African American fife-and-drum music predates the blues. (Turner also played the blues and sometimes mixed the two forms; it's striking, when you hear the results, to experience the blues as a modern, novel element, more individualistic than what came before.) The tradition in which Turner worked was one of several — the spiritual was the most important — that established African American musical culture itself: denied the chance to perform African music and observe African religions, slaves Africanized forms that they borrowed from white Americans. Just as the shell of the early spiritual drew on pieces of Protestant hymnody, so Turner's music drew on that of the colonial-era fife-and-drum corps. But just as the heart of the spiritual lay in its call-and-response patterns and in its awesome communal power, so too is the heart of Turner's music African in its massed and texturally modulated percussion, in its interaction between leader and group, and in the way it incorporates the audience into the musical experience.
Othar Turner was thought to be the last of his kind, but his descendants are carrying on with his music. The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band appears on Thursday, October 21, at the Blind Pig. It opens for the North Mississippi All-Stars, a band whose leader, Luther Dickinson, helped bring the Rising Star's music to the world's attention and produced the ninety-year-old Turner's recording debut, Everybody Hollerin' Goat.
[Originally published in October, 2004.]