Delta Blues Reunion: Otha Turner Family Picnic

A weekend of blues in Senatobia, Mississippi

Photo: Jamen Berk

Shardé Thomas leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band at the Otha Turner Family Picnic

WHEN TO GO: The last Friday and Saturday in August (August 30 and 31) are a swampy couple of days in the Delta. But that doesn’t stop the hordes of blues fans who make the pilgrimage to the Otha Turner Family Picnic.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Othar Turner, called “Otha,” was a Mississippi farmer who was one of the last people in the country to play fife-and-drum music, an endangered genre that predates the blues in the Deep South. Turner began hosting Labor Day picnics behind his house sometime in the 1950s, playing music and cooking goat for friends and family. Word spread, and today, a decade after Turner’s passing, the party is larger than ever. Granddaughter Shardé Thomas and the family band still anchor the picnic with their hypnotic fife-and-drum tunes. But many other Mississippi musicians—including legends such as T-Model Ford, the late R. L. Burnside, and the North Mississippi Allstars—have also graced the makeshift stage over the years. ­

TYPICAL DAY: Sleep in. (On day two, especially, you’ll be glad to have the opportunity.) Thomas and her family don’t begin playing until around 5:00 p.m. each day, when the temperature drops a little bit, and visitors roll in all night. Once you get to the picnic, you’ll pay your $3 admission, grab a cold beer and a goat sandwich, and find a place to watch the show. “You never know who is going to show up and perform,” Thomas says. With no lineup, no set lists, no maximum occupancy, and a sweaty crowd fueled by soulful music and communal jars of moonshine, anything could happen. On Friday, the party rages until the last revelers leave. Saturday wraps up a little bit earlier—by 1:00 a.m., says Thomas, at least in theory. “Some of us have to go to church on Sunday.”

GETTING THERE: Downtown Senatobia is located less than an hour from both Memphis and Oxford.

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