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.
* * *
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.
MAY THE ROAD RISE UP TO ROCK YOU Peter Relic rolls out for a week on tour with The Black Keys & Sleater-Kinney
Originally published in Arthur No. 4 (May 2003), with original photography by Melanie Pullen shot at beautiful Amir’s Garden in Griffith Park (these photographs were later optioned to Fat Possum Records for promotional purposes)
“Rule Number One: Never make friends with a journalist.” I wagged my finger and slurped my coffee, assuring the two young men across from me I knew of what I spoke. “Rock hacks are fretful freeloaders out to steal your shine and misquote you every time.”
We were sitting at a back booth of Dodie’s, a greasy spoon on Market Street, Akron, Ohio. It was the final hayfeverish week of May, 2002. I had driven down from Cleveland to find out how the hell these fellas—Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, co-captains of the two-piece band The Black Keys—had created such a thrilling slab of raw-dog fatback juke joint blues as The Big Come Up, their brand new debut album. To hear the Keys tell it, simplicity was the key.
“We stopped talking about time signatures a long time ago,” Auerbach said.
“We’re de-evolving,” said Carney, a Duty Now For The Future glint in his eye.
“We’ve even removed the word ‘repertoire’ from our repertoire,” Auerbach added.
The following week The Cleveland Free Times ran my column about this band yet to play a gig outside Ohio who had made, quite simply, “one of the best American records you’ll hear this year.”
Pretty soon they did play outside Ohio. I tagged along to those Detroit and Chicago shows. By the end of ‘02, the good word about The Big Come Up had gotten around; Janet Weiss, drummer for Sleater-Kinney, testified in Rolling Stone that the stuff was up to snuff. 2003 was happily wrung in playing with Guided By Voices at a New Year’s Eve beer bash in Indianapolis. Then the call came: Would the band like to open up for Sleater-Kinney on tour? The Black Keys would fly with their equipment to Portland, Oregon, rent a van, and the West Coast leg would start there in Sleater-Kinney’s hometown. Perfect. Except that contract liability on the van stipulated that no one under 25 could drive the thing. But by then Rule Number One had been broken. And so 22-year old drummer/producer Patrick Carney and 23-year old singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach cannily roped in their over-30 Cleveland journo pal to act as de facto tour mensch. Best as I can remember, it went a little something like this…
Cover photograph by Jose Villarrubia. Art direction by W.T. Nelson.
Magic Is Afoot
Celebrated comics author ALAN MOORE gives Jay Babcock a historical-theoretical-autobiographical earful about the connection between the Arts and the Occult
Gen’rals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses/Evil minds that plot destruction/Sorcerer of death’s construction/In the fields the bodies burning/As the war machine keeps turning/Death and hatred to mankind/Poisoning their brainwashed minds” — Black Sabbath, “War Pigs” (1970)
As author Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in Arthur’s debut issue last fall, magic is afoot in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you think of magic a potent metaphor, as a notion of reality to be taken literally, or a willed self-delusion by goggly losers and New Age housewives. It doesn’t matter. Magic is here, right now, as a cultural force (Harry Potter, Buffy, Sabrina, Lord of the Rings, the Jedi, and of course, Black Sabbath) , as a part of our daily rhetoric, and perhaps, if you’re so inclined, as something truly perceivable, in the same way that love and suffering are real yet unquantifiable–experienced by all yet unaccounted for by the dogma of strict materialism that most of us First Worlders say we “believe“ in. Magic is here.
It’s the season of the witch. And arguably the highest-profile, openly practicing witch–or magus, or magician, or shaman–in the Western world is English comics author Alan Moore. You may know Moore for the mid-’80s comic book Watchmen, a supremely dark, exquisitely structured mystery story he crafted with artist Dave Gibbons that examined, amongst other things, superheroes, Nixon-Reagan America, the “ends justify the means” argument and the nature of time and space. Watchmen was a commercial and critical success, won numerous awards, and made the tall, Rasputin-like Moore a semi-pop star for a couple of years. Watchmen re-introduced the smiley face into the visual lexicon, the clock arrow-shaped blood spatter on its face studiously washed off by the late-’80s/early ‘90s rave scene. Rolling Stone lovingly profiled Moore; he guested on British TV talkshows; he was mobbed at comics conventions; and he got an infamous mention in a Pop Will Eat Itself song.
Recoiling in horror from the celebrity status being foisted on him, Moore withdrew from public appearances. He also withdrew from the mainstream comics industry, bent on pursuing creative projects that had little to do with fantasy-horror and science fiction and adult men with capes. Some of these projects, like the ambitious Big Numbers, fell apart; others were long-aborning sleeper successes that took years to produce, like From Hell (Moore and artist Eddie Campbell’s epic Ripperology), Voice of the Fire (Moore’s stunning first novel) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a clever Victorian pulp hero romp in comics form, drawn by Kevin O’Neill); and still others were good-faith genre comics efforts to pay the rent and restore certain storytelling standards to a genre (superhero comics) in decline.
In recent years, Moore’s public profile has been rising again, partly due to the embrace of Hollywood. This summer will see the release of the second high-profile film based on an Alan Moore comic series in three years: a $100-million film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, starring Sean Connery. But like the Hughes Brothers’ 2001 radically simplified, arthouse/Hammer adaptation of From Hell starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, League will only have some surface similarity to the comics work that inspired it. That’s down as much to typical Hollywood machinations as much as the sheer unadaptability of Moore’s comics–these are works meant to function as comics. Even Terry Gilliam couldn’t see a way to make a film out of Watchmen. Moore’s comics are as tied to the peculiar, wonderful attributes of the comics form as possible.
Comics is itself where the magic comes in. The comics medium is one of the few mainstream entertainment industries open to folks who are openly into what is considered to be very weird, spooky and possibly dangerous stuff. Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for the heavily occultist films El Topo and Holy Mountain, has been happily doing comics in France for decades. The English-speaking comics industry, meanwhile, has always been open to these sorts of people; indeed, Steve Moore (no relation) and Grant Morrison had been doing magic long before Alan Moore’s late-1993 foray into magical practice. Comics, it seems, attracts–or breeds–magicians, and magical thinking. Perhaps it’s that the form–representational lines on a surface–is directly tied to the first (permanent) visual art: the paintings on cave walls in what were probably shamanistic, or ritualistic settings. In other words: magical settings. Understood this way, comics writers and artists’ interest in magic/shamanism seems almost logical.
For Alan Moore, as the conversation printed below makes clear, this stuff isn’t just the stuff of theory or history or detached anthropological interest. It’s his reality. It informs his daily life. And it informs his artistic output, which in recent years, has been a prodigious outpouring of comics (his ongoing Promethea series, ingeniously drawn by J.H. Williams III, is by far the best), prose essays, “beat seance” spoken-word recordings and collaborative magical performances–one of which, a stunning multimedia tribute to William Blake, I was lucky enough to witness in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2000. I did not get to meet Alan Moore at that performance, but I was able to interview him later that year by telephone. We talked for two and a half hours. Rather, Alan talked and I made occasional interjections or proddings. What I found is that Alan doesn’t speak in whole sentences. He doesn’t speak in whole paragraphs. He speaks in whole, fully-formed essays: compelling essays with logical structure, internal payoffs, joking asides, short digressions and strong conclusions. Reducing and condensing these enormously entertaining and enlightening lectures proved not only structurally impossible, but ultimately undesirable. So here are thousands upon thousands of words from Mr. Moore, with few interruptions, assembled from that first marathon in June 2000 and a second in November 2001. Don’t worry–these conversations are not out-of-date. They were ahead of their time. Their time is now.
Because Black Sabbath told us only half the story. There are other, largely forgotten purposes for magic…
Arthur: How did your interest in becoming a magician develop? How has being a magician affected how you approach your work?
Alan Moore: Brian Eno has remarked that a lot of artists, writers, musicians have a kind of almost superstitious fear of understanding how what they do for a living works. It’s like if you were a motorist and you were terrified to look under the bonnet for fear it will go away. I think a lot of people want to have a talent for songwriting or whatever and they think Well I better not examine this too closely or it might be like riding a bicycle–if you stop and think about what you’re doing, you fall off.
Now, I don’t really hold with that at all. I think that yes, the creative process is wonderful and mysterious, but the fact that it’s mysterious doesn’t make it unknowable. All of our existences are fairly precarious, but mine has been made considerably less precarious by actually understanding in some form how the processes that I depend on actually work. Now, alright, my understanding, or the understanding that I’ve gleaned from magic, might be correctly wrongheaded for all I know. But as long as the results are good, as long as the work that I’m turning out either maintains my previous levels of quality or, as I think is the case with a couple of those magical performances, actually exceeds those limits, then I’m not really complaining.
Arthur: You work mostly in comics, which is interesting, as so many magicians–maguses? magi?–have been involved in the visual arts in the last century. Austin Osman Spare, Harry Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren. Aleister Crowley did paintings and drawings.
Crowley lamented that he wasn’t a better visual artist. I went to an exhibition of his and well, some of the pictures work just because they’ve got such a strange color sense, but…it has to be said that the main item of interest was that they were by Crowley. But yes, there’s that whole kind of crowd really: Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith. And if you start looking beyond the confines of self-declared magicians, then it becomes increasingly difficult to find an artist who wasn’t in some way inspired either by an occult organization or an occult school of thought or by some personal vision.
Most of the Surrealists were very much into the occult. Marcel Duchamp was deeply involved in alchemy. “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors”: that relates to alchemical formulae. He was self-confessedly, he referred to it as an alchemical work. Dali was a great many things, including a quasi-fascist and an obvious scatological nutcase, but he also was involved deeply in the occult. He did a Tarot deck. A lot of the Surrealists were taking inspiration from alchemical imagery, or from Tarot imagery, because occult imagery is perhaps a natural precursor of a lot of the things that the Surrealists were involving themselves with.
But you don’t have to look as far as the Surrealists, really. With all of those neat rectangular boxes, you’d think Mondrian would be rational and mathematical and as far away from the Occult as you could get. But Mondrian was a Theosophist. He [borrowed] the teachings of Madame Blavatsky–all of those boxes and those colors were meant to represent theosophical relationships. Annie Besant, the Theosophist around the turn of the last century, published a book where she had come up with the idea, novel at the time, that you could represent some of these abstract energies that Theosophy referred to by means of abstract shapes and colors. There were a lot of people in the art community who were keeping up upon ideas from the occult and theosophy, they immediately read this and thought, Gosh you could, couldn’t you? And thus modern abstract art was born.
One of the prime occult ideas from the beginning of the last century, which is also interesting because it was a scientific idea, and this was the sudden notion of the fourth dimension. This became very big in science around the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, because of people like these eccentric Victorian mathematicians like Edwin Abbot Abbot–so good they named him twice–who did the book Flatland, and there was also C. Howard Hinton, who was the son of the close friend of William Gull, he gets a kind of walk-on in From Hell, who published his book, What is the Fourth Dimension?
And so ‘the fourth dimension’ was quite a buzzword around the turn of the last century and you got this strange meeting of scientists and spiritualists because the scientists and the spiritualists both realized that a lot of the key phenomena in spiritualism could be completely explained if you were to simply invoke the fourth dimension. Two woods of different materials, two rings of wood, different sorts of wood, but at seances could become interlocked. Presumably. This was some sort of so-called stage magic. The idea of the fourth dimension could explain that — how could you see inside a locked box? Or a sealed envelope? Well in terms of fourth dimension, you could. Just as sort of three-dimensional creatures can see the inside of a two-dimension square. They’re looking down on it through the top, from a dimension that two-dimensional individuals would not have.
So you got this surreal meeting of science and spiritualism back then, and also an incredible effect upon art. Picasso spent his youth pretty well immersed in hashish and occultism. Picasso’s imagery where you’ve got people with both eyes on one side of their face is actually an attempt to, it’s almost like trying to create, to approximate, a fourth dimensional view of a person. If you were looking at somebody from a fourth dimensional perspective, you’d be able to see the side and the front view at once. The same goes with Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase” where you’ve got this sort of multiple image as if the form was being projected through time, as it descends the staircase.
The further back you go, the more steeped in the occult the artists become. I’ll admit to you, this is looked at from an increasingly mad perspective on my part, but sometimes it looks to me like there’s not a lot that didn’t come from magic. Look at all of the musicians. Gustav Holst, who did The Planets? He was working according to kabbalistic principles, and was quite obsessed with Kabbalah. Alexander Scriabin: another one obsessed with Kabbalah. Edward Elgar: He had his own personal vision guiding him, much like Blake had got. Beethoven, Mozart, these were both alleged, particularly Mozart, were alleged to belong to Masonic occult organizations. Opera was entirely an invention of alchemy. The alchemists decided that they wanted to design a new art form that would be the ultimate artform. It would include all the other artforms: it would include song, music, costume, art, acting, dance. It would be the ultimate artform, and it would be used to express alchemical ideas. Monteverdi was an alchemist. You’ve only got to look at the early operas, and see just how many of them are about alchemical themes. The Ring. The Magic Flute. All of this stuff, there’s often overt or covert alchemical things running through it all.
And there’s Dr. Dee, himself. One of the first things he did, he used to do special effects for performances. He got a reputation for being a diabolist just through doing…I suppose it was a kind of 14th-century Industrial Light and Magic, really. He came up with some classical play, which required a giant flying beetle. He actually came up with a giant flying beetle! [laughs] I think that did more to get him branded as a diabolist than any of his later experiments in angels. No one could understand all this stuff that he was doing with the Enochian tables–they weren’t really bothered by that. But he’d made a man shoot up into the air! [laughter] So he must be the devil or something…
Given the sheer number of people from all fields that would seem to have a magical agenda, it’s even more strange that magic is generally held in such contempt by any serious thinkers. I think that most people that would think of themselves as serious thinkers would tend to assume that anybody in Magic must be some kind of wooly headed New Age mystical type that believes every horoscope that they read in the newspaper. That would be completely dismissive of giving the idea of Magic any intellectual credibility. It’s strange–it seems like you’ve got a world where most of our culture is very heavily informed by Magic but where we almost have to keep up the pretext that there isn’t any such thing as magic, and that you’d have to be mad to be involved in it. It’s something for children or Californians or other New Age lunatics. That seems to be the perception and yet once you only scratch the surface in a few areas, you find that magic is everywhere.