Hidden Histories: Turner Family Picnic, Plus Blues Marker Unveiling

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As Michael Flanagan noted in this week's edition of the Memphis Flyer, one of the Mid-South's most unique traditions, the Turner Family Picnic, is slated for Gravel Springs, a rural outpost near Senatobia, Miss., this weekend.

And at 11 a.m. on Saturday in nearby Como, Turner family patriarch Otha Turner will be posthumously honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Admission to blues guitarist Kenny Brown’s Hill Country Picnic, held in July, provided funds to help erect the marker for Turner, who died in 2003. “I listened to Otha from the time I was six years old, so it was nice to be able to help him out,” says Brown, who considers part of his mission to be a living link to the late fife-and-drum musician and other gone-but-not-forgotten performers like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.

Fife-and-drum music isn't exactly analogous with most Mississippi blues music.

“There’s a bit of disconnect in terms of where fife-and-drum music fits in,” says Oxford resident Scott Barretta, a researcher and writer for the Mississippi Blues Trail. “It’s anachronistic in its own community, but at the same time, it’s been comforting to see how committed [Turner’s granddaughter] Sharde Thomas is to carrying on Otha’s legacy.”

In Barretta’s eyes, the greatest achievement of the Mississippi Blues Trail, which is administered by the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism, is the tacit acknowledgement given by the state of Mississippi to its African American population.

“Just a few years ago, it was unimaginable that communities throughout Mississippi would put up these elaborate markers for black performers who were barely known outside their communities,” he says. “Now, they’re getting equal billing with B.B. King and Little Milton. It’s also encouraging local communities to embrace their histories, which have oftentimes been hidden.”

For more on the fife-and-drum tradition, check out this blog post.

Directions to the Turner Family Picnic, which will be held tonight and tomorrow night: Go south on I-55 to the Senatobia exit. Turn east on MS-Hwy 4. Turn south on Gravel Springs Rd., then east on O.B. McClinton Hwy. The picnic will be approximately 1 mile down on the right.

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