Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Otha Turner and His Cane Fife

I've meant for a while to post about a favorite artifact, one especially treasured because it comes from a tradition now nearly extinct. It's a cane fife, made by the late Othar Turner of Gravel Springs, Mississippi. Mr. Turner was perhaps the last master of American fife and drum. You may have heard his music without knowing it, as part of the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Turner was also featured in Scorsese's Feel Like Going Home, a delta blues documentary for PBS. In the film, when Turner and his musicians march across the fields playing fife and drums, it was as electrifying to me as Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. His best known composition, Shimmy She Wobble, is named for the dancing it inspires (and is one of the great song titles of all time).

What finally motivated me to write about this fife is an article in The New York Times here, about the recent discovery in Germany of a five-hole flute made from bird bone which dates to nearly 40,000 years ago.

So here's an object that proves a human musical tradition going back that far. I don't mind telling you, it makes me say wow.

You can read more about Mr. Turner here, and check out a film about him here .

And here's some music.

In his own words:

I make my own fifes. The cane grows right down there in the ditch banks down in the bottom. First you go out there and cut you a piece of cane. You judge the length you want your cane-you going to make your fife a foot, or a foot and so many inches long. A two-foot cane is really too long to blow. It's best a foot or so, I reckon. And your cane should be a medium size around. Too large a cane and you can't tune it. That cane grows from the earth so high, see, and it's jointed. You pick you out so many joints and cut it off. Then you take your knife and dress it down.

You get you a rod of iron and put it in the fire and get it red hot, and bore you a hole in your cane. See, sometime if you don't get your hole large enough, that fife won't blow good, so you got to twist it around and blow that hole out. You got to hold that rod in there so it starts smoking and steaming. You hold it and then, whoop, slides it on through there. You put all them holes in there that way.

Thanks to Jim for letting me buy this object.

Otha Turner and Granddaughter Image Credit Bill Steber, more here.
Bone Flute Image credit Daniel Maurer, Associated Press.


  1. Robert, the short film is fascinating. Thanks for turning me on to

  2. There's some great stuff there. Did you notice that film is by William Ferris, who later became director of the National Endowment for the Humanities?

  3. I saw Bill Ferris in the credits. I bookmarked the site for future enjoyment.

  4. You are holding an artifact that makes my knees weak with excitement. OMG!

  5. Thanks Robert...take good care of it. I bought that cane from Mr. Turner at the very performance you mention. He was ancient, but marched all the way through the audience playing while other members of his family played percussion.

  6. I have been attempting to make fifes in this manner!! Great to find this and I've love to one day see a fife of Otha's in person!!