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Othar Turner & The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band

It had rained most of the day in Nashville. On a typical Saturday I might not even look at the morning paper. But on that day I read it all because there was nothing else to do. As a result I noticed a benefit concert for the local dance company. The featured artist someone I'd never heard of, but his picture struck me. 93 year old Othar Turner, someone I didn't know and a type of music I didn't know: northern Mississippi Fife and Drum. His image, though, told me to go see and hear.

The rain during the day left a lingering haze that night. The interstate signs and billboards changed character in the mist. The temperature was mild and the evening was just about as good as it gets in Nashville. The Flying Saucer is located in what I think was the freight building of Union Station, the L&N rail terminal in downtown Nashville. If you drink 200 different brands of beer at the Saucer (not all at once), you get your own decorative plate mounted high on the wall near the ceiling. On the ceiling itself are all kinds of commemorative plates and a few ordinary plates. My wife, Faye, spotted a style that I ate from as a child which depicted the interior of a pioneer home.

We killed a little time and I decided that I wasn't a likely candidate for my own beer plate. Mostly we soaked up the history of the old building. Before long the rumble of three march drums rolled into the building as Mr. O and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band moved slowly through the crowd toward the stage at the south end of the building.

The drumming is definitely marching music, but it has a smoother and has an easier rhythm. There's something of a statement in it, something that says "I've traveled a long way and I can travel a long way still." The rhythm is much like the chug-a-chug of the steam engines that rolled along the nearby rails as late as the 1940's. And although it doesn't sound like dance music, you get carried away by it somehow. The crowd in the Saucer felt it and went with it, although a suburban somewhat uptight crowd such as this (I am describing myself also) can't REALLY go with it.

And then there's the mystical melody of the fife, much like the mist over the signs and roads this night: Mysterious, elusive and as free in expression as the drumming is fixed. This music is like nothing else, it defines itself. It predates Blues as we know it and claims a heritage older than the United States.

The performance lasted an hour, but only my watch told me that. I was in a comfortable state of appreciation, similar to what I experience when sitting on a sandbar on a Middle Tennessee creek listening to the water travel over and around the limestone rocks. So it was over quickly.

Since I'd given up on the commemorative plate, Faye and I moved toward the exit. Coincidentally the band was exiting by the same aisle, marching out as they had marched in. It's not my style to press people of notoriety, but circumstances put me next to Mr. O as we were all about to finish up for the night. All I could manage to say was "Thank You" (Mr. O was himself thanking people for coming). What I meant was "thank you for travelling a long way and being willing to travel a long way still". And we shook hands…the firm, sincere handshake of those who are glad they met.

 

Andy Derryberry

5-23-2000


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