The Last of His Kind 

The remarkable story of the late Otha Turner, a Mississippi musician and sharecropper, and the Nashville attorney who helped bring him to the world’s attention

The remarkable story of the late Otha Turner, a Mississippi musician and sharecropper, and the Nashville attorney who helped bring him to the world’s attention

Last Thursday, Feb. 27, the music world lost Otha Turner, a truly unique figure in American popular culture. The recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award for traditional American musicians, Turner had come to represent the dying art of fife and drum music, a distinct genre birthed in the North Mississippi farm country where he had lived his whole life.

But for Nashvillian Bill Ramsey, an attorney with Neal and Harwell, Turner’s passing was even more tragic and painful than that. “I lost my best friend,” he said last Friday, tears streaming down his face. As he sat slumped on a stool in his kitchen, still dressed in a suit after a long day at work, several moments passed before he could speak again.

The two men had a close friendship that defied the social circumstances in which each had grown up. At 52, Bill Ramsey is white and extremely successful by worldly standards, the descendant of a long line of Southern plantation owners. Turner was a 94-year-old black man, the son of sharecroppers. He never learned to read or write, and he worked most of his life picking cotton or sitting behind a horse-drawn plow. Ramsey lives in a comfortable home with modern conveniences, while Turner lived in a shanty shack—not much more than a collection of planks covered with a tin roof. Most of the food he ate during his lifetime, he either grew or raised himself.

What made this friendship even more unusual is the fact that Ramsey was the grandson of Tom Taylor, the plantation owner for whom Turner had once worked as a sharecropper. And yet “he was as close to me as any member of my family ever has been,” Ramsey insists. “I know that was the way with him too.” The two men spent countless hours talking on Turner’s porch, or driving around in search of moonshine. “We’d just talk about stuff and how life is. We’d nod to one another whenever Turner would say, 'You cut me, I bleed red, you cut yourself, you bleed red. There’s no difference in us.’ That reaffirming principle as evidenced by our friendship was at least for me, and I think for him too, as important as anything in either of our lives.”

Without a doubt, the story of Ramsey’s and Turner’s friendship is something that could only have happened in the South, as it grew out of their respective histories in a land where slavery once flourished. But it also represents the kind of healing that could only have happened in a post-slavery, post-civil rights America—where two men could find a common bond that transcended the very things that would have separated them only 30 or 40 years ago. “I think it was that whole understanding [of mutual respect] between Otha and me that made us both realize what we all know in our heart, that it doesn’t really make any difference what your background is or what color your skin is,” Ramsey says. “Our friendship, our love for one another was a tangible and reaffirming example of that principle that we all know to be true.”

Their relationship would never have formed, however, if not for Turner’s proclivity for the fife, a musical instrument that he made from reeds that grew on the bottomland of his farm in Gravel Springs, Miss. The repositories of a tradition that predates the blues, Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band made music even more primal than the brooding drones of their Delta counterparts. Wedding African polyrhythms, down-home blues and the cadences of Colonial-era militias, Turner and company conjured some of the most gloriously supple racket on Earth—a clamor akin to what New Orleans’ R&B masters The Meters might have made if all they had to work with were rocks, sticks and a conch shell or two. Turner, a New York Times piece points out, “kept alive a style of music older than the blues.... The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band...was the last survivor of a tradition that had transformed the sound of a Civil War military band into music with clear African roots: a syncopated drumbeat behind sharp, riffing melodies in pentatonic modes.”

It was this raw, pulsating music that Ramsey, growing up in Viola, a small town outside Nashville, experienced during visits to his mother’s parents in Como, Miss. And it was this music that drew him to Turner. But what makes these two men’s friendship so remarkable isn’t just the difference in their ages, their backgrounds or their skin color. It’s the fact that Ramsey helped to bring Turner’s art to a national audience, in the process helping to preserve a genuinely original American art form. Ironically, Turner’s music reached its widest audience ever a few short months before his death, thanks to an appearance on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s recent Gangs of New York.

Ramsey first heard Turner’s fife and drum band when his grandmother, mother and aunt took him and his cousins to an African American picnic. More than simply an afternoon gathering with a packed lunch, these picnics had their roots in antebellum days, when slaves would be permitted to take a break from their otherwise brutal work schedule for a celebration full of music and African-influenced dancing. Long after the emancipation, the tradition continued in Mississippi, arguably the state least transformed by the Civil War and its aftermath.

Ramsey’s first such picnic took place in the late ’50s or early ’60s. “At that time, Otha was young, playing with some other folks,” he recalls. “I remember being out on top of this hill looking down on all these people having fun. Otha was laughing and talking and having a good time.”

A few years later, Ramsey’s North Mississippi cousins introduced him to Turner and several other legendary musicians, including Fred McDowell, best known for his recording of “You Gotta Move” (which was covered by The Rolling Stones) and for teaching Bonnie Raitt how to play slide guitar. “Fred McDowell was probably Otha’s best lifelong friend and was pumping gas at Stuckey’s, when they had a Stuckey’s there at the Como exit,” Ramsey says, shaking his head, incredulous that such an influential musical figure would be relegated to such menial work.

There were other brief encounters with Turner over the years, but it would be the early 1990s before they met up again and their friendship began to form. Again, it was music that brought them together. Ramsey, a board member of the now defunct Tennessee Dance Theatre, had been approached by musician Max Carl, who was working on a project for TDT that would incorporate fife and drum music. “He mentioned that he would love to meet Otha Turner, and I said that would be pretty easy to do,” Ramsey says. “So I packed Max up and took him to meet Otha.”

That meeting led to another, in which TDT choreographer/artistic director Donna Rizzo, several company dancers and several board members all traveled down to Como to hear Turner perform. “He and his grandsons had agreed to play fife and drum music in exchange for 200 pounds of dog food and two chickens,” Ramsey remembers with a chuckle. An advance person had arranged to have the chickens and dog food on hand the day of the performance, but she didn’t quite understand the terms of the exchange. “She had bought like 20 of those little 10-pound bags to give him, and she bought two frozen chickens from the grocery store. Otha said maybe the dog food was all right even though it came in a bunch of packages, but he wanted two live chickens. He wasn’t going to play, so I pulled him off to the side.... I think I gave him $40 or $50, and they played for us. Everybody was just overwhelmed by how great he was.”

As a result of the encounter, Turner and his family band were invited to perform as part of the Tennessee Dance Theatre’s premiere of Max Carl’s piece at 328 Performance Hall. “He completely stole the show,” Ramsey says. “He blew away the Dance Theatre performers. He blew away everybody. It was one of the most unbelievable nights. I don’t think that anybody there will forget it. It was an overwhelming success.”

By then, Turner and The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band were giving regular performances at blues festivals in Chicago and Memphis, and Turner had recently received his National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. But he wasn’t exactly a household name. That was about to change, in large part because Ramsey took a more active role in his musical career. The lawyer was making periodic trips to North Mississippi, getting to know the family and increasingly recognizing the cultural and historic importance of Turner’s music and annual picnics.

“Time and time and time and time again, I saw that people were going down there and taking his picture, recording his music and not paying him anything, nothing,” Ramsey says. “Otha lived in a very poor place. He had no money. He lived primarily each year on the money that he made from his picnic.... He pretty much raised everything that he ate. His daughters worked some and gave him some things to eat. For people to blatantly and openly take advantage of the guy just stuck in my craw.”

More and more, Ramsey functioned as an unpaid manager, making sure that Turner and his family were paid fair fees for their performances. Ramsey also saw the importance of booking Turner into high-profile halls such as House of Blues in Los Angeles and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Their friendship was deepening, but the realization that their birthdays were on the same day, June 2, proved a fateful coincidence. In 1995, Ramsey invited Turner and his family to perform during his annual birthday party, held at his home in Nashville. “That’s one of the first times that I remember him saying, 'You name it and I’m gonna claim it,’ meaning, you ask me to do it, I will come do it.” It was the first of many times that Turner would respond to Ramsey’s request to perform for special events and fundraisers. In turn, Ramsey repaid the favors by helping Turner with his annual picnic at the musician’s small farm in Gravel Springs, Miss., every fall.

Ramsey’s birthday parties grew larger each year, beginning with about 25 to 30 guests, at least half of whom were the Turner family. By last summer, however, the number had swelled to 1,500 people, many of them overflowing into the street in front of Ramsey’s house in the Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood. Early on, before the large crowds made it impossible for Ramsey to have houseguests, he asked Turner to stay at his home, offering his own bed for Otha to sleep in.

“He could not believe that a white man would let him come stay in his house,” Ramsey says. “When we got up in the morning, I’d cook breakfast for him. I think that he was just shocked that a white man would do that for him. Where Otha came from, as Otha put it, 'The white man was over the black man.’ I know that it meant so much to him to stay here. I think he felt like that really made us close.”

In turn, when Ramsey went to Mississippi to help Turner with his party, he would stay with the musician or one of his family members. Turner’s shack had no modern facilities, and dust blanketed most of the hand-me-down furniture, but that mattered little to Ramsey. Over the years, their time together brought the two men closer. “We became just as close a friend to each other that anybody could be, in spite of all those huge cultural differences,” Ramsey says. “It was as hard for him to understand me as it was for me to understand him. But after awhile, I understood every word that he said and he understood everything I said. We developed this rapport that grew out of this pride that we had both gotten to know somebody who was from the opposite end of the spectrum and could be as close a friend as anybody ever.”

For anyone who ever witnessed Turner perform, it’s easy to understand why Ramsey was so drawn to Turner, who was much, much more than a trove of cultural riches. He was a genuine character, full of charisma and bawdy, earthy wisdom. “When I tell you something, it’s true,” he once told Ramsey. “If I tell you a banty rooster is a bootlegger, you better be looking up under its wing for a bottle.”

Turner had not always been so wise. As a younger man, he had fathered three illegitimate children in addition to the six children he had with his wife of 40 years. “She got mad and started to kill me,” Turner told Ramsey. “[But] she loved me and I loved her. You got to forgive.”

Whatever his marital infidelities, Turner was shrewd about avoiding debt—a burden that frequently saddled many of his fellow Mississippi sharecroppers throughout their lives. While he rarely made over $2,000 in a year, he was able to save enough money over time to buy the small farm where he lived. Owning his own place garnered him enormous respect within the black community while also giving him and his family a sense of security. It was a significant accomplishment when put within the context of the sharecropping community.

Sharecroppers like Turner had to wait each year until the crops had been cultivated and sold before they had any money. Meanwhile, they commonly bought their food and supplies on credit from a company store. Because the amount owed was compounded each month, sharecroppers were trapped in a vicious cycle of rarely making more than what they owed. If the crops failed, then the debt grew even larger each year.

Turner managed to break the cycle by growing his own food, raising his chickens for eggs and milking his cows while his contemporaries brought home food from the store to feed their families. “Otha never did that,” Ramsey says. “His family just got what they absolutely needed and then grew everything else. So he didn’t really borrow money. He thought sharecropping was great. He loved those times because he wasn’t in debt. He’d work putting in the crop, cultivating the crop, and when August came, the crops were laid by and he’d just have parties.”

Those parties, or picnics, were still a common occurrence in the early decades of the 20th century. Before telephones became a standard form of communication, drumbeats echoed out across the plantations, beckoning neighbors to come and join a party. They came by the hundreds, the women bringing food, the men carrying homemade musical instruments. The picnics often went on for days, with the sounds of the fife and drum reverberating across the fields. At night, the parties grew more raucous, the intensity of the music growing until those in attendance were in a frenzy.

It was an experience akin, in some ways, to voodoo or Santería rituals, and the comparison is an apt one: The dances and the music had originated in Africa and had been passed along from one generation to the next, providing an unbroken cultural connection with the past. The dancers rhythmically and ritualistically humped and bowed to the riffs of the fife and the steady drumbeats. The sounds were raw and uniquely representative of Southern black heritage.

Turner had grown up going to these picnics and had witnessed their demise as his contemporaries died over the years. As one of North Mississippi’s last living sharecroppers, he felt obliged to keep his picnic going as a tribute to his ancestors. He saw the picnics as a way for younger blacks to understand their African roots, but invited whites to join in as well. The music of the fife and drum was to be enjoyed by everybody, regardless of their background.

In recent years, the growing popularity of his music and his picnics had some unintended consequences. Turner sold roasted goat sandwiches and moonshine at his annual picnics—a fact made public during a National Public Radio story. Having one time run a still under the auspices of the Tate County Sheriff department, Turner had long ignored the county laws prohibiting the sale of moonshine. But the NPR report agitated a few of his Tate County neighbors, prompting a surprise visit by a deputy sheriff.

Ramsey was there when it happened: “The deputy sheriff stepped out of his Crown Victoria automobile and said, 'Mr. Otha, I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to serve you with this warrant.’ Otha couldn’t read, so he handed it to me to read to him and I told him that they were looking for moonshine whiskey. The deputy sheriff then said, 'Do you have any moonshine whiskey here, Mr. Otha?’

“Otha was shrewd. He said, 'I don’t have any now, but I did.’ There was a bottle sitting there on the bench. Otha said, 'It was in this bottle, but we drank it all up.’ The guy sniffed it and said, 'Yep, that’s moonshine whiskey; we’re gonna have to search your place Mr. Otha.’

“I guess that I can give it away now. Obviously, I knew where Otha hid his moonshine,” Ramsey says. “Somehow he convinced that deputy sheriff that the little shed beside where the picnic is, was his house. He convinced the guy that his house was somebody else’s house. The man left without finding any moonshine, and of course if he had just gone over somewhere near Otha’s house, he would have found about four or five gallons. Even though he was a little dishonest, I think Otha understood the hypocrisy of the system, so that he didn’t feel bad about lying to that deputy sheriff and saving his moonshine. That’s about the only time that I ever saw Otha lie, ever, over anything. He was a very, very truthful man.”

Turner often prescribed truthfulness as a recipe for living, and his life was very content with one exception. He wanted to leave a financial legacy for his children and grandchildren, something that wasn’t likely, given that he’d made so little money during his life. So during a 1996 visit to Nashville, Ramsey took Turner and family down to his small basement recording studio. With Ramsey producing and engineer Randy Leago at the board, they laid down six tracks—what Ramsey euphemistically called Turner’s “Greatest Hits.” Otha’s daughter Bernice titled the cassette For the Time Beyond, and they started selling the homemade recordings at Ramsey’s birthday parties and Turner’s picnics.

A man who would later work as a part of Martin Scorsese’s production crew for Gangs of New York purchased one of the tapes. Fortuitously, he was on site in Rome when Scorsese was shooting the opening scene of the movie. Overhearing the description of the music that Scorsese and the scriptwriter wanted, the crewmember pulled out the cassette and played it for them. The first track, a Turner original called “Shimmy She Wobble,” worked so well in the shot that the producers contacted Ramsey to arrange for its use in the film.

When Ramsey told him the good news last December, Turner replied, “See, I told you if you stuck with this old man, we’d all do good,” before proceeding to strut about the room. The $80,000 or so that the song would fetch in royalties was a small fortune to Turner. At age 94, he had achieved more than he ever imagined.

Indeed, it was just five years ago that Turner released his first full-length album, Everybody Hollerin’ Goat, on Birdman Records. Produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, the record was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top five blues albums of the 1990s. During the latter half of that decade, Turner was featured on Good Morning America and All Things Considered, and he was profiled in The New York Times, The Oxford American, Living Blues, Billboard and the French publication Vibrations, among other newspapers and magazines.

Ironically, these happy times coincided with deep sadness for Turner. Here he was, making more money and receiving greater acclaim than ever, and his daughter Bernice—his primary caretaker—was dying of breast cancer. The two were unusually devoted to one another, so much that after Turner’s wife (Bernice’s mother) died in 1995, Bernice left her husband behind in Houston so that she could look after her father.

“I’ve always been there for my daddy,” Bernice said in 1999. “My mama always told me when I was growing up and when her health started getting bad that I should take care of my daddy. When I got married and moved to Houston, my dad cried the whole time I was there. I said, 'To hell with it, I’m going home.’ ”

In mid-February, during what would be Bill Ramsey’s final meeting with Turner, the two men discussed how the proceeds from Gangs of New York would be allocated among Turner’s family members. “He told me then that he was glad he had been able to see me before he died,” Ramsey says. But the comment went unnoticed until Turner’s passing two weeks later. “I guess he knew,” Ramsey adds.

Immediately after that visit, Turner fell ill. At first, it was just a case of the flu; quickly, however, it turned into pneumonia. Concerned, Turner’s daughters sent him to the hospital, but after a few days, he seemed better and was released. He went to stay with one of his daughters, Betty Turner Freeman, as Bernice lay dying at the home of another sister, Dorothy Turner. Two days before his passing, Freeman said that her father had quit eating; he died peacefully at her house Feb. 27. Later that day, Bernice, who was just 48, quietly followed.

“Everything we planned and dreamed of seems meaningless now,” Ramsey says. “Now I realize that the money doesn’t matter.”

A simple farmer and poor black man, Otha Turner was given a quarter-page obituary in The New York Times and featured on CNN. Doubtless, that recognition is mostly due to the efforts of Bill Ramsey, the grandson of a plantation owner for whom the fife player once toiled as a sharecropper.

Ramsey’s love and respect for Turner showed that in one generation, some of the prejudices of past generations can be transcended. The two men may have come from vastly different circumstances, but they shared a remarkable, if unlikely, friendship, one rooted in a shared belief in equality and in the raw, rhythmic music that will live on as Otha Turner’s singular legacy.


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