It's late August. The dog days. Cicadas hum hypnotically in trees heavy
with the green weight of summer. Crops languish in the fields in the haze
of late afternoon. Too hot for work. Lay-by time.Otha Turner is up early
on this day, as he is on every day. Feed the horses, slop the hogs, feed
the chickens and dogs. Otha's friend and drummer Abron Jackson arrives
at Otha's farm, looking sleepy, as the sun begins to gain confidence and
burn the dew off the sparse grass in Otha's back lot.
ain't got a goat killed yet, and it's already gettin' hot, complains Turner
as he drags a large black pot into the center of the lot, leaving it by
an abandoned pick-up truck that serves as a haven for wasp nests. Otha
and Abron walk together down to the barn where the goats have been penned
up all night, having arrived the day before from Dickson, TN, courtesy
Nashville attorney Bill Ramsey, a friend of Otha's. Otha opens the door
and peeps it, shaking his head at what he sees and smells."These
damn goats ain't no good," says Turner. "They been jumping up
on each other all night and they done got too funky. Kill one now, you
can't eat that meat. Won't be fit to eat."
gets in his pickup and leaves, arriving back in a half hour with a small
kid goat tied up in the back of the truck that he purchased from a neighbor.
Otha lowers the back gate of the truck, laying the goat on the tailgate
as Abron holds it's head steady. Otha reaches for his knife and with one
deft swipe of the blade, cleanly slits the animal's throat. The death
cry is shocking, an arc in the circle of life most of us no longer know,
that country people deal with every day.The goat is lowered to the ground,
standing on unstable legs. The hound dogs in the nearby pen begin to howl
with blood lust. A yard dog barks, growls and snaps at the dying animal.
The goat lowers it's head and falls over in a heap. Otha and Abron work
a stick between the goat's hind legs and hanging it up. They cut the skin
away and remove the head. The insides are given to the dogs.The meat is
cut into quarters and washed in a large pan. Soon, Otha's daughter Berniece
arrives and begins boiling the meat in the big black pot, along with onions,
potatoes and hot peppers for flavor. Later, the goat will be barbecued
over hot coals and served up as sandwiches at tonight's picnic along with
beer and off-brand sodas. "Can't hardly have a picnic without goat,"
says Turner. "People don't want that pig meat you get now, got all
them chemicals in it. It won't keep. Won't smell good when you cook it,
like it used to. Everybody hollerin' goat."
sun makes it's high arc over the farm, and everything is ready. Friends
and neighbors begin arriving in the early afternoon. The men sit drinking
whiskey from a fruit jar beneath a make-shift canopy of tin and lumber.Teenagers
sit on cars along the road listening to their radios. Otha paces across
the gravel driveway, trying to round up his drummers to get ready to play.
He wears a stern expression on his face, wipes his forehead with a handkerchief,
and admonishes Abron, Chip and R.L. to get the drums on because the people
came to hear some music. "We supposed to line this thing up fella
and let the folks know what we doing," says Turner. "And when
he get ready to leave here, leave something with 'em. I mean that,
let's see what you can do." Otha waits and watches, his fife always
at the ready in the back pocket of his overalls.
He steps in front of the drummers, pours a taste of whiskey down the barrel
of the fife to prime it, and blows a few shrill, wavering notes, smooth
as glass. He stops and watches the drummers as Abron and Chip start the
beat on the snares. After a few measures, R.L. drops in with the booming
bass. If the beat doesn't suit him, Otha
makes them stop and start over, alternately cussing and encouraging them
until the beats are right. Eventually,
Otha is satisfied and turns away from the drummers. He blows a clear and
piercing melody that cuts through the air which is thick with humidity
and mosquitoes. Slowly, he leads them through a snaking path around the
parade ground."When I call this cane, what I'm gonna blow,"
says Turner, "I blow it 2 or 3 times. And [the drummers] get out
there and start pecking, I blow again. I walk off, that's when they coming
in there. They got the beats right then." The crowd slowly comes
to life. A few shouts of encouragement are heard. A man with a beer dances
up to the line, gets in close to Otha and watches him intently as he dances
to the drum rhythm. He says something to Otha, challenging him, and Otha
bends down into the music even more and raises his hand in the air.
The crowd gathers in tight around the drum line. A woman emerges with
her hands on her hips, her pelvis making love to the bass drum as she
shouts. R.L. stoops low with the big drum, beating out a double bass pattern.
He drops to his knees and leans his tall, lanky body back with the bass
drum in the air now. Another woman and a man join in, humping the drum.
"Them damn drums rolling, make you feel good," says Turner.
"Them drums get to playing good, I get out there behind and cut a
step and feel good at it. That interest the next fella, he gonna jump
right out there like me. 'Come on!' We get together. That's an encouragement."
The music and dancing has now taken on a life of it's own. Otha directs
an intricate choreography as the line snakes it's way through the crowd.
Hannah, a local woman who appears to be in her 70's, bends over forward
and rotates her hips in the direction of the drums, then drops down on
her hands and knees in the dust, making love to the Earth. She calls out,
shouting, happy, her grey hair up in curlers. The line continues to move,
the crowd and musicians hypnotized by the power of what they are creating
Finally, Otha blows out a series of high, declarative notes that tell
the drums when to stop. The trance is broken. Shouts and cheers emerge
and the musicians are glad-handed all around. Someone throws his arm around
Otha's shoulder and says something into his ear as they both laugh loudly.
Others wander back over to the picnic stand to buy another beer. In his
younger days Otha could play for hours without stopping as dancers kicked
up clouds of dust late into the night. Now in his nineties, he allows
himself frequent breaks and augments the picnic entertainment with performances
by local blues musicians. In the last few years, he's also brought in
a DJ to provide music for the younger crowd. But the focus of the picnic
is, as it has always been, the drums.
Otha's daughter, Berniece Turner Pratcher, still plays drums for her father
and remembers the picnics of her youth. "Back then you could hear
fife and drum pretty much whenever you got ready too," says Pratcher.
"The picnics died out as the people died out. My daddy is about the
only one who still has a picnic."
Faulkner of Abbeville, sister to drummer "Kag" Young, recalls
attendingpicnics where her family's fife and drum band played: "The
picnics that I went to, it was exciting. People would be kicking up dust.
They'd be down on the ground. Kicking that dust, have dust flying. Both
feet would be white with dust." Rural blacks heard the drums from
miles away and were directed by the sound, arriving by foot or wagon.
Annie Faulkner remembers when her father Lonnie Young played:" If
[daddy] was playing somewhere close around, like this time of evening
[dusk], when he hit that drum we could hear it from our porch from across
the river over there, a long ways away."
are still central to the music of the Mississippi hill country. But on
this night, all eyes are on Sharde, Otha's precocious 9 year old granddaughter,
whom most people in the Gravel Springs community believe is the most likely
of Otha's family to carry on the fife playing tradition. Sharde made her
musical debut at age 5 and continues to be the highlight of every picnic.
"Sharde's gonna be good," beams Otha. "She just needs somebody
to keep pushing her, be with her, boost her up."
a short blues setby R.L. Burnside, R.L. Boyce and Luther Dickinson played
on the front porch of Otha's guest house, the drummers prepare themselves
to play again, this time led by Sharde. The people crowd around as she
hits her first tentative notes on the fife to let the drummers know she
is ready. As the snares begin their roll and the bass drum drops in, she
leads the drummers with a seriousness and confidence that belies her three-and-a-half-foot
After playing a few phrases on the fife with authority, she breaks down
into a dance that causes the crowd to erupt into cheers, laughter and
shouts of encouragement . Her grandfather, Otha, stands close by, his
hand hovering near her shoulder, a look of utter joy on his usually-stern
face for the first time tonight. "Take your time, he calls to her,
Blow that thing." She magically coaxes notes from her primitive cane
fife that cut through the shouts and drum rhythms into the night air.
All eyes are on her, but she is unshaken by the attention. She feels her
grandfather's presence and is buoyed by his gentle encouragement."Take
your time." When she blows her final notes and raises her fife into
the air, counting out the final four beats of the song to end the drums,
the crowd exhales a cathartic cheer. Someone emerges and embraces her.
Adults laugh loudly and slap each other on the back, "That little
girl is something else!"
Otha beams quietly, watching his grand daughter receive her praise with
grace, confident in the knowledge that his legacy is in good hands.
©2000 Bill Steber