R.I.P. Othar Turner and Bernice Pratcher, by Karin Bolender (Arthur, 2003)

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.

KARIN BOLENDER: “In a time of great need—starvation, privation, aggravation, a broken heart and a broken head—I found succor at Dollywood.” (Arthur, 2004)

Karin Bolender on the secret truths that Dollywood reveals

As published in Arthur No. 8 (January 2004), with illustrations by Emily Ryan and art direction by W.T. Nelson

. . . And me astride a mighty rooster, with a raging red crown and swelled breast and silver claws, and it running, running: but suspended, rising and falling slow like tides, like a horse in a dream who gallops without going anywhere-rising and falling with hydraulic and dreamlike monotony, round and round, the same dim motion ascribing its circumference of colored lights and warped music round and again like a lathe into the world’s great big empty bowl. The next time around, it was a goat I rode. (1)

Oh it may have all started way back, when I was nine and saw a unicorn while on a honeymoon in Mexico. It was 1984: the beginning of the end for so many of us, God’s children. Of course nobody believed me. We also saw the Love Boat on that honeymoon, docked in Puerta Vallarta. It was my mother’s second marriage, the real one. But what does it matter now, anyway? That was another age, a virgin country.

And I can tell you, because you already know, how the paths that bring us from childhood to this are crooked and fraught with pitfalls. And this is what we get for our troubles: a soul full of rusty fish hooks and bullet holes, eyes that squint, hands that shake. But there are certain little comforts of adulthood. Whatever your poison happens to be, you seek succor where you can. In a time of great need—starvation, privation, aggravation, a broken heart and a broken head—I found succor at Dollywood.

I suppose I should thank the Bearded Menace, because I never would have discovered Dollywood if he had not smashed up a dream and sent me packing. So it was a fine gift he gave me, in the end. This hotblood from sweethome Georgia who said, “Come on baby, let’s go down south where I am from: I’ll build a mansion in your name, we’ll swim in the black creeks, lay down in the weeds, anywhere we want, lay back on the front porch or on piles of old tires and rock and rock until we are old and wise and ugly to everyone but each other, ourselves. And we’ll hold hands and murmur this dreaming talk with dogs at our feet licking and scratching, rolling in play with our naked children, who will cackle in raucous joy and swing from the scuppernong vines-wild flesh, dying light, faint music wafting in from somewhere. Ripe peaches and pokeberries’ll be washed clean and brought to the porch steps for us by possums and coons. Fruits of the land collected and carried to us by the crows and ants and snakes, who will all gather round in the evening to hear us speak in tongues and sing tales of these very days we are living now and the glory days to come, full of moon-age romance and steamy concupiscence, and don’t forget adventuring, on the sea, in the air, by camelback and purple Triumph: come on baby, let’s go down. Go down with me.”

Back in 1984, when I saw the unicorn in the month of November, I knew that you only have to believe in something enough to make it come true. I knew this because my mama told me, and it was confirmed by Robert Vavra’s 1984 “Unicorns I Have Known” calendar, which advised the following “to the pure of heart: watch carefully entering each forest glade as though you were the first human to set foot there; take time to sample pollen carried on a golden breeze; do not use deodorants or insect repellents or wear leather shoes or belts; and believe. Yes, above all, believe, and you will surely meet as lovely and noble and snow-white a single-horned creature as any who pirouette upon these pages.”

And so I did. All over 1984, I scrawled with the new calligraphy pen that was also a Christmas present that year: “I BeLIeVe! UnICorNS arE ReAl! UniCoRNs LiVe in 83! I [HEART] UNicOrnS!” And almost a year later, on the honeymoon, it came true. Nobody saw it but me. Not even my mother, who was wrapped up in her own love dream in the Mexican jungle, brighter and more free and happy than she had ever been before, or has been ever since.

* * *

“Women are so wise. They have learned how to live unconfused by reality. Impervious to it.” (2)

This comes from William Faulkner. But it might just as easily come from the pages of Dolly Parton’s autobiography, Dolly, if you read between the lines. Or it could be painted like a motto in twenty-foot letters, alongside a gigantic pink butterfly and an even more gigantic image of Dolly herself, all a-sparkle with sequins and high nest of golden hair, on one of the billboards along the highway in northeast Tennessee, advertising how many miles are still to go before the pilgrim shores up at Dollywood.

But of course, that couldn’t be. Because what lies under the however-many square acres of the Dollywood park is not the glitterful attractions and family entertainments that lure people in, but an old organic thing buried beneath. A mighty powerful secret. Primeval, even.

But oh, the unicorn: it’s not that I ever really forgot it, it’s just that after a while, in time, that quarry was overrun with the dream of other beasts-boys and men, but mostly boys. And with pubescence, I began a metamorphosis into a new and strange kind of being myself: some kind of rootless hairy hallucinating mushroom with linguistic and motor skills.

As if the hormones of pubescence themselves are this bewitching and infinitely powerful kind of hallucinogen, the effects of which never quite wear off, and make you hear and see, and more so believe, all sorts of beautiful monstrosities and warped miracles that fall under the rubric of sexlove. Wild imaginings like “I saw a unicorn” get replaced by wilder ones, like “I will love you forever.”

And somewhere along the seam between childhood and this circus that is sexlove, we are supposed to weed out illusions and fantasies and find out what reality is. A dark time is had by all, for a while anyway. But most of us make it out of adolescence somehow, and emerge as more mature human beings with hopes and desires and even, heaven help us, beliefs. Beliefs are great and all, until they stray toward the sayings and doings of other people. Then, we are all screwed. Yes, that’s exactly what we are.

Well, that’s how I got screwed by the Bearded Menace anyway. Hell, you heard what he said! Let’s see you try to not fall in love with somebody who vows, with an avowal disturbingly familiar to the last letter-every pitch and note and rhythmic twang-to work to construct the world newly every moment, build it with words and woods and other raw materials into what he believes it should be, all the forms and lights and glories, that seem to be exactly what you have been longing and working for all this time, and trying to build, alone. Just see if that doesn’t get all your electrical juices flowing. Silly beast, you believed in this—that the words and deeds building up between the two of you were plank-for-plank making something real and solid of a dream, and not just playing around in funhouse mirrors.

Well, when the blue lightning was over down in Georgia, the darkness that followed was profound. I was thinking all this over one evening, lying there alone in twisted sheets, in the fall, in his parent’s attic, when it was dead. That is when it came to me like a startling burst, hovering over the dark filthy futon, in the sheets full of our scabs and little bloodstains left over from the plague of seedticks we had suffered together with our mutts. And the last kiss—a desperate end-kiss. I will tell you. It was something I had never thought of before, but suddenly there it was. DOLLYWOOD. That’s how it came, a vision, like Jim Morrison’s Indian. Except it was not a figure but a booming sourceless voice that came into my head, out of nowhere, and commanded, “YOU MUST GO TO DOLLYWOOD.”

What? You mean Dolly Parton’s theme park? What the hell?


And how can you argue with a booming sourceless voice that commands you to go somewhere, especially when you are no longer welcome where you are, and you have nowhere else in mind to go?

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