Remembering Otha Turner 

This Saturday, August 29th, the rolling farmland of north Mississippi will once again be the focus of blues history. At a ceremony in Como, Mississippi, hill-country blues legend Otha Turner will be added to the Mississippi Blues Trail, receiving a permanent roadside placard commemorating his contributions to Mississippi music.

The placard will be placed near the Como Public Library and not far from the Gravel Springs home where Turner spent most of his life. And, importantly, the ceremony will be held in conjunction with this year's annual Fife and Drum Goat Barbecue Picnic, a summer tradition started by Turner and carried on by his family after his passing in 2003.

"I'm excited about the people coming, about meeting new people," said Turner's daughter Betty Turner of her father's recognition. "We're all just real excited."

"We're honored that there are people in this country who think that much of Grandfather," said Bobbie Turner, Otha's granddaughter.

Turner's life and music stand as a testimony to the continuing power of American roots music. Those attending Saturday's ceremony will include family, friends, musicians, and blues enthusiasts who feel that Turner's life went well beyond his music and that his family extended beyond his relatives.

"He was one of the best friends I've had," said Bill Ramsey, who helps the Turner family organize the picnic every August. "He would sit and talk to everyone."

"I'm proud to see it happen," said Sara Brown, who, with her husband Kenny, organizes the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic every summer in Potts Camp. "I think it's a tribute to him and the recognition he deserves."

Turner lived his whole life in a small farm community outside Senatobia. As a teen, he began to craft fifes out of river cane and would eventually come to lead the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band as an adult. His music, while known regionally, went largely unrecognized throughout most of his life.

It wasn't until the 1990s that Turner's music began to receive outside attention, with one song, "Shimmy She Wobble," featured in Martin Scorsese's 2002 film Gangs of New York. Successful musicians, such as the White Stripes, acknowledged Turner as an influence.

But perhaps no legacy of Turner's is quite so powerful as his annual Fife and Drum Goat Barbecue Picnic, held on the grounds of his family farm near the end of every summer.

"It's real," Ramsey said. "There's no better way to describe it."

The picnic is free and features barbecued goat and pork, a true miscellany of visitors from all over the area, and a variety of musicians from around the South performing on a flatbed trailer as a makeshift stage. It stems from a strong tradition that values community over commercialism.

"This [picnic] was his pride and joy," Bobbie Turner said. "This was one of the happiest times of his life every year."

Understanding Turner's personal philosophy helps to explain the ongoing enthusiasm and support for this annual party.

"His main thing was family," said Bobbie. "Grandfather always had this thing about himself: Anybody who wanted to come in and play during his picnic, he would stop and give them the opportunity because he always said that music is within your heart.

"So, as the years have past, we've had more and more musicians come in and say, hey look, do you mind if I play?" Bobbie said. "And I say, okay, we'll get you on."

"For Otha, everybody was laughing, dancing, eating — he wanted to make sure everybody was having a good time — black and white," Ramsey said.

"He was a patriarch, no doubt about it," Ramsey added. "But he was the boss."

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