Othar Turner, who died on February 27th, played a style of music which predates the blues. Fife and drum band was born when African rhythms and scales were applied to the marching music of American civil war bands. Othar was probably the last great practitioner of this type of music.
Othar (sometimes spelt Otha) was born in Gravel Springs, near Senatobia, in the Mississippi hill country, in 1907 or 1908. Fred McDowell, from the same area, was a good friend of his. As a child Othar learnt to make and play the cane fife, but like his father he made his living as a sharecropping farmer. Avoiding getting into debt to the plantation store, and perhaps supplemented by earnings from his music, Othar was able to buy his own farm. In the fifties he was discovered by Alan Lomax, George Mitchell recorded him in the sixties, and recordings of Othar by these folklorists have appeared on a number of compilations.
In the seventies Othar's Rising Star Fife and Drum band appeared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and subsequently appeared at festivals all over the US. He supplemented his income by selling home-made recordings of his music, and by making and selling his cane fifes. When playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1998, his fife had been misplaced, but he was able to borrow one of his own manufacture from a member of the crowd. He was well liked for his honesty and good nature, and his annual Labor Day barbecues were a popular local event.
In a late burst of success, he made two albums produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars, "Everybody Hollerin' Goat" (1998) and "From Senegal to Senatobia", which featured African musicians (2000). He was filmed by Spike Lee & Wim Wenders for the American PBS documentary "The Blues" and his song "Shimmy She Wobble" was used in the opening scenes of the Martin Scorsese film "Gangs of New York". In a tragic twist, his daughter Berniece, who cared for him and managed his business affairs, died the same day, unaware of Othar's passing. She had been ill for some time.