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Subject: Othar Turner, Mississippi Master of the Fife

Dead at 94
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Date Posted: March 02, 2003 10:28:29 EDT

thar Turner, a Mississippi farmer who kept alive a style of music older than the blues, died on Thursday at the home of his daughter Betty Turner Freeman, said a family friend, Andria Lisle. He was 94 and lived in Gravel Springs, Miss., near Senatobia.

Mr. Turner played a cane fife that he made from reeds that grew on the bottomland of his farm. He led the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which was the last survivor of a tradition that had transformed the sound of a Civil War military band into music with clear African roots: a syncopated drumbeat behind sharp, riffing melodies in pentatonic modes.

The music could carry across farms and fields, announcing barbecues, fish fries and dances. In Mr. Turner's later years, his music was also heard at blues festivals and, most recently, as part of the soundtrack of the movie "Gangs of New York," which includes his song "Shimmy She Wobble."

Mr. Turner was born in 1908 to sharecroppers. His first instruments were a harmonica and a 50-gallon lard can that he used as a drum. When he was 16 he heard a fifer named R. E. Williams, who made his own cane fifes, and asked him for one.

Mr. Williams replied, "If you be a smart, industrious boy, listen to your mama and obey her, I will make you a fife."

Mr. Turner promised, got his fife, and practiced until his mother grew tired of the noise; he continued practicing when she was out of earshot.

He did farm work and performed around the northern Mississippi hill country, eventually earning enough to buy the Gravel Springs farm on which he spent the rest of his life. There he raised horses, goats, hogs, cattle, watermelon, corn and black-eyed peas. He made his fifes by cutting the reeds and burning holes into them with a poker.

He was discovered and rediscovered by folklorists. In the 1950's he directed the folklorist Alan Lomax down the road to the bluesman Fred McDowell; in 1978, Mr. Lomax returned to record Mr. Turner for his documentary "The Land Where the Blues Began." In the late 1960's Mr. Turner was recorded by George Mitchell, with music that was released on "Traveling Through the Jungle: Fife and Drum Bands of the Deep South." He is also heard on "Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Vol. 1" (Arhoolie).

As his fame spread beyond Mississippi, Mr. Turner made his first out-of-state appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the 1970's, and went on to perform at blues festivals in Chicago and Memphis, on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and in concerts presented by groups like the World Music Institute in New York. In 1992 he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award for traditional American musicians, given by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mr. Turner made his first full-length album, "Everybody Hollerin' Goat" (Birdman), in 1998, followed a year later by "From Senegal to Senatobia" (Birdman), a collaboration with African musicians. (Selections can be heard at www.billandotha .com.) These albums were produced by Luther Dickinson, a student of Mr. Turner and a member of the North Mississippi All-Stars.

In 2001 Mr. Turner appeared at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn in a program of North Mississippi blues that was filmed by Spike Lee and Wim Wenders for the forthcoming PBS series "The Blues." The drummer in that band, R. L. Boyce, has since died, and Mr. Turner's daughter Bernice, another band member, died this week of stomach cancer.

Well into his 90's, Mr. Turner held a big Labor Day picnic on his farm. He would lead the band, which included his daughter Bernice Turner Evans Pratcher, and his grandchildren Andre Turner Evans and Sharde Thomas; he would preach the gospel as his goats roasted.

As well as Ms. Freeman, he is survived by three other daughters, Ada Mae Turner, Dorothy Turner and Nellie T. Morman; a brother, Otis Eaven; a stepdaughter, Minnie Brown; 35 grandchildren; and 25 great-grandchildren.

"You can't write no music for a fife," Mr. Turner told The New York Times in 2001. "You can't print it. You got to do it."

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