Octogenarian Fiddler Joe Thompson Is a Master of the Frolic Tradition
It's a May afternoon and I'm sitting with Joe Thompson, 86, in his living room in Mebane, North Carolina, a small town outside of Raleigh and halfway between the mountains and the coast. We're talking about his daddy and his granddaddy, both fiddlers, when Thompson suddenly says, "What did the blackbird say to the crow?"
He pauses, then goes on, "It ain't gonna rain no more."
He laughs and says, " Hunh! That's all in the music."
Then he sings in a light, high voice, "What did the blackbird say to the crow? Ain't gonna rain no more. How in the world the old folks know it ain't gonna rain no more?"
He stops singing.
"That's old stuff. That's the way you learn a lot of stuff."
"That song's from your childhood, isn't it?" I ask.
"But you still play those songs."
"Oh, yeah, play 'em in a minute."
"And they were songs your dad played."
"And you're pretty sure your granddad played them even though you never met him."
"He played fiddle, too," Thompson says. "He was born around 1849 in slavery days."
"Did your dad talk about him?"
"He didn't talk a lot," Thompson says. "See, my granddad took sick and died before any of his grandchildren were grown. But I met my momma's folks. They were just old-timey church folks."
"You told me that one of your younger relatives doesn't play music because of the church."
"Well, yeah, but I happen to be 21 years old myself, you know what I mean? I've done what I want to do."
"Twenty-one years old." "That's right."
"You also told me you were a member of your church all your life. You were on the board of trustees and even served as chairman of the board for the church. So people didn't look down on you for playing music, but they kind of frowned upon . . ."
"Sometimes they want to."
"Why do you think that is?"
"It's trying to be too good," he offers. "My daddy had to stop playing. He said the Lord stopped him."
"When you had your stroke in 2000, did you think it was a message telling you not to play?"
"I tell you what, I had to think about this thing a whole lot because I can't do away with this—I can't play the fiddle the way I used to."
"But you still want to, still play, so you didn't take this as a message to stop."
"No, I'm still playing, still trying. Like I said to you a few minutes before, 'What did the blackbird say to the crow? Ain't gonna rain no more . . .' Well, how did he know? There's something there. You see?"
"Something about feeling, about knowing something through feelings?"
"That's exactly it, now you're getting it. There's feeling got to come in there."
A National Treasure
Thompson was born on December 9, 1918, the fifth son of fiddler John Arch Thompson and the nephew of banjo player Walter Thompson whose son Odell was Joe's musical partner for many years. In 1991, Joe and Odell Thompson received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award and this past summer, Joe received a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor given to Americans for their contributions to the traditional arts.
These days, a serious stroke has slowed him down, but he's still teaching and performing. Earlier this year, he spent time doing both at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. And he's exerting considerable influence on a new generation of African-American string bands; this summer, the Carolina Chocolate Drops—Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson from North Carolina, and Dom Flemons from Arizona—released their first recording, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, which features tunes they learned from Thompson, including the title track.
Thompson, who for many years was thought to be the last African-American string-band fiddler performing in a tradition that goes back to before the Civil War, plays the square-dance music of the North Carolina Piedmont region ( see music here). Called frolic in the black community, it's a music that historically was family- and community-oriented, and played for a wide array of events. One of the most common of these was the house party at which the furniture was pushed out of the way and the musicians stood in the doorway between two rooms playing for dancers on both sides. Sometimes dances were held out of doors on a wooden floor laid on the ground.
Historically, in the late summer and fall, local musicians played for corn shuckings and during the Christmas season, Thompson remembers, they played every night for dancing, listening, and singing. As a tiny child, he would roll around on the floor at his daddy's feet while John Arch fiddled. "My daddy was the baddest fiddler in the territory," he says. John Arch and his brothers Jake and Walter were in great demand for dances in both the white and black communities. When he was about five or six, Joe began to pester his father day and night to let him play the fiddle, but John Arch was afraid the boy was too little, that he'd break the instrument. Joe got ahold of the fiddle a few times when his father wasn't around, so John Arch hung the instrument up high on the wall where his son couldn't reach it.
"I can remember looking up there and trying to climb up on something, but I couldn't reach that fiddle," he remembers. "My daddy put it just out of my reach."
One day Joe was out in the garden with his mother when her cousin Jimmy came by. Jimmy asked how they were getting on and Joe's mother said, "Oh, all right, but this boy's worrying me. He's trying to play at his daddy's fiddle but he's too little. He'll break it."
Jimmy listened to her lament and then said that he had been selling seed packets of garden vegetables to collect the premium from the company and that he'd gotten a little fiddle for that premium. "You send that boy to my house and I'll give him that fiddle."
So Joe took an empty flour sack his mother had washed for him and walked across the fields. Jimmy put the fiddle in the sack, slung it over Joe's shoulder, and sent the boy home.
When Joe took the fiddle out, his brother Nate said, "You got a fiddle, but it's missing the two first strings. What you gonna do about that?"
Joe said, "I'll ask Papa to get me some strings."
When Nate laughed and told his younger brother that their papa couldn't buy him any strings, Joe went out to the tractor shed, got a pair of pliers, and pulled two wires from the bottom of the screen door where he figured his mother wouldn't notice. He'd seen his older brothers and cousins do this and knew he could stretch that steel wire and make it work on the fiddle.
"In a week's time," Thompson says, "I was playing 'Hook and Line': 'You get a line, I'll get a pole / Meet me at the crawdad hole.'"
That was the first tune Thompson played and he had taught it to himself.
"I knew what to do 'cause I'd heard my daddy tune and play so much," he says. "Later, when I was working on the farm sitting up on the tractor a tune would come into my head. At the end of the day, I'd jump off that tractor, go in the house, and try to play the tune. And I did play it. Or some- times now I'll sit down to play with other people. They'll start a tune and by the end I'm playing the same thing they are. It's from the ear but it's got to be in you.
"You got to want to do it."
The Race Issue
It's so hot in the house that Thompson and I decide to take a drive in my air-conditioned car. We head off to visit some of the places in Orange County where his family and friends had lived. He takes me first to the spot where he was born on the High Rock Road about five miles from his house in Mebane. He says that his grandfather is buried on one of the hills nearby but he isn't sure which one. He points out several farms where his parents and grandparents had worked rented land. It's strange to see that almost all the farm fields are gone, replaced by woods and suburban housing tracts.
Thompson takes me to one last spot and says, "This is my daddy's farm. He owned 161 acres.
There were 12 springs on that land. My daddy gave two acres to the school board to build an elementary school for black kids. The county agreed to build the school if my daddy gave them the land. If he hadn't saved enough money to buy that farm and then give the land for the school, I don't know what we'd have done. We didn't have a high school, but a bunch of the school people bought a brand new 1937 Ford school bus so we could go on to Hillsborough High. They were looking for someone to drive that school bus and my daddy said, 'What about Joe? He could drive.'
"So I did. Drove the bus and went to high school at the same time.
"In 1929, my daddy lost his farm and he had to rent a place. We lived there for 20- some years on that rented farm, my daddy farming for rich white folks. He had to keep his mouth shut and go on."
Then Thompson adds, "I don't mean to hurt your feelings, David. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I have to tell you that I'm a full-blooded Democrat. You ain't never been black, but you know what I'm covering—black folks have to do a whole lot of things for themselves."
One day during my visit, Thompson tells me about a cousin who was a college professor. From what he says, I can tell he is very proud of her. "Yes, I am proud of her. She is teaching college and teaching white folks."
"Seems like when you were a young man in the 1930s, you couldn't imagine a black person being a college professor and teaching white people," I respond.
"No—teaching white folks."
"When you came back from World War II . . ."
"Let me tell you what I ran into," he says. "I'd come out of the army, and come back home to work in White's Furniture Factory. They had a place that said: 'Black folks don't drink here. White folks drink here.'"
"Like a water fountain?"
"A water fountain. We tore that shit down that day."
"You weren't going to put up with that anymore."
"That's exactly right," he says. "And that was because of the war. I wasn't going to put up with it. These things come up so simple sometimes. Clear enough for me."
Thompson laughs. Then he tells me his cousin had called him up one day and said, "Joe, I'm awful sorry to tell you this, but your great-granddaddy was a tall white man."
Thompson laughs again.
For many years, people have described Thompson as the last African-American square-dance fiddler. When Thompson was young he and his brother Nate, along with their cousin Odell, played regularly for dances, and before them their parents were playing for the same kind of dances. Thompson says that John Arch and Walter sometimes played dances six nights a week.
"They were in demand, yes sir," he says. "And Nate and Odell and I played a lot, too."
When World War II started, Thompson went into the army and quit playing. When he came home, black players were moving away from the fiddle and banjo and the square-dance tradition, and Thompson rarely played again in public until the 1970s. Some people say the postwar rise of rhythm and blues caused the demise of the string bands. Or perhaps it was the increased opportunities for black musicians in pop music generally—the development of both white- and black-owned radio stations that featured black pop music. Or it was the increasing movement of blacks out of the rural South and into the urban North.
In Iris Thompson Chapman's 2004 film documentary The Life and Times of Joe Thompson, the veteran fiddler is described as a man whose life and music are about community building. By simply continuing to play the older fiddle and banjo music, Thompson kept alive the idea that we can cross the boundaries of generations, cultures, and races.
I ask Thompson if he felt differently about his music after he came back from the war.
"No," he says flatly.
Ain't Gonna Rain
It's the summer and I catch up with Thompson and the members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops during their weeklong stint on the faculty of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. Thompson had been to Fiddle Tunes twice before, but never with younger black musicians who were carrying on the Piedmont tradition that he embodies.
Fiddle Tunes includes band labs composed of groups of musicians who come together to learn a particular style. In addition to the band labs that are open to any participating musician, there is a separate band lab for children. For many years I've directed this children's band lab for anywhere from 10 to 40 musicians aged 3 to 15. I teach the kids a song by one of the faculty members, trying to help the young people play in the style of the elder and understand what it means to pass music down from generation to generation playing by ear. The elder musicians are invited to come and talk about their music and lives with the kids. Maybe they give them (and me) a few pointers.
Near the end of the week, the kids play for the elders as well as for a dance and a concert along with the other band labs.
This year the kids learn "Dona Got a Rambling Mind," one of the first tunes Thompson learned from his father and one that is identified almost entirely with Joe and the Piedmont region. I watch, as I do each year, as the kids experience the power of music in daily life, the pleasure of old and young carrying music along together. I can see when they move from playing notes to being touched by the meaning of the music, by caring for a tradition while renewing it.
One of the things Dom Flemons of the Chocolate Drops tells the kids' band—who call themselves the Droplets—is that the young members of this emerging string band love the old music and are taking it in new directions based on their own interests.
This is what musicians have always done, Flemons says.
On Thursday, I take the kids over to play for Thompson. They line up and blast off, belting out the vocal parts of "Dona Got a Rambling Mind" and leaning into their fiddles on the instrumental parts. Flemons dances around in the back of the room; band mate Justin Robinson grins from ear to ear; I get a feeling that Rhiannon Giddens cries just a little.
Thompson sits directly in front of the kids, leaning on his cane and watching with a kind of serene pleasure. Then he poses for photos with the students. Thirty-five kids, ages five and eight and ten and 13 cluster around at the feet of the master.
Thompson smiles and I think, "What did the blackbird say to the crow?"
And then I remember the answer, "Ain't gonna rain no more."