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. She was only 13 years old at the time of her grandfather's death, and has only recorded a few scattered tracks that have been issued so far. But she loves the music, and is now carrying a tradition on her back by herself. A heavy burden for someone not yet 20.****
*African-American fife and drum music could still be heard into the mid-twentieth century in western Tennessee and 90 miles southwest of my house, in the countryside outside of Columbus, Georgia. It has since died out in both places.
**Sid Hemphill's granddaughter was the She-Wolf, the great Jessie Mae Hemphill. Jessie Mae was a powerful blues and gospel musician who, luckily, was recorded quite a few times.
***These recordings can be found on Traveling Through the Jungle: Fife and Drum Band Music From the Deep South (Testament), an album which also includes recordings by Napoleon Strickland, Othar Turner, and a Georgia fife and drum band.
****Othar Turner can be heard on two CDs on the Birdman label: Everybody Hollerin' Goat and Othar Turner and Afrossippi All Stars, on which the Rising Star band collaborates with West African musicians. His music in perhaps its purest form can be heard on the Rising Star's cassette For the Times Beyond and a 7" EP on the Sugar Ditch label. Sarde Thomas's most prominent recorded appearance so far comes on two tracks of Corey Harris's truly remarkable 2003 album Mississippi to Mali. The album also contains Harris's moving dedication to Othar, "Mr. Turner."