Last night, the primal sounds of fife and drum music were echoing at the Turner Family Picnic, an annual North Mississippi Hill Country tradition, and Bo-Keys leader Scott Bomar, Ponderosa Stomp graphics designer Kerri Mahoney and I were there to listen.
Since the death of Rising Star Fife and Drum Band founder — and Turner family patriarch — Otha Turner, his granddaughter Sharde Thomas (pictured above and below) has led the group. Last night was no different, as, under a hazy half-moon, Thomas blew her cane fife and, followed by a trio of drummers, traversed the packed dirt ground that was once home to her granddaddy’s farm. Her mother and aunts fried catfish and sold cold beer and hot sandwiches. Curious city slickers took photos, drank too much, and kicked up dust. When Thomas tired, friends like Kenny Brown, Junior Burnside and R.L. Boyce were quick to pick up the slack, performing Hill Country anthems like “Jumper On the Line” from a plywood stage.
Like most traditions, the picnic has changed over the last 50-or so years, even as it has stayed the same. Otha and his daughter, Bernice Turner, who helped with the band, died on the same day in 2003. The grandkids are growing up — a few weeks ago, Thomas started her sophomore year in college. The goat meat sandwiches had sold out by the time we arrived, and this year, for the first time, the family charged a $2 admission to the picnic.
Yet once we were ensconced with cold beers in one hand and catfish and Wonder bread sandwiches in the other, the swirling, Africa-meets-the-blues music pulling us into the mass of dancers, it was as if we were on board a time machine and traveling backwards to that first time Library of Congress musicologist Alan Lomax stumbled into the Turner’s end of summer celebration and documented it for all posterity.
Adding particular poignance to this year’s event was the fact that earlier in the day, the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism dedicated a marker to Turner’s brand of fife and drum music on the Mississippi Blues Trail. It’s located in downtown Como, Miss., directly across the street from a marker commemorating the lifework of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Next time you make the drive between Memphis and New Orleans, be sure to check it out.