The New York Times attends a very special event in rural Mississippi.
Tamke and I are at the annual Otha Turner Family Picnic, a legendary jam session that takes place every summer behind a tumbledown sharecropperâ€™s shack deep in Mississippiâ€™s hill country. The interracial crowd is a few hundred strong and drawn from nearly every stratum of local life â€” bikers, college kids, workingmen, toughs, gentlemen farmers. And then there are a couple dozen like me: urban cosmopolites eager to hear the deepest roots of the blues. Tamke calls himself â€œa redneck,â€ and heâ€™s attacked me because Iâ€™m from The New York Times. Shouting into my ear over the music, Tamke makes me his megaphone for what he wants the outside world to know: â€œOur races have melded together, we share everything,â€ he says, voice trembling. â€œWe love each other.â€ Heâ€™s squeezing my skull so hard it feels like it might pop, and itâ€™s clear that heâ€™s under the influence of something very powerful. The moonshine or the music, I donâ€™t know. Finally, when it seems something is about to crack â€” my neck, or Tamkeâ€™s tenuous hold on sanity, or both â€” he lets me go. â€œItâ€™s sacred,â€ he says, choking up. â€œItâ€™s ancient, man.â€
â€œItâ€ is fife and drum, an African take on colonial English marching songs, and one of the oldest forms of distinctly American music, played by the slaves of Jeffersonâ€™s Monticello and still played today â€” by one family, once a year, at this, one of the last of the traditional farm picnics celebrating the end of the growing season.
Hat tip to Tom Weil.