After Odell's death in 1994, Thompson was often accompanied by white banjoist Bob Carlin. Thompson received several forms of recognition in the 1990s and 2000s. A 2004 television documentary, Steel Drivin' Man: The Life and Times of Joe Thompson, traced his long career, and in 2007 he received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, which carried a $20,000 cash award. He was one of 12 honorees chosen from 259 nominations from around the United States. The nearly 90-year-old Thompson also had the satisfaction of finding a group of young musicians he could mentor: the African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops studied with Thompson and drew much of the music for their first release, Dona's Got a Ramblin' Mind, from his repertoire.
As of 2007 Thompson continued to perform at local events around North Carolina's Alamance County. He thought that he might be the last survivor of a tradition that once flourished throughout much of the rural American South: the music of the African-American string band. Thompson grew up playing music in a traditional setting, helping to provide music for dances attended by both blacks and whites in his rural North Carolina community. Later in his life he was discovered by folk music researchers and received numerous opportunities to perform all over the United States, for he was almost one of a kind. Later still, he found another important opportunity: he began to pass his music on to a younger generation of African-American performers. Descended from a long line of musicians through his father, John Arch Thompson, Joe Thompson was born on December 9, 1918, near the town of Mebane in north central North Carolina.
The fiddle music his father played had both African and Anglo roots. During the era of slavery, African Americans were taught to play the fiddle, banjo, and other instruments so that they could provide entertainment at parties thrown by their masters. But the banjo was an African instrument to begin with, and the music of black fiddlers and string bands had a different flavor rhythmically from the white old-time country music alongside which it developed. The fiddle repertoire Joe Thompson played as an adult shared some pieces, such as "Soldier's Joy," with the white string band tradition, while other pieces, such as "Dona's Got a Ramblin' Mind," evoking a raccoon-hunting dog with a mind of its own, were unique to African-American musicians. When Thompson was five, his father taught Joe's older brother Nate to play the banjo, but Joe was thought to be too young for lessons at the time.
Undaunted, Joe Thompson took his father's fiddle down from its resting place and practiced it on the sly. Then he walked ten miles to pick up another fiddle from a relative who had offered it to him. It lacked strings, but he improvised them by pulling strands out of a screen door with a pair of pliers. John Arch Thompson relented and began to teach his son to play the fiddle.
Soon the youngster was performing in family groups, sometimes standing in a doorway between two rooms, each filled with dancers. Those dancers might be African Americans (who tended to call the event a frolic) or whites (who favored square dancing), but the music and even the ensembles crossed racial lines. "They wasn't that separate," Thompson told Grant Britt in an article published on the Creative Loafing Atlanta Web site. "We played with white boys. We still play with some of 'em." For many years, Thompson's most frequent performing partners were his brother Nate and a banjo-playing cousin, Odell.
In the late 1930s Thompson was well enough known in North Carolina to be invited to play at dances all over the state. The single event that did most to bring both black and white Southerners to the cities and hasten the decline of rural musical traditions was World War II, during which Thompson spent four years in the U.S. Army. He saw action at Normandy on D-Day, and met General George Patton on one occasion. By the time he returned to North Carolina, however, he found that musical fashions were changing.
"Black people moved away from this kind of music, when people said it was white people's music, into the blues," Thompson recalled to Joe Killian of North Carolina's News & Record. "But then Elvis Presley played the blues and took a lot of that music from black people. Then people thought that was white people's music, too. That messes black people up." Thompson farmed for a time and worked at the White Furniture Company factory, playing music in his spare time.
What brought him to greater prominence was the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Thompson was discovered by music researcher Kip Lornell, who brought Thompson (and often Odell) to folk festivals and fiddlers' conventions. They appeared on the American Patchwork television series (1978-85) hosted by folklorist Alan Lomax, and performed as far afield as Brisbane, Australia. The climax of this phase of Thompson's career was a concert he and Odell performed in 1991 at Carnegie Hall.
"I wish my daddy could have seen me play Carnegie Hall," Thompson told Killian. "There are a lot of places I wish he could have seen me play, but at Carnegie Hall—you know you're important when you play there." He also performed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. That year, he and Odell shared a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. By this stage of his life Thompson had become a rarity, not only as a black fiddler but as one who spiced his music with square dance calls, something seldom heard in a traditional setting in the late twentieth century. Selected discography (With Odell Thompson) Old-Time Music from the North Carolina Piedmont, Global Village Music, 1989. (Contributor, with others) Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, Folkways, 1998. Family Tradition, Rounder, 1999. (Contributor, with others) Back Roads to Cold Mountain, Folkways, 2004. Sources Periodicals Herald-Sun (Durham, NC), July 3, 2007. News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), October 8, 2004, p.
D1. Online "Family Tradition" (review), Musical Traditions (UK), http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/thompson.htm (March 1, 2008). "Fiddlin' with Tradition," Creative Loafing Atlanta, April 12, 2006, http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A60334 (March 1, 2008). "Joe Thompson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 1, 2008). "Joe Thompson," Kennedy Center, http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium/artist_detail.cfm?artist_id=THMPSNJOE (March 1, 2008). "Joe Thompson, Mebane, NC," National Endowment for the Arts, http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/fellow.php?id=2007_10 (March 1, 2008). Some memories last a life time, especially sweeter memories of the forbidden. For old-timey North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, some of his fondest and earliest memories revolve around music and more specifically around his father's fiddle, which was forbidden to him when he was a boy. Well into his eighth decade, Thompson liked to recall the days of his childhood when his farmhouse was quiet and the adults were occupied elsewhere. He'd make his way into his parents' bedroom, intent on getting his six-year-old hands on his daddy's fiddle.
All the while, he'd do his best to ignore the warnings from his father that replayed in his head predicting that he'd break the instrument because he was too young. Determined, Thompson found the fiddle and played it. He'd never had a lesson, but simply learned by keeping his eyes on his father's deft playing. His mother, Rosie, wise to her boy's desire to make music as magically as her husband Walter, covered his tracks so he wouldn't get into trouble.
The boy soon owned his own child-sized fiddle, thanks to a neighbor who raised money by selling seeds. Unfortunately, the new fiddle lacked strings, but Thompson didn't let that fact deter him. He promptly devised his own strings out of a wire screen. When not taking care of their farms, Walter Thompson and his brother, John Arch Thompson, frequently played for local square dances and the duo proved a popular attraction.
Joe Thompson joined the act when he was about seven years old, still so small that when he sat to play he wasn't able to put his feet flat on the floor. John Arch's son, Odell Thompson, also played his banjo for the local dances. Joe Thompson continued to perform through the 1930s at southern dances. His cousin Odell, however, turned to the blues guitar, although he never completely gave up old-timey fiddle music.
The Thompson cousins often played such songs as "Hook and Line" and "Cindy Gal" for family and friends. With the renewed awareness of folk music during the 1970s, including that of African Americans, Thompson and his fiddle entered the spotlight. He and his cousin played at a number of festivals, as well as at Carnegie Hall. They also traveled to Australia.
Odell Thompson passed away in 1994 as the result of a car crash. Joe Thompson suffered a stroke in later years. In 1991, the North Carolina Folk Heritage Awards honored the cousins. Thompson continued to perform with Clyde Davis and Bob Carlin.
He passed away on February 20, 2012, at the age of 93. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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