Otha Turner Blues Marker
By John Howell Sr.
The unveiling of Otha Turner’s Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Como Saturday celebrated both the fife and drum master’s memory and his descendants’ determination to carry forward his unique legacy.
“I feel like I was the chosen one …,” said Otha Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. “I feel like he chose me, I was the smallest (grandchild) out of all of them, and he said, ‘Well you going to be the next one if something ever happens to me,’” she told the a crowd gathered in the Como library garden for the dedication program.
Sharde Thomas was 13 years old when her grandfather died in 2003. By that time, Turner had attracted an international following as a fife player, preserving a historic fife and drum music tradition that predated the Blues.
“Otha really became the patriarch of the scene,” said Scott Barretta, Mississippi Blues Trail writer/researcher and historian. “When he died and when his daughter Bernece, who was the manager, then died that same day in 2003, a lot of us were wondering what would happen to the scene, somebody that old and then the manager passes at the same time, we worried about that — how the tradition would be carried on.
“I think today later on at the end of the ceremony you’ll see that we don’t have much to worry about,” Barretta continued.
Turner family friend and retired educator Julius Harris served as the master of ceremonies and opened the dedication program with his own memory of the music legend.
“He would always come to the school,” Harris said. “Not only to play his music and tell our children how it all began with him, but also to encourage our children.”
“We also would like to encourage,” Harris said later in the program, “you know, we might have some educators in here, some people in the schools — if it’s not in your curriculum you have a responsibility as a teacher to put it in your curriculum,” Harris continued, noting that interest in Otha Turner’s music in Scandinavian countries had brought two invitations in less that three years for the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band to visit.
Mayor Judy Sumner welcomed the crowd. “It is a privilege for Como to be able to accept this honor today,” she said, acknowledging the family choice of Como for the marker’s placement.
Blues musicians Jimbo Mathus and Mark Massey played and Kenny Brown offered his remembrances.
Turner neighbor and friend Roy Wooten recalled, “… the Otha I cared about; the Otha that taught me some things that I have cherished ever since I met him,” including, Wooten said, the solution to a “greenbroke” horse that got tangled in its harness and a wagon tongue.
“Anything I did, pandemonium set in, and then a light went off,” Wooten said. “What would Otha do?”
“I rapped that horse across the rear end and she jumped up and got right back where she ought to be and made one of the best horses I ever had,” Wooten continued, prompting laughter from the crowd.
“I miss him; … every time I was around him he made me feel better,” Wooten said.
Another friend, William Ramsey, said he also wanted “to talk about Otha Turner, the man.”
Turner had shared with Ramsey experiences from his early life, including having been raised by a single mother.
“She worked the land by herself, so Otha soon became the man of the house. He worked mules, he plowed, he fed hogs, he milked cows, he chopped cotton,” Ramsey said. “As a result, Otha didn’t have any schooling, he couldn’t read or write.”
“But how many of you can read and write can say you received a Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement Award, your obituary was in the New York Times, you received a National Heritage Fellowship Award, you were on Good Morning America as a star, you were on All Things Considered, you had the lead song in a movie by Martin Scorsese, and articles about you have appeared in many, many magazines,” Ramsey asked, rhetorically.
“Otha taught me a lot of things that you don’t learn in books. He taught me ‘nothing make a failure but a try,’” Ramsey told the crowd, the first of several of the late musician’s sayings, which friends labeled “Othaisms.”
“If he was your friend, he would do anything for you, and his way of saying that was, ‘you name it, I’m gonna claim it.’ He also pointed out that he was an honest man and that he was so honest that if he told you the banty rooster was a bootlegger, you had to look under his wing to find the whiskey.”
Bobbie Turner Mallory, Turner’s granddaughter, also remembered the roll her grandmother Ada Turner played in her husband’s life.
“She was grandfather’s backbone. She was the will behind the wheel,” Mallory said.
As the program ended, Sharde took the fife as the drummers walked behind her. The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band slowly marched north to where the veiled marker waited. The crowd then fell in behind the band in a second line had much to celebrate.
And there was no worry about a loss of the fife and drum tradition.