by Jack Bernhardt
NORTH CAROLINA FOLKLORE JOURNAL #50.1-2 2003
FMI and a tribute site dedicated to Tommy Thompson please visit "Tommy"
Those who knew him describe the amiable artist as "larger than life." It's an apt description, owing as much to his magnetic personality as to his robust physical presence. "Tommy sort of did things in a large way," recalls former Red Clay Ramblers fiddler and co-founder Bill Hicks. "It's not just that he was a big guy, but he did a lot of things were noticeable. He just did broad things. He was a generous, welcoming person, and he cared about people" (interview with author).
"People use the word 'charisma' in describing Tommy," adds Mike Craver, who played piano with the Ramblers from l974 to l986. "He was unusual and out of the ordinary, but in a very appealing way. I think he had a kind of authority about him. He had that kind of iconoclastic renegade quality that set in nicely with his music and his personality. He was a very warm person" (interview with author).
Born July 22, 1937, in St. Albans, West Virginia, Thompson played football for Ken yon College, where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy 1959. Following graduation, he served with the Coast Guard in New Orleans where, in his off-duty hours, he began learning to play the banjo. In l963, he resigned his commission as Lieutenant Junior Grade, and enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Soon after arriving in North Carolina, he and his guitarist wife, Bobbie, began to seek out other musicians to play with and learn from. They began attending fiddlers' conventions and hosting Friday night picking parties at their sprawling farmhouse in Durham's Hollow Rock community on Old Erwin Road. Bertram Levy, a Duke University medical student and mandolin player, and Alan Jabbour, a classically trained violinist who was earning his PhD at Duke while studying Souther fiddle tunes, were among those who attended the Friday night jams. Enjoying their common interest in old-time Southern music, the four friends founded the Hollow Rock String Band in l964.
Just before disbanding in l968, Hollow Rock released Traditional Dance Tunes (Kanawha 311), an album comprised of instrumental numbers learned from octogenarian Henry Reed, a West Virginia fiddler with whom Jabbour had apprenticed, and who provided a significant fraction of theHolloww Rock repertory. A second album, the Hollow Rock String Band (Rounder 0024), was issued in l972 and featured Thompson and Jabbour, and Jim Watson on guitar. Hollow Rock tunes began to circulate among musicians throughout the country, and before long such ancient strains as "Kitchen Girl," "Hog-Eyed Man" and "Over the Waterfall" could be heard on porches and at fiddlers' conventions through out the United States. In a 1984 interview, Thompson recalled his surprise the first time he realized that Hollow Rock was beginning to influence other musicians: "It was probably 1970 or '71 before I started hearing those tunes around," he said. "I remember one time walking down the street in Chapel Hill. There was some guy playing "Over the Waterfall." He had no idea where it was from. And David Bromberg put it on one of his albums too. I just started hearing things like that and I knew that our album was making a difference in the world" (Bernhardt '81).
Thompson was also making a difference with his bold, melodic style of claw hammer banjo playing, as aspiring banjo pickers learned his licks from the recordings or by watching him play at fiddlers' conventions. His folklorist friend, Tom Carter, suggests that Thompson was "probably the first revival banjo player to devise a complicated melodic style of drop thumb noting -- a technique that elaborated on and expanded the traditional claw hammer method of limited drop-thumb noting, thereby making the banjo an equal partner to the fiddle and mandolin" (Carter 80)
After Hollow Rock dissolved, Thompson continued to perform locally and at fiddlers' conventions, including the prestigious gathering at Union Grove, where he took first prize in the World Champion Old Time Banjo contest in l97l. The next year, he joined with Bill Hicks and Jim Watson to form the Red Clay Ramblers, an ensemble devoted to old-time Southern music with an emphasis on songs and singing. Their first album, The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCanless, was released on the Folkways label in l974. With the addition of Craver and multi-instrumentalist Jack Herrick, who joined in l976, the Ramblers were transformed into a versatile quintet capable of performing music as diverse as jazz, blues, show tunes, and fiddle-banjo breakdowns.
For twenty two years, the Ramblers would be Thompson's artistic home, providing an ideal forum for the expression of his considerable talents and his interests in music and theatre. Around Chapel Hill, the band was legendary for its lively concerts at such local haunts as the Cat's Cradle, Rhythm Alley, and TheArtsCenter of Carrboro. But the Ramblers were never just a local band; their reputation and fan base spread far and wide as they toured throughout the US, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
An imposing presence as he stood center stage, Thompson captivated crowds with his erudite wit, his powerful banjo licks, and his warm and confident baritone. Many of the Ramblers' most requested songs, including "Merchants Lunch," "Hot Buttered Rum," and "Twisted Laurel," originated from Thompson's pen. Ironically, "Twisted Laurel," the title track of the Ramblers' l976 LP, presents an eerie foretelling of the memory loss Thompson would experience in his later years: "In a tar-paper shack out of town across the track/Stands an old used up man trying to call something back/But his old memories fade like the city in the haze/And his days have flowed together like the rain."
In l974, Thompson and the Ramblers began a long and productive involvement with musical theatre, starring in the Off-Broadway hit, Diamond Studs, which detailed the life and times of outlaw Jesse James. For his dual role as Cole Younger and James' mother (for which he was arrayed in bonnet and apron) Thompson earned critical praise from the New York Times. The band also enjoyed a long collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard, a long-time Ramblers fan who invited the band to write and perform music for the Off-Broadway production of his play, A Lie of the Mind. The Ramblers wrote the score for Shepard's film Far North, and wrote music for and appeared as a medicine show band in his film Silent Tongue. Thompson's other theatre projects included the plays Life on the Mississippi, The Merry Wives of Windsor Texas, and Ear Rings, a musical adaptation of Lee Smith's novel, Oral History.
In 1984, Thompson wrote and starred in the on-man play The Last Song of John Proffit. Thoughtful, witty, and insightful, the play examines race relations in the antebellum South from the perspective of the fictional title character, an aging banjo player who had worked with Dan Emmett, the Ohio minstrel credited with writing the Southern anthem, "Dixie". The play was a creative milestone for Thompson, who performed it at the Playmakers Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, before taking it on the road.
In the early '90s, while the Ramblers were rehearsing for the Broadway production of Fool Moon, Thompson began experiencing problems with his memory, forgetting lines and at times becoming disoriented to his surroundings. He was diagnosed with the early onset of Alzheimer's-like dementia. By 1994, the disease had progressed to the point that Thompson decided to leave the Ramblers, although he continued to work on other projects in Chapel Hill. A play he was writing on the life of North Carolina banjo player and early country recording artist, Charlie Poole, was unfinished at the time of his death. Thompson played his last concert with the Red Clay Ramblers in September 1994 at TheArtsCenter of Carrboro. During Carrboro Day, in May 1998, Thompson performed with his daughter, Jesse Eustice; a month later, accompanied by Craver and Hicks, he gave his last public performance at Carrboro's Fete de la Musique.
In 1995, the North Carolina Folklore Society honored Thompson with a Brown-Hudon Folklore Award. Bland Simpson, another Red Clay Ramblers band member, wrote the citation presented by folklorist Cece Conway. Simpson applauds the work of his friend Tommy Thompson as a legacy of gifts that will continue to inspire and endure: "I have heard remarks... all over America, from people who have enjoyed and been moved by Tommy and his music, and who, because of him, have picked up a banjo or a guitar or a fiddle and learned to play. Because of Tommy Thompson, no telling how many old tunes that nearly disappeared live on, and so, because of his work and craft, our state's rich heritage is richer still" (Simpson 99).
Thompson is survived by his daughter, Jesse Thompson Eustice, and son, Tom Ashley Thompson, both of Durham. To ensure that their father's work will continue to be enjoyed ad will be available for use in scholarly and artistic pursuits, his children have donated his notebooks, journals, John Proffit materials, and correspondence to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They have also helped to establish the Tommy Thompson Memorial Fund for the University's Curriculum in Folklore. Donations can be made to the Curriculum in Folklore, English Department, The Arts and Sciences Foundation, CB #6115, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-6115.