Joe Thompson, 1918-2012: County treasure, irreplaceable artist left lasting legacy

Listening to the sounds Joe Thompson could conjure with a fiddle and bow was like traveling in time. His folk artistry hearkened to an era when musical sounds were spare, production scant and heart in full supply.

The music stopped on Monday when Thompson, of Mebane, died at Alamance Regional Medical Center at age 93 — ending a line of family fiddle-playing that stretched into the 1800s and beyond. A traditionalist to the end, Thompson made music — and influenced a current generation of musicians — up to his final days.

Thompson’s style of black country fiddle-playing — old-timey and then some to our blissful ears — was taught to him as a child by his father, John Arch Thompson, who gave his son what his father before him had handed down. In essence, centuries of sounds created in slave quarters to pass the time.

“He was playing two (hundred) or 300 years back, because he was playing what he had heard his father play, and he was playing what he had heard his father play,” Joe Thompson’s cousin Iris Thompson Chapman told the Times-News in a story about Joe Thompson’s influence on current music. She’s a retired Elon University professor who created a documentary called “The Life & Times of Joe Thompson.”

It should be required viewing for Black History Month.

Born in Orange County in 1918, Thompson moved to Alamance County in 1948 and lived in Mebane from that time forward. He found fame in the 1970s during a revival of African-American folk music and with cousin Odell Thompson played famous venues like New York’s Carnegie Hall. He traveled the United States and the world with his fiddle.

In his later years Thompson became something of an Alamance County and state treasure. He was given the North Carolina Heritage Award from the N.C. Arts Council in 1991. As he continued to play publicly in the new century — overcoming a stroke in 2001 to do so — he was honored in 2004 by the city of Mebane with a Joe Thompson Day. His crowning award came in 2007 when Thompson traveled to Washington to pick up a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Friends like Larry Vellani of Mebane or Joe Newberry of the N.C. Arts Council remember Thompson not only as a musician with a style for the ages, but a man to be admired.

“He’s not replaceable,” Newberry told the Times-News, but “we can still take the lessons he taught us about music and how to live your life.”

Newberry said Thompson’s legacy will be the young musicians he continued to influence up to his final days. He was a mentor to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina musical group that traveled to Mebane to jam and learn from a living legend. Their work with Thompson in 2005 led to a Grammy award in 2011 for Best Traditional Folk Album.

There could probably be no finer tribute.

And perhaps the music hasn’t ended after all.