Othar "Otha" Turner (June 2, 1907 - February 26, 2003) was one of the last well-known fife players in the vanishing American fife and drum blues tradition. He was born in Madison County, Mississippi, and lived his entire life in northern Mississippi as a farmer, where in 1923, aged 16, he learned to play fifes fashioned out of rivercanes.
Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band (which consisted of friends and relatives) primarily played at farm parties. Turner, along with bandmates Mae Hemphill and Abe Young, performed as the "Mississippi Fife and Drum Corps" on an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood that aired on November 18, 1982. They began to receive wider recognition in the 1990s. They appeared on Mississippi Blues in Memphis Vol. 1 in 1993, followed by inclusion in many other blues collections. They released their own critically acclaimed album Everybody Hollerin' Goat in 1998. This was followed by From Senegal to Senatobia in 1999, which combined bluesy fife and drum music with musicians credited as "the Afrossippi Allstars".
The title, Everybody Hollerin' Goat, refers to a tradition Turner began in the late 1950s of hosting Labor Day picnics where he would personally butcher and cook a goat in an iron kettle, and his band would provide musical entertainment. The picnics began as a neighborhood and family gathering; it grew over the years to attract musical fans, first from Memphis, Tennessee, and later from all over the world.
The song, "Shimmy She Wobble", from Everybody Hollerin' Goat was featured in the 2002 film, Gangs of New York. Martin Scorsese, the film's director, featured Turner in his 2003 PBS mini-series The Blues as a link between African rhythms and American blues. The concept was continued on the 2003 album Mississippi to Mali by Corey Harris. The album was dedicated to Turner, who died a week before he was scheduled to record for the album. His granddaughter and protégé Shardé Thomas, then 12 years old, filled in for the recording sessions.
Othar Turner died in Gravel Springs, Mississippi, aged 95, on February 26, 2003. His daughter, Bernice Turner Pratcher, who had been living in a nursing home for some time suffering from breast cancer, died the same day, aged 48. A joint funeral service was held on March 4, 2003, in Como, Mississippi. A procession leading to the cemetery was led by the Rising Star and Fife Band, with Shardé Thomas, then 13 years old, at its head playing the fife.
Gravel Springs Fife and Drum (1971). Filmed by Bill Ferris, recorded by David Evans, and edited by Judy Peiser. (Watch film: Gravel Springs Fife and Drum