Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.
Although fife and drum bands once were common in West Tennessee, the phenomenon had largely died out by 1980. The Tennessee State Archives created a mentorship program that was designed to reintroduce fife and drum music to Haywood County by having R. L. Boyce teach the traditional drumming styles to a young Brownsville resident, Kesha Burton, who in turn can teach it to other young people in her community. Because Boyce was primarily a drummer, his daughter Sherena arranged for a fife player, Willie Hurt, from Sardis, Mississippi to come and teach the fife to Kesha, although he also is a skilled snare and bass drummer. Although lessons had been occurring since December, on January 27th, the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center sponsored the Sleepy John Estes Blues Jam, and the public finally got to hear the first results of the lessons, with Willie Hurt, Kesha Burton and Sherena Boyce playing snare drum, bass drum, fife and tambourine, with various switching of instruments. R. L. Boyce had been nominated for a Grammy and was on his way to the Grammy Awards in New York.
As for the blues jam, it ended up being more about Americana music than the blues per se. There was a considerable amount of folk and bluegrass, and a little bit of blues-inflected music. But sadly, there are few of the original generation of blues musicians left in West Tennessee, the exception being harmonica player Linzie Butler, who was present at the event. The fife and drum music was something of a surprise at this year’s jam, but it was well-received all the same.
Fife and drum music once flourished in West Tennessee, but similar to what happened in Georgia, disappeared rapidly in the 1970’s. The last evidence we have of any fife and drum activity in West Tennessee is the recordings made of a Fayette County band in 1980, although I have always considered it likely that some fife and drum activity took place in Tipton and Haywood Counties as well. Last summer, the Tennessee State Department of Archives and History decided to sponsor a mentoring project that seems intended to reintroduce the fife and drum band style to West Tennessee, by having a Mississippi fife and drum musician mentor a young Tennesseean. The program ended up hiring Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce and having him work with a young female drummer in Brownsville named Kesha Burton. Boyce is a nephew of the late Otha Turner, and began his music career as a snare drummer for various fife and drum ensembles in Panola and Tate Counties in Mississippi, so he was a good choice to teach the drumming styles of this music to young people. On December 12, 2017, we carried him up to Brownsville for his first lesson with Kesha, which took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. After the lesson, I had an opportunity to walk around Brownsville taking pictures of the square and nearby streets and neighborhoods. I especially enjoyed walking down South Jackson Avenue, which had once been the heart of the Black community in Brownsville, although there are no longer any juke joints or cafes still operating. Perhaps the oddest visit of the day was to a massive outdoor art installation called the Mindfield, the long-term work-in-progress of folk artist and visionary Billy Tripp. Somewhat in the same vein as the Watts Towers or St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple in Memphis, the Mindfield is an autobiographical work, although it also contains bits of slogans and symbols that indicate something of Tripp’s philosophies about life and society. Next door to it is a restaurant called the Mindfield Grill that seems to warrant a future visit.