The Old-Time Herald Volume 14, Number 4

Feature

“How Old Are You, Uncle Jimmy?”
The Fiddler Who Fiddled With His Birthdate

By Tony Russell

Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Uncle Jimmy and Ella Thompson. courtesy of Old Time Music Collection

There are few more legendary figures in the annals of old-time music than Uncle Jimmy Thompson. One November evening in 1925, he went on a radio station in Nashville and spent two hours playing his fiddle and chatting to the announcer. Among his reminiscences was the story of an eight-day fiddlers’ contest in Dallas in 1907, when, he claimed, he beat 86 fiddlers.

That evening’s broadcast might have been the end of the matter, but the station was the new and powerful WSM and the announcer was George D. Hay, the “Solemn Old Judge,” lately head-hunted from WLS in Chicago, where he had presided over a weekly musical whoop-up called the National Barn Dance. Barn dances were a coming thing on ’20s radio, as WSM would soon be reminded by its listeners. Following the broadcast, “Telegrams were received from all parts of the United States,” reported the Nashville Tennessean, “encouraging [Thompson] in his task of furnishing barn dance music for a million homes.” Hay promptly created a barn dance program on WSM, and not long afterwards he came up with a name for it: the Grand Ole Opry.

Fifty years later, the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association and the Opry acknowledged Uncle Jimmy Thompson’s pioneering role by erecting a marker over his grave in the cemetery at Laguardo, in Wilson County, Tennessee, the community in which he had spent his latter years. He had died on February 16, 1931, and on his death certificate his widow Ella had given his age as 83. So he could have been born at any time between February 17, 1847, and February 16, 1848. Whoever commissioned the grave marker opted for 1848, and that date has been inscribed into all subsequent histories of country music. It establishes Thompson as one of the oldest fiddlers to record and probably one of the oldest to broadcast. It legitimizes him, you might say, as the grand old man of country music.
Except that it doesn’t. The date is false.

 


 

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