Otha Turner Collection

Identifier: MSS.1051

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents

The Otha Turner Collection (8 linear feet) consists of audiovisual materials, photographs, press clippings, legal documents, production notes, promotional posters, and musical instruments created by and related to the life, musical career, and posthumous celebration of Otha Turner (1907-2003). Turner was one of the masters of fife and drum music from northern Mississippi. The collection is arranged in six series. One series contains video tapes and born digital video recordings. The next series contains photographs and project notes related to a collaboration with the Tennessee Dance Theater in Nashville. The third series contains correspondence, business records and legal documents. The fourth series contains press coverage and reference materials. The fifth series contains a set of promotional posters for the annual posthumous celebration “Ode to Otha.” The sixth series contains a fife and a drum that belonged to Turner. (Elizabeth K. Batiuk)


  • 1970 - 2007

Conditions Governing Access

This collection may be viewed only in the reading room of Special Collections in the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Collections should be requested 2-3 days prior to visiting in order to facilitate easier access. For questions or to request a collection, contact specialcollections@vanderbilt.edu.

Biographical / Historical

Otha (or Othar) Turner (c. 1907-2003) was a farmer and musician from Gravel Springs, Mississippi. Turner played a style of music called fife and drum for family picnics and annual community events, like the Annual Goat Barbecue in Gravel Springs. Turner started touring in the 1970s and in 1992 won a National Heritage Fellowship. He founded the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, now led by his granddaughter Shardé Turner.

Fife and drum was first studied in the U.S. by Alan Lomax who, in 1942 interviewed Sid Hemphill and recorded four of his songs. Although fife and drum has influenced and been influenced by the blues, the music originated in the colonial era and is found throughout the Western Hemisphere. Fife and drum music has roots in European military history, as the instruments were used to accompany troops marching. In the Americas, the instruments were adapted by for use at celebratory occasions. The music gradually lost its military association and became a type of folk music. Communities use fife and drum music for social dance at picnics, accompaniment for mummer’s plays, or for music during the Christmas and New Year’s season.

Scholars who have documented and written about fife and drum and Otha Turner include David H. Evans, William Ferris, Alan Lomax, Adam Lore, and tohers.

(EK Batiuk)


8 Linear Feet (8 Hollingers, 3 oversized boxes )

Language of Materials



The Otha Turner collection includes audiovisual recordings, musical instruments, and other materials documenting the life and artistry of Othar (Otha) Turner (1907-2003). A master of the fife and drum tradition from northern Mississippi, Turner was a farmer in Gravel Springs, Mississippi. He performed fife and drum music at goat barbeques, held annually around Labor Day, for family and community members. A few of these performances were recorded and are included in the collection. Later in life, Turner’s music garnered attention outside of Mississippi, including collaborations with the Tennessee Dance Theater in Nashville and use in the movie Gangs of New York. Fife and drum music of northern Mississippi predates and influences blues, black country, Americana, and other folk musical expressions. The collection also documents Nashville history, including Vanderbilt University in the late twentieth century, and the work of public arts education through Mr. Turner’s collaboration with the Tennessee Dance Theatre. Finally, the collection details race relations in Nashville, while highlighting a musician who had a major impact, though largely unrecognized, on American music. (Abstract by Jason Schultz, edited by Elizabeth K. Batiuk).

Physical Location

Offsite Storage, Special Collections & Archives

NMAAM-Vanderbilt University Collections Initiative

Purchased through the NMAAM-Vanderbilt University Collections Initiative.

Finding Aid for the Otha Turner Collection
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Library
1101 19th Ave. S.
Nashville TN 37212 United States


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This site contains collection guides, or finding aids, to the archival collections held by Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives, the History of Medicine Collection, and the Scarritt Bennett Center. Finding aids describe the context, arrangement, and structure of archival materials, allowing users to identify and request materials relevant to their research.

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