We’ve wandered into the high hill country that adjoins the Delta to the east to enjoy a music festival featuring hill country artists T-Model Ford, Bobby Rush, Robert Belfour, Kenny Brown and members of the renowned Kimbrough and Burnside families. The family of Othar Turner, the beloved hill country fife-and-drum musician, is also present today. Turner, featured in the work of Bill Ferris, David Evans and Alan Lomax, passed away three years ago. Today, the sounds of the fife are played by his 16-year-old granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, whose high notes echo through the crowd. A group of drummers encircle her as she recalls her grandfather’s favorite tunes. Here’s an excerpt of a piece I wrote about her playing at her family reunion last year:
“As the sun set, a young woman in thick corkscrew twists and a ‘76ers jersey walked to the center of the yard without fanfare, carrying a cane fife. It was Sharde, and she was calling her drummers to join her. As she began to play her grandfather’s signature song, “Shimmy She Wobble,” a circle of drummers, instruments hung loosely by their sides, jumped in at will, eventually building to a skipping cadence. Sharde pulled her notes from the air, molded them from air, and sent them back into the air as dancers pulled themselves up from their seats and got down close to the ground. The tempo quickened, and a young man from a black motorcycle brotherhood from Memphis (I read it on his jacket) literally backed into the ground, shoulders first, cavorting in time as if conducting the music himself. This process continued for two or three more songs, until the tempo wound down, and the music faded away—for the moment.”
The hill country blues sound is different from the Delta blues in a number of ways; it involves a droning, jangly sound, with a loose low string spronging along with the crunchy chords. The songs can last for over half an hour, with lyrics that reach back hundreds of years into the history of African American expressive culture.
Folkstreams hosts Bill Ferris’ film on Gravel Springs fife and drum music, featuring
Robert Belfour (pictured above), a hill country artist who is a favorite player at Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is famous for his long, heavy songs, wolfman voice and carved wooden amulet. Hear the NPR edition of All Songs Considered about his song, “Pushin’ my Luck” here.