I'm traveling down the highway from Memphis into Mississippi. We're in a minivan being driven by the most obnoxious bitch ever born. She's red-headed and short and fat and quite ugly and she screams at anyone who ever disagrees with anything she says. She makes the weak cry and the strong bite their tongues. She's my boss.
In the van are some visitors from Africa. Who knows how the bitch keeps arranging these photo-op visits by otherwise unknown celebrities? Last month it was Joan Mondale, for Christ's sake. I could tell the bitch was quite upset with the fact that I wore a t-shirt to work that day with the emblem of my favorite bar on the front. What was I supposed to do? Put on a suit and necktie for the wife of some East Coast politician who'd be elected President about as soon as I was going to be the next Pope? Jimmy Carter had rogered Walter Mondale almost as well as Bill Clinton would service Al Gore, several years later. Seems the only way a Democrat Vice President ever gets into the Bigs this day and age is if the Boss takes a dirt nap.
We had half of the Africans in our minivan and Bill Ferris had the other half in a duplicate minivan right behind us. The Africans were speaking to each other in a language (or several languages) I didn't understand. Nor did I understand what the hell we were doing on this road trip. I had my Nagra tape recorder sitting beside me on the seat, along with my Sennheiser microphone, but what the hell I was supposed to do with the equipment once we arrived at our destination was never explained to me.
We were on our way to see Othar Turner. (We called him "Otha Turner" back then, but apparently he's "Othar" these days. A man is free to reinvent himself.) According to the two folklorists in charge, the Africans wanted to go down into the Mississippi Delta and see where the "blues music" had come from. As if they had been back home in Nigeria listening to Robert Johnson. . . Right.
The only reason the Africans were in these minivans was because Bill Ferris and the bitch had decided that this is where they should be. It was like this with everyone the Ferris/bitch machine encountered. Move the pieces where they should be in order to create the most publicity for the thing that made them money, while pretending to be a non-profit organization.
The Africans were a contingent of so-called "cultural liaisons" from several countries. I think there were about a dozen of them, altogether. They were nice enough folks, but I could tell they didn't want to be on this field trip any more than I did. At least they didn't have a redheaded bitch of a Jewish boss breathing down their necks about some unwritten instructions on what to do once they got to Othar Turner's house down in Gravel Ridge, Mississippi.
Othar Turner is now a very old man. He was born in 1907. This story took place twenty years ago, and he was a very old man then. God bless him for living this long. He's what we called a "fife and drum band" leader. There are various stories about the legacy of this "fife and drum" music. The Africans, of course, are led to believe by the folklorists that it's the American spawn of an African tradition. That would seem to overlook the tradition that the Colonists had when they were fighting the British, it seems to me; but history is rewritten by the winners. And the winners in this country, at this time, are the pointy-headed elitists who control the college campussy. So, if they write down that this fife and drum music is an African tradition, that is what everyone who writes about Othar Turner will say when they do so, for the rest of the life of the planet.
Well, actually, the truth is a bit more forgiving. In a hundred years, no one will give a tinker's damn about Othar Turner or this whole fife and drum business. No one does now, for all practical purposes.
I had done some session recordings with Othar Turner and his homemade band. It was a sound engineer's nightmare. They were unprofessional and out of tune and fairly full of themselves for folks who were not making any sort of coherent music to my ears. The same thing had happened with R.L. Burnside and his bunch. Now they're all sorts of chic famous in certain circles. I've never understood it. But Othar Turner and his gang had been pumped up by the Ferris/bitch combo and had fallen prey to the folklorists' promise of big wampum at the end of the rainbow. I had heard the spiel so many times that it was beginning to make me ill. But I ran the tape and did the editing and came up with something that could be put out as authenic folklore.
Somewhere along the way, long after I'd given up the folklore business, it seems that Jim Dickinson's son, Luther, got involved with Othar Turner. Not surprising, really: In Memphis music, there's always another way to make a buck. Everyone who ever tuned a guitar in Memphis secretly harbors dreams of the wealth of Elvis; knowing he was too stupid to spend it wisely.
Jim Dickinson is a fairly well-known Memphis musician and producer. His son, Luther, is a member of both Gutbucket and the North Mississippi Allstars. I've never heard them, but they get a lot of press, so I'll assume they’re OK. (See how it happens?)
Anyway, Luther Dickinson decided to do some recordings of Othar Turner himself. He even called them "field recordings," just like the folklorists did. The product which resulted was called Othar Turner and His Rising Star Fife & Drum Band Field Recordings from Gravel Springs, Mississippi. It was a seven-inch EP on Sugar Ditch/Shangri-La Records. It made a hot run up the Rolling Stone magazine's alternative chart.
Luther Dickinson then did a full length CD called Everybody Hollerin' Goat on Birdman Records. This was another collection of field recordings and Rolling Stone called this one "one of the top ten blues releases in 1997." It reached number two on the Billboard chart in 1998 and was chosen by Billboard as one of the five "Essential Blues Records of the Decade." Well, whatever, Billboard. I won't anger you purists by telling you what I think of these records and how it just seems like trying to apply affirmative action to art. I'll just stick by my story about how unprofessional and out of tune these guys were when I tried to record them, and say that Dickinson's recordings don't sound a whole lot different than what I'd captured so many years earlier.
In 1999, the record company (Birdman) hooked Othar up with some drummers from Senegal, Africa. This record was called Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars: From Senegal to Senatobia. I don't know why these guys can't choose short titles. An attempt to make the silk purse out of the sow's ear, I suppose.
This folklore outfit I worked for did a film about Otha Turner and how he makes his fifes. I'm not sure you could find it anywhere these days, and I'm not sure you'd even want to. It was just him narrating how he'd go down in the bottoms and find cane growing wild and cut it into pieces. Then he'd use a red hot piece of iron to burn holes in the cane and create the fife. Can you say boring? I thought you could. It was one of those sorts of films you'd go to sleep during in high school in that hot little room where they take you to watch a movie when the teachers want to fuck. Or fuck off.
But back to the original story:
We turned off of the highway in those two minivans that day, long ago, in the 1970s, and drove down a two-lane blacktop for several miles. Then we turned off onto a gravel road and drove for several miles. Then we turned off onto a dirt road and drove for several more miles. When I say this was in the middle of nowhere, I am not being facetious. It was very hot, and the dust was creeping into that van and making everyone’s mouth a little dry. I had suggested bringing some beer, but the bitch had stomped her foot and screamed something about my IQ and the State Department.
When we finally reached Otha Turner's house, we all got out and stretched while Bill Ferris went to find Otha. There were old cars in a front yard which had been trampled into hard dirt. There were pigs and goats running loose. The house was an old shack with a tin roof and those brown shingles they used to use on houses back in the 1950s.
I was trying to judge what was going on in the minds of the Africans. I couldn’t keep their names and places of origin in my mind, but it did seem that about half of them felt at home in this place, as if this was a normal way to live, and the other half seemed in shock. I wish I knew which half was from what African country so I could try to make sense out of their reactions, but the whole scene was like something out of a Fellini movie. I half expected a giraffe with a polka dotted necktie and a ballerina jockey to come riding by at any minute.
Ferris showed up with Otha in tow within a few minutes, and then the real fun began. I turned on the Nagra and pointed the Sennheiser to capture the interaction between this African-American and the first real Africans he'd ever met. When it became evident that there was nothing for them to say to each other, Otha broke out the drums and they beat on them for an hour or so. And then we left.
Otha Turner was back there waving from his dirt yard. He didn’t have a clue what we'd come to his house for. The Africans were waving back from the minivan. They didn’t have the slightest idea why they'd spent all day in those hot vans to come to the poorest area in the rich country they wanted to see. All I wanted was a cold beer. And the two folklorists were back in the drivers' seats; scheming how to market the tapes I'd made that day. Who could they sell them to, and how much should they ask? Maybe it would at least make the 6:00 o'clock news.