Otha Turner farmed to make a living. Raised five girls with his wife Ada Mae in a sweet little porch-fronted house in the Gravel Springs community outside Como, Mississippi. He had been introduced to music early as it was always around him: in the fields, in the pews, on the porches. He explained that he pretty much taught himself how to make and blow a cane fife by observing, same with the guitar and drums he played.
I can’t help but use the word religion when I describe the Turner Family Picnic.
It’s a soft August night when I escort a couple dozen cultural workers to the Turner Family Picnic this year, which marked the 65th anniversary. The picturesque setting on the Turner farm came with a full supermoon. Pat Jarrett’s transportive photos you see here were made that weekend.
I can’t help but use the word religion (from the Latin root ligare, which means “to bind”) when I describe the Turner Family Picnic to people. At today’s picnic, one may witness the banker standing next to the farmer standing next to the teacher standing next to the visitor from France. The annual picnic, by some combination of grit and miracle, is still hosted by the Turner family. The Turners run the entire event themselves - sisters serving goat sandwiches, great-grandbabies putting on wrist bands, grandchildren greeting visitors at the gate.
Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.
Otha’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren now play drums and granddaughter Sharde Thomas leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Otha started teaching Sharde to play when she was nine. She is the most accomplished fife player in the world and one of the only ones still playing traditional African American style fife and drum which predates the blues in Mississippi.
Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the Hill Country. He identified and met the community’s need to celebrate the music spilling out of the area’s greatest musicians. Moreover, Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends. The chance we all have to discover ourselves again through this unique experience.
The drums are a-callin’ is what the old folk used to say. The sound of the drums still travels far in the hill country and settles in the sloughs and river bottoms where river cane still grows wild. In the Hill Country it is our religion, this Turner Family Picnic.