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Otha Turner

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Veteran bluesman Otha Turner was the last surviving master of the Mississippi back-country fife and drum tradition. He was born in 1908, spending his adult life as a sharecropper in the city of Como, an area several miles northeast of the Delta region which also gave rise to musicians including Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. Beginning his performing career around 1923, Turner initially played the blues as well before picking up the thread of the fife and drum tradition, a primitive take on African-American hymns and songs which dates back to the northern Mississippi hill country culture of the 1800s; mastering the fife (a hollow, flute-like instrument typically manufactured from bamboo cane), he toiled in relative obscurity for six decades while leading the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, a loose confederation of relatives, friends, and neighbors which played primarily at picnics on his farm. (For a number of years, the group annually opened the Chicago Blues Festival as well.) With his contemporaries either deceased or infirmed, Turner was the final surviving link to fife and drum's roots by the '90s; in 1998, his music was finally preserved on the album Everybody Hollerin' Goat, recorded between 1992 and 1997 by producer Luther Dickinson. A follow-up, Senegal to Senatobia, appeared in 2000. Unlike his previous album, Senegal to Senatobia didn't play to rootsy expectations and instead paired the ancient fife player with several other musicians, including producer Dickinson on slide guitar and Senegalese kora player Morikeba Kouyate. It was the last album Turner would complete, he died February 26, 2003 at the age of 94. The impact of Turner's brief public revival of the fife and drum style was made apparent in 2002, when his "Shimmy She Wobble" was used in Martin Scorsese's historic epic Gangs of New York. ~ Jason Ankeny & Wade Kergan

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02 June 1907 in Jackson County, MS

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