Hurricane Katrina Vignette
Yesterday, watching coverage on the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, my attention was drawn to the television by the sound of drumming, the kind one associates with a marching band. In the middle of devastation brought by the hurricane at Biloxi, Mississippi, a reporter for CNN was doing a standup shot in front of some wreckage piled up by the storm surge. In the background, the source of this unlikely sound appeared. I was astonished to see passing by the camera location, a group of men, arranged in two lines. As they came into focus, I could see they were a cleanup crew shouldering chainsaws and sporting fluorescent safety vests. They marched in line down the road, headed by a pair of drummers. It was stirring and heartfelt to see people in the middle of such devastation celebrating the work of recovery, expressing their spirit against the tragedy and chaos all around them. It recalled the mythic fife and drum bands of Mississippi folklore.
What is a fife and drum band you might ask? A group of men playing one or more drums, often a bass drum and smaller drum along with one or more fifes, a kind of pipe or flutelike instrument. In parts of Mississippi, musicians play a kind of rhythmical music called “fife and drum.” Although the tradition survives in the hill country outside of Memphis and along the east bank of the Mississippi, fife and drum was reported to exist in the southwest corner of Mississippi in the early twentieth-century. I can’t tell you with any certainty this was a remnant of the fife and drum tradition. What I do know is I had heard that sound before, the sound of those two drums recalled the sounds I had heard Othar Turner and his friends play in Gravel Springs Fife and Drum.
I was reminded that folklore is not confined to the past or even confined to its heroes like Othar Turner, but is alive and well in every community. People sometimes like to romanticize folk culture and folklore subjects, to treat them like endangered species, but folkways are survivors, like the people I saw marching off to reconstruct their city, as long as they are useful, as long as they strengthen and bring together a community. It was fascinating to witness this reminder of the longevity of folk tradition, the power of folklore and the continuity of musical tradition in Mississippi.