Risen Stars Othar Turner and Bernice Pratcher, R. I. P.
Karin Bolender remembers the pillars of the Mississippi fife-and-drum tradition.
Originally published in Arthur No. 4 (May 2003)
If this was an obituary for Othar Turner, it could only be written in hieroglyphics and chickenscratch. Good thing it isn’t. What it aims to be instead, then, is a kind of ceremony, a page of wake on the occasion of this great old Mississippi musician’s departure.
As a farmer, woodsman, cane-fife player and maker, and leaping lord of the goat picnic—in so many aspects of what he embodied—Othar Turner was one of the last of his kind. His death is more like the death of an ancient king than anything else. He was as old as the dream-swamp and hill country that surrounded his plot of land, and even if he did boogie down like a satyr until his last days, no king lasts forever. The loss is multiplied by the doom we are left here to reckon with, now that Othar Turner has vacated his weather-beaten, wooden-bench throne.
The frightening thing is that this king knew some laws that aren’t written down anywhere, only remembered inside a number of hearts and ears. He lived the strange laws of his land, and in living them, he kept a kind of raucous, peaceful order in that small but significant corner of the world, Tate County, Mississippi. His kingdom, in terms of acreage, may have been only as big as the farm he kept near Yellow Dog Road in Senatobia, and of course the throng of kin and friends who hope to carry on the musical tradition. But that signature whistle and thump of his rang out far and wide. It gathered feet and skins from all over to come together at the picnic, once a year in the mercurial August air, and share in the thrills of the shimmy she wobble.
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Death is never easy to face. In this case, the face you see may be the wrong place to look, if you wish to fathom what’s lost in the passing of the old man. Death, after all, gives shape to life by surrounding it in a boundless and swarming unknown, a darkness that laps at the edges of our little lights. In this sense, a wake might invite its disparate mourners to re-imagine not the dead man, but the space around him, and the place he’s vacated. And so breed hope for what will be sucked in, to fill up the vacuum he leaves behind. The black space is by no means an emptiness; it is land with history, tradition, mystery and grit, as thick and roilsome as the summer air is.
If you’ve heard the music Turner and his kin played, you already know this. The drums swell, grow huge and intricate as the night, as if some transubstantiation occurs by which the music becomes the same as the air, so that you breathe it into your lungs and it gets into your blood and beats there. Grown people and children and dogs of every shape rollick in the BBQ-goat smoke, some drunk on moonshine and some just on music, and the animal scents and heat-soaked wood and hay and raw dirt. Othar Turner as a man is inseparable from the mesh of time and place he exists in, which is as wild and singular as any there is.
For any kind of wake to be worthy of the Othar Turner clan, it must aim to have at least some of the encompassing spirit that prevailed at the Labor Day picnics he held for decades at his farm in Senatobia, Mississippi. These festival picnics were once a widespread tradition across the South, but by the late twentieth century, Turner’s was an anomaly. The earlier (late 19th, early 20th century) picnics were not only his stomping ground, but also where he learned to play. “The drum was history,” he said, in a 2000 interview in the journal 50 Miles of Elbow Room.
Enmeshed as he was in the picnic tradition, Turner was a magnificent master of ceremonies in his own right, blowing the fife, beating the drum, slaying goats and grinding among the crowd without missing a beat, to the imponderable age of 94 years. He was still hale and strong, playing his own handmade fifes and hoeing his rows, in the summer of 2002. The winter that came was a hard one. Turner reportedly caught a cough in the new year, cracked a rib, and landed in the hospital in February. He died at a friend’s home on the morning of the 27th.
Later that same night, his daughter Bernice Pratcher, who was more than instrumental in keeping the picnics and the local tradition of fife-and-drum music alive, followed him. She was only 48, but had suffered from cancer for many years. Even so, she was always beside him, playing and singing in the family band and managing its affairs. She personally made sure every neighbor and stranger who came to the picnics had a good time, and got a fair share of the rarefied BBQ, sauced and slapped between slices of Wonderbread. The news that Pratcher proceeded her father’s death so closely lends a new magnitude to the final song on the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band’s 1997 recording, “everybody hollerin’ goat,” where the voices of father and daughter among the lacy drums harmonize the refrain, “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!/When I lay my burdens down….”
Here is the old dream of a song so powerful that it draws every particle in its reach into a marvelous weave, in which we know we are tiny parts and also parts of the swamp and the stars. What we’ve got to mourn as a society, in the forms of Othar Turner and Bernice Pratcher, are human beings who knew some secrets of how to call others together in a place to recall and celebrate this warp, revel in it in an inextricable weft with cicadas and three-legged dogs and towers of pokeweed and smoke and naked dirt, and whoop with joy and dance. Too often in our world, this knowing joy gets stopped up in human names and faces-in the bottleneck of what each will wants, be it another country’s oil or a new toothpaste to make teeth white. When that happens, a wisdom infinitely bigger than the lives of an old man and his daughter is lost to us. This is a remembrance of the mesh, then, as much as the individual players. Thank you for all you gave, Othar Turner and Bernice Pratcher. Rise fast and far, and find peace.