The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band Brings Tradition to @Bristerfest @LevittShell @OvertonPark

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I have discussed Otha Turner and his granddaughter Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band elsewhere in this blog in some detail, so here it is sufficient to state that this African-American traditional music with a hundred or more years of history is preserved only by the members of one family in Tate and Panola Counties in North Mississippi, the descendants of Otha (or Othar) Turner. Since Turner’s passing, the torch has been carried by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, a woman of immense talents as a singer, a drummer, a keyboardist and a fifer.
To those unfamiliar with the hypnotic power of African-American fife-and-drum music, the sound is far more African than nearly any other form of traditional Black music in America. Tunes are rarely fast, but the rolling waves of sound produced by the bass and snare drums create a trance-like effect, and the fife, generally homemade out of bamboo or sugar cane, is played far differently from the traditional military or marching band usage.
The origin of such Black fife-and-drum bands is not at all certain. There is some evidence that Mississippi allowed Black drummers in the militia units even during the time of slavery. It is certain that during Reconstruction, many of the Black mutual aid organizations and lodges had drummers. Drummers are particularly mentioned in connection with processions of the Memphis-based Independent Pole-Bearers Society, which was a lodge. What appears evident, however, is that African-Americans in the post-Civil-War south saw in the fife-and-drum bands, with their patriotic and military associations, a “cover” for clandestine practices that seemed more African in nature. Observers at rural fife-and-drum picnics have described incidents in which dancers seemed to ritually salute the drums (a practice common in Haiti and West Africa), or in which the dancing seemed to take on something of a sexually suggestive nature (also found in Haiti and West Africa).
However, the African-American fife and drum tradition has been in steady decline since the first field recordings of such bands were made in the 1950’s. By the early 1970’s, only two places in the United States were known to have such bands, one in North Mississippi, and one in Georgia. By the 1980’s, the phenomenon could only be found in Mississippi, and by the 1990’s, only in Otha Turner’s family.
Despite the basic, sparse sound of bass drum, snares and fife, the Bristerfest crowd on Saturday loved every minute of the Rising Star’s performance. The rain had ended, and the crowd had grown to well over a hundred people.

Michael Joyner (@memphismiko) Performing on Stage at @Bristerfest @LevittShell @OvertonPark

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Michael Joyner is a Jackson, Tennessee singer-songwriter who is now based in Memphis. He released his first EP Sit and Wait in 2008, and in January of this year released his first full-length The Pickins are Slim, and both records are available from his website. Joyner is a singer and writer with many eclectic influences, and at Bristerfest, he performed a new original song about Memphis that was especially outstanding. Even the renewed falling rain couldn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm.

Blind Mississippi Morris & Frank Moteleone-Old Black Mattie-Live at @Bristerfest @LevittShell @OvertonPark

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Clarksdale/Memphis traditional bluesman Blind Mississippi Morris performs at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park during the first day of Bristerfest in Memphis, 4/27/13. Of interest here is to note how the more familiar lyric “Coal Black Mattie” (as performed by R.L. Burnside) is changed by Morris into “Old Black Mattie”, perhaps intentionally, but more likely from oral tradition. Occasionally, another variation, “Poor Black Mattie” is encountered as well from certain singers.

Blind Mississippi Morris Live at @Bristerfest @LevittShell @OvertonPark

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Clarksdale native Blind Mississippi Morris lives in North Memphis, and is just about the only traditional country bluesman active in Memphis these days. He has recorded a couple of albums, including 1988’s You Know I Like That on Select-O-Hits‘Icehouse Records, and is a frequent fixture on Beale Street, one of the few true bluesmen to appear there regularly. His set at Bristerfest was largely traditional, assisted by guitarist Frank Monteleone, in front of a crowd that had begun to grow after the rain had largely ended.

Craig Davis (@CraigDavisRock) Live at @Bristerfest 2013 @LevittShell @OvertonPark

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Memphis singer-songwriter Craig Davis has been getting a fair amount of exposure over the last several years, both as a solo artist and as the leader of the Craig Davis Band. His performance at Bristerfest was a solo acoustic set of his original compositions, which were tuneful and pleasant, and although the crowd was small due to the weather, those that were there cheered wildly at the end of Davis’ performance.

The @erichughesband Live at @Bristerfest 2013 @LevittShell @OvertonPark

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The Eric Hughes Band has consistently received awards and recognition as one of the best contemporary blues bands in Memphis, and their performance at Bristerfest on Saturday definitely lived up to expectations. They performed their usual mix of Memphis-style soul and blues to the small crowd that braved the rain to come out, highlighting the single “Drink Up” from their newest album of the same name.

Kicking Off @Bristerfest 2013 with the Mason Jar Fireflies (@mjfireflies) at @LevittShell in @OvertonPark

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After significant delays caused by weather and related problems with the sound equipment, this year’s Bristerfest got under way with the folk/roots sound of the Mason Jar Fireflies, a Memphis-based acoustic trio of singer-songwriters that has been more prominent recently. Unfortunately, the crowd was rather sparse, given the intermittent showers and dark clouds overhead.