The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 9

Joe Thompson at 90
By David Brower
photo: David Persoff

Joe Thompson celebrated a milestone this past December. “Born in 1918, the 9th day of December,” Thompson said proudly at the time, “90 years old. I traveled all kinds of roads a man can travel.  Sometimes up, sometimes down, but I never did give up.  I kept on moving.”

Thompson is a man of great achievement, both as an artist and as a human being.  Bob Carlin, who has accompanied Thompson on banjo for years, says,  “He's the last North Carolina Piedmont African American string band musician who learned in the tradition. He is possibly the last African American traditional string band musician in the United States.” But Carlin says the appeal of Thompson’s music goes far beyond its cultural and historic significance.  “He knows how to drive a dance. I've played with him at dances, and it's amazing to watch the way he controls the way the people dance, with the way he structures his music, where he puts the emphasis.”

Thompson was “discovered” by the wider music community in the 1970s.  A graduate student named Kip Lornell at UNC-Chapel Hill set out to find and document every African American banjo player in the North Carolina Piedmont.  That search led him to Odell Thompson, Joe’s banjo-playing cousin.  Lornell was in turn followed by folklorists Cece Conway, Glenn Hinson, and others, who sought out Thompson, his family, and their tunes.  Wayne Martin, Folklife Program Director for the North Carolina Arts Council, says he was overwhelmed the first time he encountered Joe and Odell Thompson. “At that time they were the only African American fiddle and banjo players who played that kind of ensemble string band music together.”  Martin says.  “There were other banjo players—for example Etta Baker and others were playing—but [Joe and Odell] were holding that fiddle and banjo sound together.  That fiddle and banjo ensemble was the nucleus of all the square dance music for so many generations. They were the only ones doing it.”

Joe and Odell performed as a duo into the 1990s, touring internationally and playing at many prestigious festivals.  “We played all these frolicking tunes.  We played every-which-a-way. I can’t tell you all where I been with this fiddle.”

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