Monday, April 27, 2009
North Mississippi fife and drums
Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band - Granny, Will Your Dog Bite ? (buy) (1980)
In 1942, while traveling in North Mississippi, Alan Lomax discovered a community of musicians who played the most African-like (and I would add : with a little Indian influence too) music played in the USA (see my "Fifes and quills" post).
He recorded Sid Hemphill in 1942 with his band (snare drum, fiddle, guitar, quills), then in 1959 the Young brothers, the first real Mississippi fife and drums band ever recorded. Unfortunately I don't have these tracks, they are on a compilation called "Sounds of the South".
North Mississippi fife and drum bands generally feature a bass drum, a snare drum and a home made fife. They played at picnics, gatherings and celebrations. On Memorial day week end there was always a big fife and drum party just outside of Como, which underlines the military origins of this tradition. Fife and drums is a soldier's music, widespread in the British colonies and in the US Army.
Black recreational fife and drum music is very rare in the USA, but is common in the West Indies (check that Jamaician field recording released by Folkways in 1975), which were an important transit point for slaves shipped from Africa. In the USA drums were generally banned during slavery. So we can assume that this special, and very local tradition originated after the Civil War. But Mississippi fife and drum music is much more festive, as the descriptions made by Lomax in "Land Where The Blues Began" of picnics and dances suggests. There is a constant interaction between musicians and dancers, and very suggestive and sexual dance postures.
About Mississippi fife and drums, check out this great article by David Evans (1972), and watch this 10 minute-movie by Evans.
If this music may sound a little repetitive, you have to hear (and watch) it live. I saw a Brazilian batucada band in my hometown festival a few weeks ago, and this polyrythmic beat really puts you in a trance.
Napoleon Strickland - Black Water Rising (buy) (1969)
Fife and drums is a family and a community affair. Two of the most recorded performers, Othar Turner and Napoleon Strickland, said they learned how to play and make fifes from Sid Hemphill, who also taught his granddaughter, Jessie Mae, who was a great bass drum player. And Othar Turner taught his children and grandchildren.
Here are 2 videos of Sharde Thomas, Othar's granddaughter who keeps the tradition alive.
Check out this article about her.
First video with her grandfather (aged 94 at that time). You'll notice that she's learning to play in rhythm first, rather than melodically.
A few years later :
Looking for more ? Pay a visit to the folkstreams site, there are plenty of articles about fife and drum music and Othar Turner.