Boyce and Burton: Fife and Drum Music

R.L. Boyce, bluesman and drummer, served for many years as a member of Othar Turner’s legendary Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Fife and Drum—a traditional African American music that predates the blues, and evolved in parts of the South from a melding of Civil War military band music and African polyrhythmic drumming traditions—was familiar to him, as he heard it at social events and celebrations while growing up in the Mississippi Hill Country. Boyce played with Turner on several recordings in the 1990s, including Mississippi Blues in Memphis Vol. 1 in 1993, Everybody Hollerin’ Goat in 1998, and From Senegal to Senatobia in 1999. Today, Boyce is a respected blues singer and guitar player, and recently released the album R.L.’s Boogie on Waxplotation Records. The album was nominated for a Grammy in 2018.

Apprentice Kesha Burton, of Brownsville, is a promising young drummer and poet with a deep and growing interest in African and African-American percussion styles. While Fife and Drum music was documented in Fayette, Shelby, and Haywood Counties in Tennessee, there are no known active bands today. Burton is eager to see Fife and Drum revived in Tennessee. In June 2018, she will participate in the first ever Fifefest at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, where she is employed. As part of her apprenticeship, she also began to learn to play the fife, under the teaching of Willie Hurt, one of less than a handful of African American fifers known to still practice the instrument.