Black History Culture : Mississippi Hill Country: "They Say Drums was a-Calling"

Discussion in 'Black History - Culture - Panafricanism' started by Sun Ship, Dec 26, 2006.

  1. Sun Ship

    Sun Ship Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Aug 31, 2003
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    African-American Music from the
    Mississippi Hill Country:
    "They Say Drums was a-Calling"

    On a small, nondescript farm in rural northeast Mississippi, between the towns of Senatobia and Como, is one of America’s last and most tangible links to its African musical past.


    African Fife and drum music was historically at the center of black musical and social culture in North East Mississippi hill country and other Southern communities dating back to the birth of the nation. But with the passing of time and traditions, master fife player Otha Turner, at age 92, now heads the last African fife and drum band in Mississippi. Turner is teaching the music to his grandchildren in the hopes that future generations will preserve one of the oldest known forms of African-American folk music.

    It’s here, at country picnics in the community of Gravel Springs, that 92-year-old Otha Turner still performs on the homemade cane fife as younger family members beat out African-based rhythms on drums, and members of the local community gather to dance, drink corn whiskey, and eat goat sandwiches just as they have for well over a century.

    Otha Turner, known by friends as "Gabe," heads the last African-American fife and drum band in a region that once supported more than a dozen. And like the archangel of the same name, when Otha blows his instrument, it’s a rallying cry linking the community to its ancestors. Dancers yell, "Blow it, Gabe" as they encircle Otha and his drummers, moving in harmony to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums as parts of a larger organism.


    Abe "Cag" Young has spent much of his 65 years playing drums in the Mississippi hill country for fife players like Otha Turner and Napoleon Strickland. He is the son of fife player and drummer Lonnie Young, who along with brother Ed Young and cousin G.D. Young, had a popular fife and drum band that played picnics on weekends and was recorded in the 1950’s by the Library of Congress. "Cag" started learning music at an early age. "I started playing drums by playing a gas tank out of an old Chevrolet truck," says Young. "The only way I could get it to play was to set in on grass. I was six or seven years old."

    African-American fife and drum music can be traced back to British and early American military music. Thomas Jefferson’s personal body servant even organized a small band to help rally the revolutionary war effort. But in the hands of slaves and their progeny, the stiff, formalized music used to direct military movements was transformed by the same African syncopations and poly-rhythms that eventually gave birth to jazz and blues.

    In a time when drumming by slaves was strictly forbidden for fear of illicit communication, the fife and drum was an acceptable outlet, even used by confederate armies during the civil war.

    Today, the fife and drum music performed by the Turner family has more in common with the music of West Africa than the Spirit of ’76. These musical ties are reinforced by the dancers, who "salute" the drums with pelvic movements not unlike traditional dances still seen in Africa, Haiti and the West Indies.


    Blues guitarist/singer Jessie Mae Hemphill’s upbringing was steeped in hill country musical traditions taught to her by her grandfather Sid Hemphill, aunt Rosa Lee Hill, and her extended musical family. Female blues artists of Hemphill’s generation pursuing the traditionally male role of singer/guitarist in Mississippi are rare becuase of the social strictures and danger associated with the lifestyle. Jessie Mae Hemphill, however has always known how to take care of herself in a hostile world. "My mother carried her gun all the time," says Hemphill. "She was a pistol-packing mama so I’m a pistol packing mama."

    Folklorist Alan Lomax, who was the first to record fife and drum music in 1942, considers it one of his greatest discoveries in a lifetime of research. In his 1993 book, "Land Where the Blues Began," he wrote: "in vaudou ceremonies, dancers make pelvic gestures toward the drum to honor the holy music that is inspiring them. I never expected to see this African behavior in the hills of Mississippi, just a few miles south of Memphis."

    When asked about the origin of the fife and drum, Otha Turner replies "How old it is? I don’t know. They said it’s African, back in African times, that’s what they say, I don’t know, I wasn’t thought of. And they say drums was a-calling. If a person ceased, and you carry them to the cemetery, loaded in the wagon, all them drums get behind them and marched, just like it was a hearse, and they brought them to the cemetery, playing the drums."

    In the North Mississippi hill country of Tate, Panola and Marshall counties, the traditional venue for fife and drum music was the summer weekend picnic. Following an afternoon baseball game, fife and drum and black string band music was performed late into the night. Rural blacks heard the drums from miles away and were directed by the sound, arriving by foot or wagon.

    Annie Faulkner of Abbeville remembers when her father Lonnie Young played: "If [daddy] was playing somewhere close around, like this time of evening [dusk], when he hit that drum we could hear it from our porch from across the river over there, a long ways away."

    Dr. Sylvester Oliver, an ethnomusicologist from Rust College in nearby Holly Springs, sees the drums as the historic cultural centerpiece of Hill Country music. "I have interviewed several elderly individuals who told me...they would not start their picnic unless the drums came and kind of sanctified the area. They always wanted the drums to come and bless the area."

    Today, the picnics held on Turner’s farm in late summer and early fall are the last link to that tradition. The picnic begins with the slaughter of one or more goats early in the day that will be barbecued and served as $3.00 sandwiches along with beer and soft drinks, sold from Otha’s picnic stand. People begin arriving at dusk as Otha, followed by two snares and a bass drum, begin performing the "Shimmy She Wobble", (a standard fife and drum tune named for the type of dancing it often inspires), and snake their way slowly across the farm lot usually inhabited by chickens, dogs, horses and goats.


    Otha Turner and friend Abron Jackson clean three goats they’ve killed early in the morning before a picnic. The goat meat will be boiled in a large black kettle in Turner’s back yard and then barbecued on a grill throughout the afternoon. During the coming night’s picnic, the goat will be sold as $3.00 sandwiches along with pork, fish and cans of beer and soda. "People always want goat at a picnic, so I try to have it for them," says Turner. "Everybody always hollering goat."

    In his younger days Otha could play for hours without stopping as dancers kicked up clouds of dust late into the night. Now in his nineties, he allows himself frequent breaks and augments the picnic entertainment with performances by local blues musicians like "Rule" Burnside, R.L. Boyce and Luther Dickinson. In the last few years, he’s also brought in a DJ to provide music for the younger crowd. But the focus of the picnic is, as it has always been, the drums.

    Otha’s daughter, Berniece Turner Pratcher, still plays drums for her father and remembers the picnics of her youth. "Back then you could hear fife and drum pretty much whenever you got ready too," says Pratcher. "The picnics died out as the people died out. My daddy is about the only one who still has a picnic."

    Annie Faulkner recalls attending picnics where her family’s fife and drum band played: "The picnics that I went to, it was exciting. People would be kicking up dust. They’d be down on the ground. Kicking that dust, have dust flying. Both feet would be white with dust."

    Otha Turner learned the fife by observing older local players like John

    Bowden, who used to perform at picnics when Turner was a teen-ager.

    "He’d get on that fife man, it’d get late over in the evening, folks was running, hollering, ‘Blow it ,John,’" recalls Turner. "That son of a gun would get to blowing, kept his cap sideways, and I’d be walking along behind him, that son of a ***** would blow it for them."

    Bowden, who at age 95 is the oldest known living fife player in the state, has long since retired from playing, but still recalls his glory years. "It’s all gone," recalls Bowden. "Used to be a good time in them days. I didn’t want to miss nothing. I’d hear a drum hit, and man I just, Whew!, I’d have a fit."

    Turner acquired his first fife from a neighbor, R.E. Williams, when he was a teen-ager. "He was out there to the lot feeding his hogs," says Turner. "Fife in his pocket, he’d pull it out, he’d walk around there and blow, standing around and look at the hogs, he’d walk and blow.


    Otha Turner makes a new batch of cane fifes in his back yard with methods handed down over the centuries. The process begins by cutting the cane and letting it cure and dry for a few months. Then the cane is cut into one-and-a-half-joint lengths, approximately 19 inches. The holes are marked by pencil or spit in the places where the fingers naturally go and are burned out using metal rods heated in fire. The resulting musical instrument, though primitive, is capable of creating complex and powerful music in the hands of a master fife blower.

    "I said ‘Mama!’ [She said] ‘What?’ ‘I hear that man blowing that thing, I want to go up there mama.’ She said ‘All right young man, I tell you what, I’m gonna let you go up there a little while and don’t you stay long. Don’t let me to meet you.’ I went flying, I run every step up there, I had to go.

    "‘Mr R.E.!’ He looked around, ‘What?’ I said ‘What is that you blowing?’ He said ‘That’s a fife son.’ I said ‘A Fife?’ He said ‘yeah.’ Well I thought a fife was a dog. I said, ‘Mr R.E., will you make me one of them things?’ He said, ‘If you be smart and industrious and obey your mama and do what she tell you, I’ll make you one.’

    "About a month after that he called me, handed it to me, said ‘Here’s your fife’ I said ‘THANK YOU! THANK YOU!’ I said, ‘What’s the price?’ He said, ‘You don’t owe me nothing.’ I said, ‘I sure do thank you.’

    "He said, ‘You ain’t going to blow it’. I said, ‘I’m gonna try’. He said, ‘That’s the best words you spoke, don’t nothing make a fail but a try, son.’ He said, ‘If you try and want to blow it, you gonna blow it, but if you never try, you never will blow it.’"

    The sound of his early musical attempts annoyed his mother, so he was forced to practice on the sly. But his persistence eventually paid off.


    As Otha Turner’s grandson K.K. Freeman takes a turn with his grandfather’s fife during a late-summer picnic, a local woman known as "Hanah" shows her appreciation of the music by dancing up to the musicians. As the music plays on with increasing intensity, dancers are often inspired to "salute" the drums with pelvic gestures or perform similar motions while prone to the ground, not unlike drum dances of Africa and the West Indies. Otha Turner says the musicians and dancers feed off each other’s energy. "Them drums rolling, make you feel good," says Turner. "I get out there behind [the drums] and cut a step, that interest the next fella. He gonna jump right out there like me. ‘Come ON!’ We get together. That’s an encouragement."

    "When I learned how to note that cane, I said, ‘I got it now!’" recalls Turner. "I learned it good. Sometimes I’d walk, going to visit somebody at night, I’d blow my cane all the way over there and back. [People] would hear it, ‘Man, you sure was blowing that fife last night.’"

    His reputation got him jobs at picnics playing for men like George "Pump" Toney, and Will Edwards, who ran a racehorse track and provided barbecue and music for his guests.

    It was at these gatherings earlier in the century that the fife and drum often alternated with a now-defunct musical form that equally characterized the unique music of the Hill Country: the black string band. These bands performed ballads, reels and old-time music on instruments like the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, string bass and guitar —playing in a style that many now think of as exclusively white in origin. Ironic, considering one of the primary instruments of white folk music, the banjo, is an entirely African-derived instrument.

    Little is known about these early bands, since few recordings exist from the period, but Dr. Sylvester Oliver notes that the location of the Mississippi hill country helped create a unique regional mixture of "Southern Appalachian culture and the Mississippi Delta" within the black string band tradition.

    Black hill country string bands played for white as well as black audiences all over the region, at movie houses, formal gatherings and private parties until their commercial potential was diminished by the Jim Crow laws of the ’20s and ’30s, according to Oliver.

    Perhaps the best known of these musicians was Sid Hemphill, who was born in 1878 and was the master of nine instruments, but was primarily known locally as a hot fiddle player. Hemphill was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1942 and again in 1959 performing ballads, break-downs, and fife and drum music: a cross section of 19th century black folk music pre-dating the blues. Most surprising was Hemphill’s performances on the "quills," an ancient instrument heretofore unknown in black folk music with ties, according to Lomax, to Romania, ancient Greece, South America the Pygmies of Africa.

    Sid’s granddaughter, famed female Hill country blues guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, remembers a time when "country music" had a decidedly darker hue. "That white guy what play that fiddle about ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ all of that come from my granddaddy," says Hemphill. "Wasn’t no white band playing nothing like that. What they playing now, all that come from my granddaddy."

    And just as blues from the Delta gave birth to rock and roll, the music of the North Mississippi Hill Country predates the Delta blues.

    Dr. Oliver notes that the rhythms and percussive drive of fife and drum music had a "strong influence" on the development of Hill Country blues guitar, since most early bands performed fife and drum, string band music and/or blues —depending on the occasion and desire of the audience.


    Glenn Faulkner of Gravel Springs, MS plays the one-string "diddley bow" by sliding a pocket knife along a length of raised broom wire while plucking the wire with his right hand. This primitive instrument, historically played by African-American children in Mississippi, is actually an American adaptation of similar instruments still in use in African today. It’s earliest ancestor is the hunter’s mouth bow, one of the world’s earliest know instruments, which is depicted in cave paintings at Lascaux. The diddley bow is an essential element in the formation of the blues because it was a tool with which young musical aspirants learned the rudiments of music and slide technique. More importantly, the one-string is often played as an extension and/or mimic of the human voice, and uniquely-African contribution to American music. Faulkner, who owns the only electrified diddley bow in Mississippi, is one of only a handful of musicians for whom the one-string is their primary instrument. "I guess I’m gonna hold on to that one string," says Faulkner. "There’s always somebody in music with a guitar, But that one-string, I guess I’m one of the last one that can play it."

    The most famous guitarist typifying Hill country blues was Fred McDowell, who, beginning in the ’60s, often left his home in Como to play festivals where he became the darling of the blues and folk revival circuit. But Oliver considers the late David "Junior" Kimbrough to be "the last bastion of what Hill music was all about from a Folk perspective."

    ©1999 Bill Steber

    Bill Steber, a photographer for the Nashville Tennessean, is illustrating the blues in Mississippi.

    for the full article link here:

    Mississippi Hill Country: "They Say Drums was a-Calling"
  2. kemetkind

    kemetkind Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Oct 8, 2005
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    Nice read Sun Ship.

    Welcome back brother.
  3. OmowaleX

    OmowaleX Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Jun 23, 2002
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    Great post!