Tommy Thompson, 1937-2003

Bill Hicks
Old Time Herald, Volume 8, Number 8, Summer 2003

As I write these words, Tommy Thompson, banjoist, songwriter, actor, playwright, bon vivant, old-time revivalist and “whatzit” innovator, has been gone for about a week—and for over a decade.  In 1994, while working on the show Fool Moon in New York City, he became aware of his growing mental confusion and left the stage and the Red Clay Ramblers, the band he’d cofounded with Jim Watson and myself in 1972, for Chapel Hill and a battery of diagnostic tests.  He soon learned he was afflicted with an “Alzheimer’s-like” illness.  I hadn’t seen Tommy for a number of years at that point in his life, and I ran into his former wife, folklorist Cece Conway, at a health food store in Chapel Hill and heard this news from her.  There were many concerns—like most travelling musicians, Tommy had been little prepared for medical disaster, his family scattered to the winds. 

I met Tommy in 1966.  That’s part of The Sixties, for those youthful gentle readers who look back through the wrong end of the telescope and see all this past conflated, compressed, as it will be to those born in these latter days, the ‘80s, ‘90s---I know it’s all just ‘back there,” along with WWII (one obit put Tommy in WWII, the youngest vet I guess, snuck into the Gyreenes at the age of 7 or something), Korea, the Civil War… the Big Asteroid.  Nope, Tommy was in the Coast Guard in the early ‘60s, then came to UNC Graduate School in Philosophy in ’64, and I was a co-graduate student with him, swimming in Kant and Wittgenstein, Strawson and Sellars and Aristotle, before I had a clue that he picked the merrywang and would rather be singing a Charlie Poole song than sleeping. 

Tommy loved people, and threw grad student parties and music parties that before long turned into legendary jam sessions, with a band in every room of the old house where he and his wife Bobbie, and their daughter Jessie lived, out in the Hollow Rock community between Durham and Chapel Hill, NC.  Once Alan Jabbour and Bertram Levy had begun showing up at the parties, the Hollow Rock String Band came into being, and in ’67 produced a remarkable recording on the little Kanawaha label that was a seed in the garden that has become today’s “old-time scene.”  The Fuzzy Mountain String Band started that same year, blossoming out of the same sessions, eventually with Bobbie Thompson as its guitarist.  Then in ’72, about six months after Bobbie had died in a February car crash, came the Ramblers. 

Jim, Tommy and I played local clubs like the Endangered Species, the Town Hall, the Cat’s Cradle, and practiced weekly, working up harmony vocals, fiddle tunes, gospel numbers, drawing on mountain collecting trips we and others of the larger musical circle had done, and on old ‘78s and some LP reissues of ‘78s when we could find them.  You could order a tape of non-reissued stuff from certain ’78 collectors too—I got a reel-to-reel full of the Tobacco Tags, and one of Dave Macon’s recordings, and tapes got passed around from the little group of folks who’d met each other at places like Galax and Union Grove. 

We built a band, Mike Craver joining in early ’73, ostensibly as a bass player, in fact bringing his powerful keyboard skills and a strong interest in both old sentimental songs like Ivor Norvello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and the Carter family’s repertoire.  We kept our day jobs, and had a lot of fun on weekends, and recorded our first record, The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin’ Al McCanless for Moe Ashe’s Folkways label. (Fiddlin’ Al had played a lot with Tommy and Jim prior to ’72, as the New Academic String Band.) Occasionally we’d get out of town—we “sold” our master to Moe on a trip to New York to play a gig with the Balfa Brothers at Columbia University, and managed a trip up to Café Lena somewhere in ’73. We went to the fiddlers conventions in the summer—Galax, Independence, Glenville, Athens, Alabama—and it was sometimes handy to be hooked up with a guy on the ole 5-Strang who used to be a guard in college football days and could literally shrug off a drunk into the next campsite—I saw that happen a couple of times.  In early ’74 we recorded Stolen Love, our second album, and were working on a deal with Flying Fish Records when this local musical collaboration we’d gotten into—Diamond Studs, a musical life of Jesse James—was picked up by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and mounted off Broadway. Studs opened to rave reviews on New Year’s Eve, l974, Tommy stealing the stage in a couple of scenes in his role as Jesse’s mother, and Stolen Love came out that summer, just in time to help with gas money as we headed out on the road in the fall of ’75, fulltime old-time musicians.  As Patrick Couton, the French folk musician from Nantes who helped get us to Europe in 1977 later remarked, “quel bizarre.”  Ain’t nothing like the New York Times crowing, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” to get a career going.  By then we had added Jack Herrick, who came in like Mike as a bass player and then revealed he could blow a trumpet as well.

People asked me this past week what was Tommy’s greatest contribution, what would be remembered?  I don’t know that it’s possible to give such an answer now—it’s like, “who will win the Super Bowl” or something isn’t it?  He wrote some fine songs—“Hot Buttered Rum,” “Twisted Laurel,” and he and Mike collaborated on a lot of others—“The Ace,” ‘Merchant’s Lunch,” their zany rewriting of “Paper Doll” into “Corrugated Lady.”  Later, in the ‘80s, after I’d left the band, Tommy wrote his one-man play, The Last Song of John Proffit, the story of Dan Emmett.  The Ramblers evolved away from old-time and into a team of acoustic musicians with the ability to work in theatre contexts.  They collaborated with Sam Shepard on three of his plays and produced the very interesting Lie of the Mind LP as a result of one of these collaborations.  They built a musical based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor that’s still a work in progress.  They collaborated with Roger Miller and Doug Marlette.  And eventually all of the original Ramblers but Tommy had left.  And then Tommy was gone too, but the band played on, and last year put out a tasty CD called Yonder featuring old-time fiddling and some original songs—a lot like the LPs we made back in the ‘70s.  Maybe if Rounder will reissue Stolen Love and Chuckin’ the Frizz some day you’ll get to hear what the original hubbub was all about.  (Tommy’s live version of “Rum,” on the latter LP, is worth the price of admission.)

Like Bland Simpson, current pianist for the “Blurs” said to me, ‘you guys put up the flag for us.”  Certainly Tommy’s contribution to this is tremendous.  He was a man of optimism, a guy who loved to play banjo and sing—and perform.  We all did.  Tommy in those early years was an open hearted, open armed collaborator.  I’ve never had more fun than at some of our practice sessions, working up a song till suddenly there it was—and then putting it into a set at the first opportunity, and usually discovering that, yes, it worked, “they” liked it. Applause is the sonic boom when you crack the post-modern communication barrier.  And Tommy managed to book us too--to make those dreary phone calls, to get turned down and keep on calling till there was a tour to drive that would make more or less financial sense given the times and the price of gasoline.  The Ramblers were like the Beatles—a democratic institution, not a front man and sidemen who shuffled in and out at his whim or genius as the case may be—but the Red Clay Ramblers are Tommy’s shared legacy, no doubt about it.  In a musical world where the big players are bands like the Rolling Stones, the Ramblers did, and do make a living, an acoustic band playing a lot of old-time music, fiddle tunes and such.  It’s rather an accomplishment when you think about it!  Personally, what I’ll always remember is Uncle Wide Load’s big laugh and that intense look on his face as he powered through a fiddle tune on the banjo.  I get to play the fiddle in that memory too. 

Could be Tommy’s finest hour was some 3 AM in the last years, though.  It’s possible.  He got a hell of a blow when those test results came back, and yet he could say to NPR in 1996 that he was a happy man, that’d he’d had a great life doing exactly what he wanted to do, at the top of his game, for over 20 years.  “It’d have been a lot worse if it’d come when I was just starting out,” he said.  He had to face this fear from the inside out, 24/7, of being lost in your own room, your own bed, your own head.  And he did.  Everyone said he became kinder, sweeter, as he lived through his final years.  His illness gave his children and his larger family an opportunity of reconciliation, and they took it, embraced it just like he embraced that old skinhead Fairbanks he’d found in someone’s attic back in the late ‘60s.  His daughter Jessie Eustice wrote a play about him—about this dance of aging parents and their children’s love—A Tune for Tommy.  It’s had two runs now in Durham, and who knows where it’ll go. You put these notes in bottles, that’s what creation really is.  You have to have enough faith to give the things a long heave into the sea, and then you can only stand there and squint and wonder.  So when a guy like Tommy gives one a far fling, it’s inspiring to us all.  Like Tommy Jarrell used to say, “Living well is the best revenge.”  –Bill Hicks, 1/31/’03

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March 14, 2003