Willie Hurt
“I Don’t Care What He Play, I’ll Be Playing!”

Text & images by Adam Lore, except where noted


Willie Hurt, July 4, 2014, courtesy of Willie Hurt

Willie James Hurt, “Boo” to his family and friends, was born on March 3, 1952, in Sardis, Mississippi. At an early age he was inspired by the fife and drum music that he heard played by Napolian Strickland and others at picnics and gatherings in the region. Soon he teamed up with his younger brother Calvin to become distinctive participants in the music. Their brothers Jeffery and Larry later followed suit, and for many years the Hurts have both performed at and hosted picnics for relatives, friends, and occasional new faces who drop by.

I first learned of the Hurt family in 2003 via folklorist Dr. David Evans. He provided contact information for Willie Hurt, who at that time was living in Fort Worth, Texas. Willie graciously said I was welcome to come to his family’s picnic in Sardis, which I recall took place in late summer, perhaps Labor Day weekend. With only vague directions for how to get there, driving slowly and listening for the sound of the drums brought me to their home. Walking up the hill to the picnic, the music in progress, I felt a bit hesitant as this was a gathering of around 20 people, none of whom I knew, and there was no way to slip in unnoticed. I had to get over my reluctance quickly because immediately upon arrival, a shirtless man put his arm around my shoulder and brought me into the tight circle of revelers who surrounded the band, dancing and chanting. A young man, probably in his teens, was blowing the fife and the drummers were playing hot beats. The bass drummer balanced his instrument on his head while he continued to pound away. When the band took a break, I was told that Willie couldn’t make it to the picnic, but he let them know I might attend. They were very welcoming but unfortunately I couldn’t stay long, and it felt like a close-knit family affair anyway, so I thanked everyone and left with the hopes of making it back again soon.

“Soon” didn’t come. Phone numbers changed, letters went unanswered, and on my nearly annual drives to Mississippi I was either told that I would never be able to find where they lived or was just generally dissuaded from pursuing it. That 2003 picnic began to feel like a mirage. Nevertheless, every now and then I sent a letter in advance of one of my trips south and crossed my fingers.

One afternoon on 4th of July weekend in 2013, I was hanging out with my friends Yancey and Jeff at their home in Como, Mississippi, when RL Boyce (a blues musician and long-time drummer in the fife and drum bands of Otha Turner & Napolian Strickland, among others, and who I’ve known for some years) showed up with a friend. They said I needed to come along with them. RL’s friend was introduced to me: Calvin Hurt. With great excitement, I told him about my experience at his family’s picnic ten years prior. When I recalled the acrobatic bass drummer, he said, “That was me!” Yancey and Jeff gave Calvin some of the bamboo growing in their yard so fifes could be made from it. Everything was coming together at last. Morale was high. Calvin, RL, and I got in Calvin’s car to travel to a destination unknown to me.

We went through the back roads for a little while, talking about music and having fun, before arriving at the location of the 2003 picnic. The Hurts were having another get-together that day. A total of around 30 adults and children were gathered in the yard and music played on the stereo. Similar to last time, straight away a woman took me by the hand and tried to teach me some dance steps. RL laughed uproariously at this scene and ordered me to give him my camera, which I did not. Willie Hurt was there, so I finally got to meet him along with his brothers Jeffery and Larry, his sisters Diane, Juanita, and Martha Jean, his mother Queen, and other members of his family. They were again unfailingly hospitable. (It was also noted, “This is the guy who writes the letters!”) The music was as exciting as I’d remembered, with many people, especially their sisters, contributing a chorus that gave their songs a swinging rush.

Thankfully I was able to return for the 4th of July weekend in 2014, and a couple days after another picnic full of great music and camaraderie, Willie shared some details of his musical history. Unfortunately due to a string of mishaps most of the footage I took at this picnic was lost, but I hope this article gives a taste of the infectious generous spirit that radiates from the Hurts and their music.

When did you first hear fife and drum music?

Ooooh, that music, well, let’s see. I was a little boy then. The first I can remember, I guess I might’ve been about five or six. Like I told you, before that music, my daddy used to take us up to town where I used to dance! (laughs) Me and my brother Calvin, we used to dance, dance, dance. People throwing that money down…big old dollars and things. And then after that…I was dancing down at the picnics. Everybody come around. And then I most certainly got interested in music, the drum, really. Yeah, I liked the sound of that drum.

So we’d come year after year after year, and one of those years I guess the guy that blew the fife, he left it laying around. So I picked it up, tried to make it whistle. Then I got the idea, said, “I want to make me one of these things!” I went and I looked at it, I looked at it. Then when I got back home a couple days afterwards, I decided to make one. I made one, but only one thing about it, I put the holes in it wrong! (laughs) So I said, “Oh man…” I figured I had to wait until next year when they came back, so that’s what I did. I waited until the next year, then I went back, I said, “Oooh, I see my mistake!” I brought my flute with me. I said, “I see my mistake now.” The [hole] you blow through, it’s on the end that’s stopped up and you put it to the other side. I said, “OK, OK.” So I went back home and I made one with three holes in it, and I played it. I could play the same thing with the three hole that I could with five or six or seven. So that made it sound alright.

So when you say you were at the picnic looking at the fife, whose fife was that?

A guy they called Napolian [Strickland]. I guess he was playing with John Tyler, I believe, and a guy Eddie Ware, and Tony. (laughs)

Was that Punky Tony?

Yeah, we called him Punky Tony. (laughs)

So those people Napolian was playing with, those were all drummers?

Yeah. Eddie, he played the bass and the kettle. Tony, he blew the fife and played the kettle, little kettle drum. He could play it, too. He could make that thing talk. John Tyler, he was the boss, he could play that bass drum good. All the old drummers, they had their own beats. Like Lucius Smith, he had his own beat. Jessie Mae [Hemphill] and them, they had their own beat.


Jeffery & Willie Hurt, July 4, 2014

You play with your brothers Calvin, Jeffery, and Larry. Were you were the first one of the group to pick up the music?

Yeah, I was the first one and then quite naturally my brother next to me, Calvin, he knew about it, then he decided to play the big drum. So me and Calvin used to be out there, we used to play those wash tubs and gas tanks and things like that. People would come from a long ways around. They’d say, “Somebody givin’ a picnic!” We would play them things up under that big ol’ pecan tree up there. On a Friday evening, I’d say, “We’re gonna make some folks come together!” And man, we’d get that drum, that big thing, man…They’d drive a little bit, then they’d stop and listen, they’d drive a little bit, they’d stop there and listen…We’d end up with a big picnic. Everybody was down there. They had everything with ’em! (laughs) They sure did.

So at the time it was just the two of you playing?

Yeah.

You on fife and Calvin on the bass?

Well, I had to play the little drum, but in between times, I would take the fife. We didn’t have nobody to play the kettle drum. That was before Larry and them was even born! (laughs) So they picked up on it after they got a little bigger.


Calvin Hurt, courtesy of Calvin Hurt

You play both the fife and the kettle drum…do you also play the bass sometimes?

Yeah, sometimes I do. I played it out there the other day! (laughs) Yeah, we switch around sometimes.

Do you think of yourself as more one than the other, do you know what I mean? Do you think of yourself as a fife player who messes with the drums, or do you think they’re both kind of the same? Because you definitely have your own style on the kettle drum…

Yeah, I know that. I think I’m a master with that kettle drum. And Calvin can mess with that bass. Because that’s what we used to do. We used to play that all the time. We’d play together. That’s why I’m so good with that kettle. There wasn’t nobody else there to pick up the little drum, so then I could play the fife. So I just ended up playing the little drum all the time.

Most of the time when we got a chance to play drums, that’s when they’re giving some picnic somewhere. I used to travel around with John Tyler and them. Every weekend he’d come up and get me. He would come lookin’ for me. Sometimes I’d be hidin’, my mama had to call…He’s like, “I need him! I need him!” “Come on, boy! Come on out of there!” I’d be hidin’ and then I’d finally come out. She would let me travel with him. I’ve been all out there by Holly Springs and a little place called Lost Hill. I’ve been everywhere with them. I was little, but he wanted me to blow that fife. That’s how I really got on out there, because John Tyler would always come by my house and get me. But like I say, I play the fife and then when I wasn’t playing the fife, Tony would get the fife and blow it, then I would play the kettle. We’d trade off like that.

So the songs that you play, do you give them titles or do you just know them by the beats or the tunes or…?

Normally I’ll start first, and then the little drum and the big drum. But sometimes they’ll get started, they’ll get to beatin’, then I just pick up on it and just go ahead on by ear. He’ll play the song. I don’t care what he play, I’ll be playing. (laughs)

So you’re…I don’t want to say you’re making it up as you go along, but there’s different themes…

Yeah, yeah. Because some of them guys…well, most of them I imagine, they know about what song they’re goin’ to play, like “My Baby Don’t Stand No Cheatin’” and “I Got a Woman Way Across Town.” They’re gonna sound different than that beat. That beat, that’s what makes it, man. When you hear that, god dog, you know exactly what to play. I mean, we don’t even have to sit down and talk about it. It seems like we got some kind of connection. Because whatever I play, I get to blowing and get to playing “My Baby Don’t Stand No Cheatin’” or “Back Door Man” and everything, them drummers can come on up with it, man. They come up with it.

I remember last year you played one that was a slower, kind of march beat.

Yeah!

That was similar to stuff I had heard on records from long ago, but I had never heard anybody play that in person, like at the Turner’s picnic or any other picnic. That was a totally different style…

You must be talking about that one we call the Indian Beat. We used to play that a long time ago. … The reason you hadn’t heard it, because we’d be playing that at the Masons. The Masons used to have picnics. Me and Calvin, we were small, but…We had started off playing drums for maybe about four or five years and they would let us play. (laughs) Yeah, we could play. I mean, we wasn’t a Mason or nothin’, but they would let us play. “Let them boys come here! Come here!”

The way that your sisters and other people…in this video they’re kind of doing that holler…

Oh yeah!

…and at other times they’re calling out “all night long” and “my baby don’t stand no cheatin’.” That’s also one of the things that I really like, that seems unique to the way your family does it. Is that just something that you guys picked up?

I guess they might’ve been singing that along with us ever since back in the ’90s. Hey, Martha Jean. How long have you all been singing...? “All night long…”

Martha Jean: It has been years. ... In the ’90s? … Boo, you know that’s where James Tyler used to sing that song. … We just was little, listening to it. We just kept it up.

Yeah, we just kept it up. They added their own little parts to it. Because the music we’ll be playing, it might sound a little faster than some of ’em, but that’s just our style. Some of ’em you can hear, they just go a little slow. We go a little faster. Everybody like it! (laughs) Everybody likes that beat.

Last year Calvin told me, “You got to get down low and flow, and then pick it up.”

Pick it up.

Martha Jean: Boo, Calvin said it makes him beat the drums better when you hear us singin’.

Yeah, it do.

Martha Jean: They really get into it and make them beat it.

Yeah. When you hear them sing that song…we have to hit that for about three or four hours straight! When we get started, we be playing a looooong time. Yep, sure would. (laughs)

The fife you used last year was different from the one this year. Was that one you made or did you buy that?

That’s the one I had bought, there.

The fife that you played the other day, the one that you made, it had maybe seven or eight holes. You said you started with three. What was it that you decided to change…?

Because I noticed that the other flute had more holes in it than mine, so I just added…I said, maybe it’ll make a difference. It do make a difference, because each one of them got a different sound, a different note in it. But I don’t see where…that’s the only way I can tell you, because you can play with three. You can take three holes and almost can play anything you can with five, six, seven, eight, nine holes. It’s just the way you blow, the wind come out of your mouth and everything. You can make up for extra holes, just the way you play it.


Willie Hurt’s handcrafted fife, July 4, 2014

Right, blow higher or blow lower…

Yeah. It’s more easy to play with three holes, to me. But like I said, when you want to change your music, you need them extra holes because you can move a hole down and make it sound different. That’s the only part I can see differently.

Could you tell me about the old cowhide drums you used to play and what you liked about the sound? [note: the Hurts used to play drums that had cowhide heads but unfortunately they were destroyed in a fire some years ago]

Oh, those cowhide drums? Those drums are good. The sound of them, you can hear them for miles and miles away. When they get a little slack, they just put them over there by the fire and let them get tight. They tighten up when they get hot. They’ll tighten back up. And man, them things, you can play them for a long time. Any time they get a little slack, all you have to do is keep adjusting it, just go and heat it up a little bit. Those drums, they were some good sounding drums. I don’t know who got them drums now. But I’m quite sure somebody got some. They look different from the drums we have now.

In what ways?

The heads. Them heads in that bass drum would cost you at least 50 dollars then. Now, I don’t know how much they are. I know they cost more now.

So you would just put the heads on a usual drum body, like the body of the drums you have now, but it would just have a different hide over the top of it?

Yeah, that’s what makes the difference. They’re pretty much the same – tighten, adjust, and things like that. Sometimes that cowhide, it would give in a little bit. So all you had to do is sit it over there by the fire. Not close to the fire…as long as they get a little heat. Then plus we would use the sun. All we do is set ’em out there in the sun and they’ll tighten up. (laughs) That’s what I like about that.


Willie, Jeffery, & Larry Hurt, July 4, 2014

So has it always been the 4th of July when you have these picnics?

The 4th of July…and like I said that Mason picnic would be on the first Friday in August. … There’ll be different dates, because somebody will be out there and then as time went, then we discovered, “Hey man, so-and-so and them be out there playing drums every Sunday.” Like out there at LP Buford’s and all like that. They’d play every weekend out there. They had the drums out there, you know. But we used to go out there and they discovered me and Calvin out there. They said, “Doggone, come on…!” I remember the first day I went out there, they said, “You don’t know my boys. That’s the Hurt boys.” But we knew one of the guys…because sometimes Punky Tony’d be there. He said, “Come on, man! Come on!” Man, we’d get out there and get to playin’ them drums…Calvin got that drum, I got mine…Otha Turner, man, he’d just look at us and laugh. He said, “I like that style! I like that style!” We used to play all the time out there.

Did you play with Otha, or you just played when he was there?

Yeah, we played with him. He let all the drummers play. I’d go over there, I’d see John Tyler, like I said I’d see Punky Tony over there. Otha Turner would always be there. He’d look at us, man, he’d just be laughing.

Was he playing fife when you played with him or was he playing the drum?

I think he played that drum.

Most people now know him as a fife player, but he was a really good kettle drummer.

Yeah, he was. He used to play around with John Tyler and them. Like I said, it depends on who gives a picnic. And the other drummers will try what the other guys are playing, and then when you look up, shoot, there’s a whole different group playing! But they like it that way.

Do you see many young drummers today still picking it up? Or do they play in a different way?

A couple of our nephews, they did pick it up, but I don’t know, I guess they figured out something else to do. (laughs) But you know, they know the beat.

Are there any particularly memorable shows or performances that were a big deal, or you remember as an especially good time…?

Yeeaahhh…(laughs) We had a DJ, we had the guy playing a guitar, and then plus we were playing. And every time we would get to playing, we would play about three pieces but they’d be long. And man, we’d have everybody going around and around that picnic stand, you know what I mean? The photographer, he was right behind us taking pictures. That was the best one we had.

I think that was about in 2000, 2001, 2002, somewhere along there. But man, we had a good one! (laughs) You remember that time, don’t you Martha Jean? When we had that picnic when Uncle T had the hole dug in the ground? Yeah man, we had it going on then. There were so many people there, they were parking on both sides of the road. Whooo wheee, we had a big picnic. Yeah, we sure did. It was nice. I’ll never forget that one. I think that’s about the best one we gave, ain’t it? I mean, it was all kinds of people up here, you hear me? All kinds.

I think they said Bobby Rush or somebody was supposed to have been out there on the [Sardis] dam singin’ or something out there. Yeah, they had a concert out there. Them guys, they come down, they said, “Hey man, you don’t mind if we come here?” I said, “Everybody come here!” That guy got on that telephone, man, whooo wheee. Them cars just started rollin’! (laughs) They said, “Man, we could’ve came out here while we was out there! Have y’all been doing this all the time…?” I said, “All day and all time!” Them ladies, they said, “Can we come back?” I said, “You can come back any time you want to. Any time.” Because they liked the atmosphere, you know. We had a nice time that time, I ain’t kiddin’. We had a real beautiful time. I enjoyed it myself. (laughs) Sure did.


RL Boyce and Willie Hurt, July 4, 2014

With special thanks to the Hurt family, RL Boyce, Cooper-Moore, Joe Farara, and Andreas Vingaard