Otha Turner lived in the Gravel Springs community, in the hill country of northeast Mississippi, the world that William Faulkner chronicled in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Although the Delta has been the primary focus for the study of the blues in Mississippi, there is a growing recognition of black music in this area of the state. Important recordings made by folksong collectors David Evans, Alan Lomax, and George Mitchell document music that has existed in the Gravel Springs community for generations. Recent commercial recordings of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough on Fat Possum Records have drawn national attention to musicians near Holly Springs. Their musical style and that of Otha Turner strongly influenced the sound of the North Mississippi Allstars.
In the late sixties I visited the Gravel Springs community in search of blues artists. During that trip I recorded “Mississippi” Fred McDowell and spent a memorable night in his home. I vividly remember awakening to a breakfast of hot biscuits, coffee, and cane syrup. In 1970 I returned to the community with David Evans to film Otha Turner during a Labor Day picnic at L. P. Buford’s store where Turner played fife and drum music with his band. This interview is drawn from David’s field recordings, as well as my own.
Otha Turner was a strong, forceful person who spoke with authority about his life and music. Turner was respected as a leader in his community, and the picnic he launched on the fourth weekend of August each year at his home in Gravel Springs is now attended by visitors from throughout the world. Other annual festivals like the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville opened each year with a performance by Otha Turner and his band to acknowledge their importance in the history of black music.