Joe ThompsonMarch 06, 2012
Joe Thompson is an 87 year-old Old-time traditional black string band musician from Cedar Grove, North Carolina in the Piedmont region near the Virginia border. Joe plays fiddle and sings in his Granddaddy's style of music that can be traced in America to the 1700's, and even earlier to origins in Africa. Joe is one of the last of the black musicians of his generation who play this style of music. His music builds community by crossing boundaries of generations, races, and cultures.
Joe's grandparents, Bob and Kate, had eleven children. Most of the boys played a string band instrument and were required to practice until they got it right. Joe's dad, John Arch — a fiddler himself — and his strict discipline of 'practicing until you got it right' was passed on to his children. Joe started to learn to play the fiddle when he was only 5 years old. He and his older brother Nate played for both black and white dances before their legs were long enough for their feet to touch the floor when seated and playing. Joe and Nate played with their father's band, made up of their uncles, and eventually their banjo playing cousin Odell. Dances would be held following corn-shuckings, tobacco-strippings and other community events. Frequently, the family would play six dances in a single week ' three for black events and three for white events.
Joe and his family stayed busy playing Old-time music until Joe enlisted in World War II. He drove a bulldozer in an engineering battalion and helped construct pontoon bridges. When Joe returned from the war on Thanksgiving Day, 1945, he discovered that the interest in traditional string band music was waning. 'Rhythm & Blues' and black-oriented radio stations were becoming popular with black audiences, leading toward the development of Rock and Roll. The type of old-fashioned string band entertainment that Joe and his family played before he joined the service was no longer popular, and Joe stopped playing and worked in a furniture factory for 38 years.
Joe did not start playing again until the 1970's when a college student studying traditional music heard about him and the music he used to play. With the encouragement of the student, Joe teamed up with his first cousin, Odell, who played Clawhammer banjo with him years before. This began their revival as the 'New String Band Duo'. They played festivals in nearly every state and country including the American Fiddler's Festival, and in foreign countries as well.
At the peak of their fame, they performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. At the height of Joe's musical revival he experienced a devastating blow, the accidental death of Odell in 1994. Bob Carlin, a master Clawhammer banjo player from Virginia, started to play with Joe and continues to do so today.
Folklorist Kip Lornell ' the student who rediscovered Joe — said that three factors that helped integrate America: 'Elvis Presley, Motown, and rural America', in other words, white and black musical influences and the combination of the two. String Band music was rural America. During the 1930's and 40's in Cedar Grove there was racial segregation, but the daily lives of working-class blacks and whites was not that different, and social interaction was an integral part of daily life. Whites and blacks labored side-by-side and shared their cultures. Black musicians such as Joe were accepted by whites because of their musical ability, even in 'Jim Crow' times.
Joe and Odell have maintained aspects of many different cultures shared by both blacks and whites from a 300-year-old musical legacy that reaches back to Africa. The Thompson's are unique in that they have both fiddle and banjo playing history in their family, not the banjo only. Joe held onto the black string band tradition when many of his peers turned to Rhythm & Blues, allowing us to experience an important part of our musical heritage that was almost completely lost.
Passing and sharing musical tradition gives a real sense of being part of a greater family, culture and heritage.