Napolian Strickland (1924-2001) was one of Mississippi's most gifted musicians in the fife and drum and country blues traditions. A lifelong resident of the Como-Senatobia area, Strickland excelled on the homemade cane fife and was also proficient on harmonica, guitar, the one-string "diddley bow," and various percussion instruments. Strickland's music was the highlight of countless fife and drum picnics in this area, and he was featured in several documentaries and recording projects.
Napolian Strickland was Mississippi's most in-demand fife player for several decades, regularly called upon to entertain at hill country picnics and sought out by folklorists eager to film and record his captivating performances. Strickland made his first recordings in 1967 for George Mitchell and later recorded for David Evans, Bill Ferris, Chris Strachwitz and Alan Lomax, all prominent folklorists or producers. In 1978 Lomax–who had earlier recorded local fife players Sid Hemphill (1942) and Ed Young (1959)–filmed Strickland for the documentary The Land Where the Blues Began and later devoted several pages to him in the book of the same name. Strickland's recordings appeared on the Arhoolie, Testament, Blue Thumb, Southern Culture, and Library of Congress labels, among others. The first band Strickland joined was Otha Turner's. Turner appeared as a drummer on several of Strickland's records and later became the area's most celebrated fife player and picnic host.
Strickland, who was born a few miles east of Como, recalled learning fife on his own, blowing the instrument while walking up and down country roads. He was reportedly inspired by a fife player who played with drummer John Tyler's group in Sardis. Strickland also talked of learning to play music by following his grandfather's instructions to sit on a grave in a cemetery at midnight. Strickland enlivened picnics both with his fife, leading a procession of drummers through the crowds, and with his uninhibited moves. The picnics included reunions, family gatherings, church socials, and celebrations sponsored by local farmers and businesses. Strickland did farm work for most of his life, often living with and working alongside his mother, Dora Tuggle, and occasionally traveling to play at festivals. Sometimes described as a savant, he went to the fourth grade in school, according to census records. Although different birth dates have been cited, including 1919 in Social Security files, his birth certificate was dated October 6, 1924. His first name was spelled several different ways in official records, as was that of his grandfather, Napoleon Wilford, but family sources rendered it as Napolian at his funeral. Strickland lived in a convalescent home in his final years and died at North Oak Regional Medical Center in Senatobia on July 21, 2001. Several events have been held in his honor in Como, including Napoleon Strickland Day, organized by Julius Harris and Beverly Findley.
Among the musicians who worked often with Strickland and Turner was R. L. Boyce (b. August 15, 1955). Boyce played drums on recording sessions with other artists, including Jessie Mae Hemphill, and recorded on his own singing and playing guitar. Other Como fife players have included John Bowden (1903-2000), who inspired Turner, and Willie Hurt. R&B singer Joe Henderson lived on the Hayes plantation, southwest of Sardis, as did guitarist Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey and banjoist Lucius Smith. Henderson and Kinsey both moved to Gary, Indiana. Henderson (1937-1964), a Como native, recorded the Top Ten hit “Snap Your Fingers” in 1962.
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