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Othar Turner
Principal information

"Othar Turner, Cane Fife Maker" by
William Ferris

Published in Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts





I was born the second day of June in 1908, east of Jackson and Canton, Mississippi. That's where I was born at. I was brought here in my mother's arms, a little-bitty suckling baby. And I've grown up here ever since I was big enough to walk. Free Springs is where I was raised at. As a running kid on the ground, that's where I was, right there. And I been around here for all my days, right in this community. I been right around from Free Springs Church, Water Valley, Oxford, Holly Springs, Chulahoma, Looxahoma, Senatobia, Thyatira, Como, and Sardis.


I was up to Muncie [Indiana], too, oh, for about nine months. That's this side of Chicago.





Indianapolis, Memphis, Blytheville, Grenada, Batesville, and Jackson-I been in all them places. But otherwise I've been mostly around here. I worked on the railroad up there-laying steel, taking out cross ties, and spiking ties. They had tie spacers, to place the ties in the holes. They didn't have no songs, but they had, "Whoa, boy!," up and down. "Whoa, boy.'," up and down. They used to say that. See, that's when you push out one tie and push another one in. When you push up, that's shoveling it out. When you push down, that's pulling a cross tie in. And I used to snake logs with just a pair of mules. On a log wagon, you had a mule in the back, and one in the front, that was the lead mule. That song, "Levee Camp Blues," I used to sing that all throughout the woods.




I ain't got too much schooling. But I learned another way. I been out on the farm a good while and raised, six kids, and I don't know how many other people. I get on by it. I can dance, I can sing, ride horses, chop cotton and plow, whoop and holler, cut somersets, do all that stuff. I been on a farm all of my days. Right in this vicinity here, it's all a colored settlement. That man up there at the store, he's just got a little place he bought right on the corner. But all the rest of it belongs to the colored. Now I got two acres and two tenths of land. I bought it. Scurrying hard, my labor paid for it. That's right. I paid one thousand for the land, and a hun-dared-and-fifty dollars for the house. Paid three-hundred dollars to move the house. And I rent twelve acres and a half of cotton land.




I always did farming. Worked by the day. Plowing a mule, chopping cotton, driving two mules with the lines. I raise my own hogs, cows, chickens, corn, peas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra, beans, turnip salad, and watermelons. And I kill my own meat. Sugar, flour, coffee, snuff, tobacco, and salt, that's what I have to buy from the store.


I have four head of stock-an iron-gray mare and a colt, a bay horse with white feet and a blaze on the face, and a red sow. And I. have three head of cattle-one black-and-white-faced motley cow, a solid black cow, and a bull calf with a white tip in his tail and a star on his face. And I got one goat, two head of geese, about fifteen hens, and one rooster. I've got eight dogs and one cat, too. That cat don't allow a mouse to walk across the floor. And when I'm out hunting, you know, I just blow my horn2 for the dogs. I hit that horn a note and they hear me and come on back to me. There's no special call or tune, I just blow for them.




I shoe all 'my own horses. I wrap their feet and shoe them, my-self. Practically all the work on the farm, I do it myself. That's right. It's just my making; it's my birthmark. I reckon it's just bred into me. My father could do it, and my granddaddy could do it, and now I do it. There's certain things you can do. You can't just pick anything up and do it, you know. That's the way it goes.




You know, when dinnertime comes, Ada will blow the horn to notify, to call me. Because, I don't know, I'll be down there plowing and maybe singing and when they get that horn and blow it, I'll stop, and come back in again. I say, "Whoa, time done come now, I'm going to feed my face!" Well, when I get back home, the first thing I do is to take my mules out and water them. Turn them loose there, see. Then go on and put the feed out. Come on into the house. Wash my face and hands, sit down and eat my supper. Sit there and relax and talk a while and then go to bed.




In my band now, there's four pieces: two kettles, a bass, and the fife. That's what there is. There's three drums-two kettles and a bass. And the cane, which makes four pieces. That's the music there. With the two kettles, now, you've got a lead kettle and you've got a bass kettle. Mow the bass kettle, it plays a little heavier, grosser. But the lead kettle is real light, it's smaller. It's got a different head in it. It don't play as loudly. So you've got a lead kettle, and the bass drum right behind it. The fife is in the front. That's the four. You play them standing up. You-got a strap and you snap them drums' on. You buckle in the drum in that ring and put it over your head. And you hold it to your side, or in front of you. Now tap or snare drums, you'd sit down and play them. But drums like we got, you play them standing up and you play them in a march. And you plays them in the rain.




You know, when the dew atmosphere falls, them drums get slack. But you've got to keep a good tight drum to put out the right sound so you can hear the music. So you make you a little blast of fire to tighten them heads, just like when the sun shines, see. But when the atmosphere is damp, a drum will swing. So you build your fire and hold your drum to the fire, turn it around, rub them heads good, and tap them. You can hear that drum popping, tightening all the time. When it gets tight, see, it changes the tune of the drum. And you can play on it all day and you'll never bust it, but if you got a slack head, you're not going to hear it too good and. you're going to bust it.





That's right.


That song, "Granny, Will Your Dog Bite?,"6 that's one of them pieces that we play real fast, using that double lick like my daughter Bernice plays: "Boom, diddle, boom. Diddle, booga, booga, booga, boom." The kettle plays that. See, in that tune, you roll it and the bass is back there catching it. He can't play it as fast, rolling it, but you keep on with that double lick. That's the way it goes. My daughter Bernice, when she was little, she said, "Daddy, I believe I can play that drum. I want you to learn me." So I told her I couldn't learn her. I said that if she had that in her and she had the vim, then she could learn better than me trying to learn her. I can't learn you. What I can play, you can't always play. You've got to take something from your own o o . your own gift, and then you can play. So Bernice started, she picked it up herself. That's the way she learned to play the drum.




I can play anything I want on a drum. But the whole group's got to know it, too. That makes a difference. You can start trying to play something, and if they all don't fall in line and play the same beat, it ain't nothing. You can't call it nothing because it ain't.. I can play all of it-cane blowing, kettle playing, bass, all of it. My real boys, who we generally play with, well they can play all the parts too-from the kettle to the bass and back from the bass to the kettle. But some of these youngsters, they can't even blow a cane. Well, to tell you the truth about it, a whole lot of youngsters don't even know how to play the guitar. Don't know nothing about them.

That's right.


I play the guitar too, but I haven't had a box in my hands in about . . . oh, it's been close to three years. Well now, if I had me someone to-sit around here with and Cry to learn pieces and change on them, I could play pretty good. But when you've been off that way, you just can't play it right. You supposed to be straight and correct when you play a piece, not stumble and bump on it. See, my hands are sore now, so I can't clamp those strings like I want. But if I could get me some kind of old box just to frail along on, I could pick up all this stuff again. ' Then I could pick up them sixes and make me a good sound.




When I used to have an old piece of a guitar, I'd sit up until ten and eleven o'clock at night. And that bottleneck, I tried my best to learn that. I wanted to learn it bad, but it looked like to me, I couldn't break my fingers down fast enough. It was hard to me. I couldn't ever catch the hang of that. But the first piece I learned how to play on the guitar was "Bully in' Well." That's for clearplucking. You can't frail and play that. You've got to do that. with your fingers.7 But my fingers are so sore now that I just can't choke those strings. I hear the notes, but I can't do it right. That song's really an old piece. There was one boy, Sammy Smith, that used to sing it. but he's long dead and in his grave. I used to hear him playing it. I'd go over there sometimes and stand in the corner and look at him. I'd watch how he'd work his fingers, and say, "I can do that." So I'd get that old box of mine and I'd frail on it, I'd tune it, I'd break more strings, and buy me some more. I just kept choking it and messing around, until I got the tune of it right. I kept on until I got it. And after I learned it, I could play that guitar pretty good. But, wheew, it's been so long. Then I used to sit around on the porch at night by myself. I'd start playing that box and they'd leave home, walking. They'd come up here and sit on the porch steps around here looking at me, listening to me play. I played, yes sir, I played. Man, I'm telling you the truth, the house would almost break through at night with all the dancing.




When we have a picnic, see, we put it out from three to four weeks ahead. That's the broadcasting: "I'm giving a picnic-Othar Turner's place. Everybody come. It'll be an enjoyment. Everybody's welcome." Then I go ahead and get my stand ready. I kill my hog, scald him, clean that, cook my meat, take it up and barbecue it, and take it to my stand. We sells it by the sandwich. And we'll have that pork meat, fish, and drinks.




Then I start the drums to playing and the cane fifes to blowing. We play "Shimmy She Wobble,"8 "My Baby Don't Stand No Cheating On Her."9 "Granny, Will Your Dog Bite?" "Rolling and Tumbling,"10 "Glory Hallelujah,1111 "When the Saints Go Marching In." We play all stuff like that you know. We got a whole lot of different pieces we play. You know, you can sing to the drums, we've sung to them many times and played. It just depends on what you want to do. But now ordinary playing in a picnic, that's just for drawing a crowd. We go out there and. go to playing the drums, sometimes go to hollering and playing and making monkey shine with the drums, just cutting up, you know. That's what will draw your crowd. That's what that's for. That's the drawment [attraction], and all the people start to come from that. That's what draws the people from further and nearer. The people come from everywhere.




There's always plenty of fun. People are laughing and talking, associating with one another. Just fun. Little kids go out there and dance behind the drums. We have all of that. It's really what you call a good time. That's what it is. Just for enjoyment, to keep from being at home and lonesome.


We all meet there-white people come there just like the colored, and sit down and laugh and talk. White peoples, they appreciate the drumming, too. They look at us and take up money for us to play. They stand around and look and ask us to play and pay us to play. They don't ever cry to learn. They'd just rather hear us play. They get more enjoyment out of just standing and looking. Everybody has a swell time. They be dancing, laughing, talking, enjoying, smoking cigarettes, looking, listening to the music.




And we has the law. All the picnics we give we have the law to come there. That's for to keep down the stabbings, to keep people from getting killed. Keep people from wrecking cars. Keep people from shooting one another. That's for peace, you have that for peace. No clowning, no cursing and hooting and hollering. No guns. No cutting and shooting. That's what that's for. That's what we have. No trouble, we don't have any trouble. Everybody be loving and frail on it, I'd tune it, I'd break more strings, and buy me some more. I just kept choking it and messing around, until I got the tune of it right. I kept on until I got it. And after I learned it, I could play that guitar pretty good. But, wheew, it's been so long. Then I used to sit around on the porch at night by myself. I'd start playing that box and they'd leave home, walking. They'd come up here and sit on the porch steps around here looking at me, listening to me play. I played, yes sir, I played. Man, I'm telling you the truth, the house would almost break through at night with all. the dancing.




When we have a picnic, see, we put it out from three to four weeks ahead. That's the broadcasting: "I'm giving a picnic-Othar Turner's place. Everybody come. It'll be an enjoyment. Everybody's welcome." Then I go ahead and get my stand ready. I kill my hog, scald him, clean that, cook my meat, take it up and barbecue it, and take it to my stand. We sells it by the sandwich. And we'll have that pork meat, fish, and drinks.




Then I start the drums to playing and the cane fifes to blowing. We play "Shimmy She Wobble,"8 "My Baby Don't Stand No Cheating On Her."9 "Granny, Will Your Dog Bite?" "Rolling and Tumbling,"10 "Glory Hallelujah,11 "When the Saints Go Marching In." We play all stuff like that you know. We got a whole lot of different pieces we play. You know, you can sing to the drums, we've sung to them many times and played. It just depends on what you want to do. But now ordinary playing in a picnic, that's just for drawing a crowd. We go out there and. go to playing the drums, sometimes go to hollering and playing and making monkey shine with the drums, just cutting up, you know. That's what will draw your crowd. That's what that's for. That's the drawment [attraction], and all the people start to come from that. That's what draws the people from further and nearer. The people come from everywhere.

o '


There's always plenty of fun. People are laughing and talking, associating with one another. Just fun. Little kids go out there and dance behind the drums. We have all of that. It's really what you call a good time. That's what it is. Just for enjoyment, to keep from being at home and lonesome.


We all meet there-white people come there just like the colored, and sit down and laugh and talk. White peoples, they appreciate the drumming, too. They look at us and take up money for us to play. They stand around and look and ask us to play and pay us to play. They don't ever cry to learn. They'd just rather hear us play. They get more enjoyment out of just standing and looking. Everybody has a swell time. They be dancing, laughing, talking, enjoying, smoking cigarettes, looking, listening to the music.




And we has the law. All the picnics we give we have the law to come there. That's for to keep down the stabbings, to keep people from getting killed. Keep people from wrecking cars. Keep people from shooting one another. That's for peace, you have that for peace. No clowning, no cursing and hooting and hollering. No guns. No cutting and shooting. That's what that's for. That's what we have. No trouble, we don't have any trouble. Everybody be loving and peaceful, we all are one then. Just an enjoyment. That's the way we have it.




So that's the picnic. Everybody's welcome that wants to come. Everybody that comes down there treats me nice; I don't have no trouble. We have a good time, sells out, and that's what the picnic is. You start on a Friday-you barbecue Friday night. The picnic starts at one o'clock on Saturday and goes until twelve that night. That's the end, because when twelve rolls up, the Sunday takes over. That'll be the end of that. That's the close-out, see. We don't have drum playing on Sunday.




I learnt myself to make a cane fife. I was thirteen years old and there were those old drum players around here. Bill and Will. I would stand there and look at them--and they had a player man that blew a cane, too-and say that I wished I could do that. See, I'd already taken up learning how to beat the drum. So I asked him to let me see his fife. I figured I could do it too. So, he revealed something to me, he said, "Now look, what you see somebody else doing there's no way to make a failure but to try. If you think that you can do it and you believe that you can do it, try." So I just kept a tuning and tuning and blowing and tuning. The more you do a thing, the more perfect it comes to you. The more I tried, the better it come to me. And so I tried and tried and I learned it. That's my make. Ain't nobody trained me or nothing. I take that for myself.




And so I made several canes for other people. I don't know how many I done made for them. I made the first cane Napoleon Strick-land ever blowed in his life. 1 made it and gave it to him. That's right. He'd just walk up and down the road, night and day, toting his cane. He just kept on, until it come naturally to him, too. As soon as he learned to blow one piece, he learned him another. Just like playing a guitar. You can start playing a guitar and when you learn one.'piece, you just keep on until another conies and. you learn that. So I learned Napoleon his cane, and he tried to blow like me. He just took it up hisself after he beared me blow a piece. And now old Napoleon can really blow a cane.




To play the blues takes time, you know, and there are other worries about it. You got to have faith in it. If you've got faith in it and believe you can do it, believe you want to do it, then you can do it. You can't do nothing unless you make a failure. There's no way to make a failure but to try. Just keep on trying, and you will make it. But if you believe you can't make it, and don't try to make it, you never will make it. That's the way it is. I can learn you to play music. You can stand there all day and look at me working my fingers, but you never will learn if you don't try to do it yourself. The minute you pick it up and it enters into your mind that you want to do it, and try to do it, you can learn it. By keeping on trying. Isn't anybody can learn you how to do nothing, you've got to learn yourself.





I make my own fifes. The cane grows right down there in the ditch banks down in the bottom. First you go out there and cut you a piece of cane. You judge the length you want your cane-you going to make your fife a foot, or a foot and so many inches long. A two-foot cane is really too long to blow. It's best a foot or so, I reckon. And your cane should be a medium size around. Too large a cane and you can't tune it. That cane grows from the earth so high, see, and it's jointed. You pick you out so many joints and cut it off. Then you take your knife and dress it down.





You get you a rod of iron and put it in the fire and get it red hot, and bore you a hole in your cane. See, sometime if you don't get your hole large enough, that fife won't blow good, so you got to twist it around and blow that hole out. You got to hold that rod in there so it starts smoking and steaming. You hold it and then, whoop, slides it on through there. You put all them holes in there that way.




You space your fingers on the cane, see, to see what distance apart to make the holes. 1 measure mine with my fingers. I know exactly what distance to go. That's the'way I do it. ..Then I take me a pencil and I mark right there where my finger's at. Then when I go to burn the holes in the cane, I get right at the center of that place where that black mark is. Now you got to line your holes up-straight up and down that piece of cane. I put five holes in my canes I never use but five holes in a cane to blow it. Of course the hole what you blow through with your mouth makes it six. But it's quite natural that some people that blows a cane needs more holes to blow than I'do. See, what I blows, they can't blow. Some takes more, and some takes less. Like Napoleon [Strickland], he uses that last hole. But I don't use it, except as a rest for my finger, see. I take five holes. That's the way it goes.


You can blow on a cane and it'll blow all day and that's all it's going to do. You got to note it with your fingers. It depends on how hard you blow, too. It's different in blowing a church song, than in blowing a blues or a reel on a cane. That's right. And if you make it right, you can tune it any way that you want. But if you don't make it right, you just going to be going "wooo, wooo," and that's all. You got to tune it with your finger. That's your tuner. That makes your fife. Then you blow it. I blow a cane from the left. Some people blows from the right. But you can blow it either from the right or the left.




I reckon singing is just a gift, like anything else. I used to be a real blues singer before I was married. -I'd sing throughout the night, out riding my horse. Folks would get up and light a lamp and come out into the yard to look at me singing the blues. I could sing. Yeah. I used to ride my horse at night, just hollering the blues, just riding along singing.




Now I can be out there working in the fields and something will come to me. I can sing the blues so well then that it'll do you good to stop and listen. It's true. Now when my mind ain't on it,. it don't come to me and I just can't do it. That's right. It's just a gift. That's the way it is.


The blues is a kind of thing that if you're driving along, plowin' in the field, and something comes to you, you just start to sing. You make that up yourself. You can put anything in a blues.




Sitting here wondering,


With my matchbox open and closed.


I ain't got so many matches,


But I got so far to go.



Now that just naturally comes to you. That's what it Is. You make up your own blues singing. I make up my own.-songs myself. That's the way I play. I can't play someone else's songs and their tune. I have to play mine, or I can't play at all. The words come from me. They're just thoughts that come to me as I'm playing the box. And them songs can just come to you that way when you're out working. It just do me good to be out there plowing a mule and hollering on high. I like that. Singing, that's my pedigree.




I come up the hard way, but I never been in no trouble. Never have. I never had a law to come and say, "Well, I got you for killing a man, I got you for stealing this, I got you for such and such." Never been arrested and carried and locked up in jail in my life. You can search from Free Springs, Holly Springs, Thyatira, Looxahoma, Senatobia, Coldwater, Sledge, Crenshaw, Batesvllle, Gre-nada, Canton, Jackson, around on back to Como. Nothing about Othar. "Othar," they'11 say, "Oh, I never knowed Othar to do nothing to nobody, he's a good man. If he's done anything, he's just getting a little fun. I don't believe nothing like that about Othar. He don't do nothing but to treat you right." That's what I mean by that's my motto. My mother taught me from a baby, until I got big enough to know, to get out on my own: treat everybody right. Treat people like you wish to be treated. I want friends and good behind me when I'm dead and gone. I want people to speak well of me. I work for that. I love to meet anybody. With a smiling face. That's the way I live. And that's the way I hope I'll go.





Portions of this interview were recorded by David Evans.





Notes


1. Recorded first by Clifford Gibson for Victor, "Levee Camp Blues," Illustrates many elements of field hollers and worksongs that are still found in the blues today. Harry Oster, Living Country Blues (Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1961), p. 12.




2. A cow horn is used by the Turner family for hunting and for sig-naling.




3. A strong tradition of fife and drum music exists today in the


hill country of northwest Mississippi. See David Evans's article on the subject printed in this volume. Vlach states that the cane fife came to the United States from Africa by way of Georgia. John Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (Cleve-land: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978), p. 23; Paul Oliver, Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (New York:


Stein and Day, 1970), pp. 25, 78-79, 109-10.




4. The snare drums are tuned an octave apart. Examples of fife


and drum music can be heard on the following recordings:


Travelling Through the Jungle: Negro Fife and Drum Band Music from the Deep South, Testament T2223; The Roots of the Blues, Atlantic 1348; Mississippi Folk Voices, Center for Southern Folk-lore 101; Mississippi Delta Blues, volume 1, Arhoolie ST1041;' and Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi, Library of Congress AFS L-67.




5. The African manner of drum-tuning over an open fire has been found among Caribbean as well as Afro-American musicians.


6. This old minstrel song, played by Turner's band, may be heard on Travelling Through the Jungle.




7. "Bullyin' Well" has been issued on The Blues Roll On, Atlantic SD-1352, recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax, and sung by Rosalie Hill of Senatobia, Mississippi. Turner may be distinguishing here between the traditional thumb-picked strum of the banjo style (trailing) and finger-picking on the guitar (clear-picking).




8. "Shimmie-She-Wobble" refers to a group of freely improvised songs named after the popular dance of the 1920s. It was recorded in 1928 on Victor by McKinney's Cotton Pickers with the title "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble" and can be heard by Turner's band on Travelling Through the Jungle.




9. This popular blues song, known as "My Babe," can also be heard on Travelling Through the Jungle.




10. An old traditional blues related to "Vicksburg Blues" and "44 Blues," and that was recorded as "Roll and Tumble Blues" by "Ham-bone" Willie Newbern in 1929. It was later recorded by Muddy Waters and Elmore James among others.




11. This very popular sanctified gospel song has been widely recorded with the alternate titles "When I Lay My Burden Down" and "Since I Laid My Burden Down." Othar Turner's version is recorded on Mississippi Folk Voices.




12. Napoleon Strickland is a friend and neighbor of Turner's and in recent years has worked with Turner's band as a fife player. He may be heard on Mississippi Delta Blues.




13. Turner misquotes the usual opening stanza of "Matchbox Blues." Blind Lemon Jefferson, the influential Texas-born singer and guitarist, first recorded this song in 1927. The first stanza follows:




I was sitting here wondering, will a


matchbox hold my clothes, (repeat) Lord, I ain't got so many [matches], but I got so far to go.


In 1992, Othar Turner was presented with the National Heritage Fellowship of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts.
http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/fellow.php?id=1992_12

Full Name: Othar Turner

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Turner, Othar appears in
  Gravel Springs Fife and Drum
The Land Where the Blues Began
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