I just completed a first draft of the book.
There is still a lot of work to do. Editing. Putting my hands on some eccentric documents. Checking and rechecking sources, and verifying interview statements. However, there is a first draft, and that’s always a good feeling.
I’ve tried in the last several blogs to focus on things I learned in the course of the research and writing work.
Today, I’m going to dwell on what I was not able to learn: things I have not been able to ferret out, sources I was not able to track to ground, information that remained elusive . . . perhaps in the hope that some FB reader might have a good idea they’d be willing to share.
So, here’s what I was not able to learn, figure out, or put together enroute to this first draft:
Serious Fun Festival: The way I understand it, the Red Clay Ramblers met Bill Irwin and David Shiner on the set of Silent Tongue in New Mexico in April 1992, and they appeared for two nights in the Serious Fun Festival in Lincoln Center, New York City, in July 1992, with the evening gaining a title and a Broadway run that opened February 1993. That was a memorable post-“Diamond Studs” gig – but I was not able to find people who could speak to their specific memories of that event.
Banjo Contests: Tommy threw his name into several banjo contests. I’ve found info on the following contests, but I’m interested in any I may have missed:
Ø Tommy attended the 4th Annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Hillsville, Virginia, in June 1970, and entered the band contest with fiddler Albert Hash.
Ø Tommy won the ribbon in the Old Time Category for “World’s Champion Banjo” at the 47th Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention in 1971, the first time the fiddler convention deployed the new set of “World’s Championship Winners” and contests divisions that eliminated the “Modern Band” category.
There may have been other contests in which Tommy competed, but vague and unspecific memories of fellow musicians, and scant records of the contests at festivals that Tommy might have attended, left me with fewer rocks to turn over in hope of finding a thread to pull on.
Festivals: Tommy, between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, attended many festivals – beyond the ones at which he competed in contests. If, as some suggested, friends had photos at any of those that featured Tommy, I was not able to shake any of those loose. Indeed, what I found was that collections of these kind of memorabilia looked less and less like archived, filed, carefully tended photos and more like stuff tossed in a box or a corner.
Later Theatrical Work: People who were involved with Tommy in later theatrical stuff were often not in a position to dredge up specific memories of those years.
Roundpeak, Blanton Owen, Tom Carter and Other Stuff: If there were two poles of banjo influence in Chapel Hill during the mid and late 1960s and early 1970s, Tommy might have been on one end, and Blanton might have been on the other. I’ve not been able to discern the nature of Tommy and Blanton’s relationship. Blanton was killed in a small plane crash in 1998. Some felt he was on his way to becoming a very influential a figure in the old time banjo world.
Tommy, Playing Writing and Acting: Tommy was drawn to both acting and play writing. I tried to follow that path to see how he got there, and where it led him. Few were prepared to venture anything in the way of good guesswork, theorizing, or seat of the pants reasoning about what I’m calling the “pairing” of these talents that might have helped me deepen my understanding of how he chose this creative trajectory. In fact, perhaps the most cogent answer to what drew Tommy and musicians like him to local theatre was the confession from one contemporary that it was a good way to meet girls.
Durham and Chapel Hill Music Scene in the 1970s: Many folks mentioned seeing the Red Clay Ramblers (RCRs) at one of their earliest performances at the Endangered Species. However, people with those memories were never able to get specific about the Durham/Chapel Hill old time music scene in the 1970s, and later. My understanding of that scene still has a lot of holes in it. I looked for people who could speak to the interaction between Old Time and Bluegrass music and musicians. I managed to corral some of this, enough to give me a sense of what things looked like, but there are and remain a number of gaps in the story – a story that is probably worth a study itself.
And in the 1980s: I was not able to get a complete picture of the music scene in Chapel Hill, especially the old time dimension of that scene, in the 1980s. There were organized efforts by people including Cece Conway and George Holt, to set up old time festivals at Duke, bringing musicians such as E.C. and Orna Ball to the area in the 1960s or 1970s. Did that continue in the 1980s? What festivals existed as annual events in the 1980s, and to what extent were local colleges instrumental in promoting OTM?
Tommy’s Banjo Playing: It was somewhat difficult to get people to characterize or describe Tommy’s banjo playing – what aspects of his banjoing were unique to him? Was he heavy on the right hand and rythmic, or melodic? Few recalled him shifting between styles – playing three or two finger up picking and clawhammer as well.
Red Clay Rambler – The Road Taken: In some ways, the Red Clay Ramblers (RCRs) could have taken the route of the Hollow Rock or the Fuzzy String Band, or the New Lost City Ramblers. They could have clung to old time music orthodoxies and pursued revival work, or collecting, or recording exclusively. But at some point, inventing new music, inventing new lyrics, and pushing the performing envelop in various directions – adding new and “unorthodox” instruments to the old time mix, writing and recording ourageous and unconventional tunes became the RCR hallmark, the RCR “thing.” Few could venture views about how and that happened.
Not For Proffitt: John Haber mentioned that Michael David and Michael Wilson might have some recollections on Tommy’s play, “The Last Song of John Proffit.” My sense was they might have read one of the original manuscripts, and talked to Tommy during the course of the development of this project – he developed several versions of the play enroute to the one that he staged and one that was staged by Rick Good. I was interested in people who saw productions of the play might have remembered about it, and about Tommy’s plans and intentions for writing future plays. Some of that emerged in the Wilson Library’s Tommy Thompson Collection at UNC.
The “Other” Ramblers: I’ve interviewed a bunch of people who could speak to Tommy’s link with the New Lost City Ramblers - including John Cohen. I was not able to speak to Tracy Schwartz. Ben Paley relayed some of my questions to his father Tomy, who sadly passed away during 2017. I had wanted to talk to Tracy about the “influence” of various musical styles or genres on his interests (Cajun and Irish music, for example). Though I found other interesting and informed interviewees, I did not get to speak to the remaining NLCRs.
Tommy’s Shepard: I tried to confirm to whom Sam Shepard turned to track the band down when he decided he wanted the Red Clay Ramblers to score his play, A Lie of the Mind, in 1985. I learned a lot from reading through the archives at Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, where I found that six-page recollection, written by Tommy about “Working with Sam.” My sense is that Tommy was taken by Sam’s writing work, his theatrical adventures, and that there was some level of compatibility between the way Tommy went about inventing new musical forms, and the way Sam went about his writing work. I was hoping on nudging that from the realm of speculation to something more concrete, but never quite found people willing to speculate about that.
There’s probably a good deal more that I will stumble across as I edit my way across every square inch of the first draft, but these were the salient things that jumped out at me as being areas where I could stand to have more information, more interviewees, as far as this first draft is concerned.