Sunday, June 2, 2019

Writing About Tommy Thompson of Red Clay Rambler Fame

by Lew Stern
Bealeton, Virginia
June 2, 2019

In May 2019 my book on the banjo player Tommy Thompson was published my McFarland of North Carolina in the Spring of 2019 under the title: Tommy Thompson: New Timey String Band Musician, as part of the "Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies" series.

A second book, which I wrote in collaboration with David Brooks, features Tommy's banjo playing style:
“He Could Surely Make a Banjo Talk” - 109 Clawhammer Banjo Tabs of Old Time and New Time Tunes Played By Tommy Thompson.   Original Tabs by Patrick Couton.  Arrangements by Tommy Thompson.  Reformatted tabs by David Brooks.  Text by Lew Stern and David Brooks. 

Much of my initial interest in Tommy derived from what Dwight Diller had to say about Tommy's dramatic, rhythmic banjo playing.  

Dwight met Tommy at the 4th Annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Hillsville, Virginia, in June 1970, and was significantly impressed with the banjo work of this West Virginian-born musician who was then firmly ensconced in the Durham/Chapel Hill old time scene.  Dwight was more than surprised at how close his own banjo playing sounded to Thompson’s spirited banjo style. 

That led me to look closely at the extent to which Tommy’s West Virginia-ness figured in his musicality. 

I had not listened to Tommy Thompson’s Red Clay Ramblers once I took an interest in old time music in the 1980s, and when I turned to their music after the 2016 book project, I looked hard and quickly for ways to get smart about the old time music community that developed in Durham and Chapel Hill in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Over time, with the good help of people like Bill Hicks, Al McCanless, Mike Craver and Jim Watson - and in fact all the Red Clay Ramblers in that long-lived band - I pieced together a picture of Tommy's musical trajectory during his Red Clay Rambler days.  And I found my way into another round of discussions with such talents as Alan Jabbour, Gail Gillespie, Bland Simpson, Thomas Carter, and many, many others who gave me a remedial education in southern string band music and tutored me about the path breaking musical work of the Hollow Rock String Band in the 1960s, and the unique, creative force that came to be in the early 1970s when the Red Clay Ramblers came together.

I suppose the first singular image that stuck with me when I started working on the book project about Tommy came from Cece Conway’s videographic work capturing the banjo playing and daily life of Dink Roberts.  Tommy was pictured in that video sitting and enjoying Dink’s banjo playing and antics of young family members, reveling in the moment, broad brim hat and bearded face smiling and relaxed. 

That led me to scrutinize the Library of Congress holdings in the form of tape recorded visitations with the African American banjo players Cece interviewed for he book, African Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.)

And I suppose the first inkling I had of Tommy Thompson as a presence and a force in the development of old time music and old time music communities in the 1960s came from discussions with Alan Jabbour, who made the case that in the 1960s Durham/Chapel Hill was probably the first major old time music revival scene. 

That led me to dive into the question of how and why the Durham/Chapel Hill old time music scene differed from other such musical communities. 

In the mid-1960s, in Chapel Hill, Tommy and his first wife Bobbie opened their home to a weekly musical gathering that had started out in the Hollow Rock Grocery Story, but quickly outgrew that simple wooden building – a structure that was preserved as a historic landmark in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

Out of that weekly jam on Randolph Road, Alan Jabbour, Bertram Levy, and Tommy and Bobbie drew together as the Hollow Rock String Band; the band recorded their first album in 1967.  And from the same crucible, the Fuzzy Mountain String Band emerged at about the same time - Bobbie Thompson was actually a member of both bands before her tragic death in 1972.        

There was another dimension to Tommy.  He was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of North Carolina beginning in 1963.  Though he did not finish writing his doctoral dissertation, he made enough headway in looking at the question of how we think about what we perceive to suggest that matters of thinking, creating, innovating, and how we look at those processes was, to Tommy, inextricably tied to how he looked at the act of making music.  By 1970, Tommy was teaching college philosophy courses.  He held a number of appointments over several years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he taught from the fall of 1971 to 1972, and at North Carolina State in Raleigh, where he began teaching in 1972. 

That prompted me to look closely at the extent to which his focus on philosophy reflected an interest in how people perceived and thought about music, and other forms of creativity. 

In the end, when confronted with practical life realities, Tommy looked at what a "life of the mind" - a career as a philosophy professor - would entail, and what a lifetime in a traveling performing band might mean, and he chose music. 

In 1970 - 1972, still immersed in the local musical scene, Tommy began hatching plans to draw local musician friends into a band.  That band emerged in 1972 as the Red Clay Ramblers.  

I found myself looking closely at the way the band evolved during Tommy’s tenure, the nature of Red Clay Rambler band dynamics – leadership and decision making as they affected band direction and repertoire choices; band trajectory, as they veered off into song writing, musician’s theatre, acting work.      

The way I look at it, I was not writing a biography of his life, and I was not writing band histories. 

I was writing a biography of his creativity, with the goal of telling the story of his musical endeavors, his teaching, and his intellectual energy. 

The manuscript is now in the hands of the publisher.  I can pause for a moment to answer the question: what most captivated me about Tommy? 

If I had to select one thing, it would be the way Tommy interacted with old practitioners of traditional music, the southern fiddlers and others he sought out in the 1960s and 1970s, the African-American musicians who fascinated him, and with whom he interacted while assisting Cece Conway with her research work on "Black Banjo Songsters" of North Carolina's Piedmont region.

There was an intensity to Tommy’s musical interactions with elder source musicians – his visits to the homes of those elders; the work he did with revivalists in terms of studying the old music and finding ways to play tunes authentically, and creatively.  

That concentrated excitement shows up in the play he wrote in the early 1980s - "The Last Song of John Proffitt " -  in the ardor that Proffitt brings to the task of explaining his circuitous path in life on the minstrel circuit in the mid 1800s, and the way that trajectory took him close to the music, and wedded minstrelsy to his life.

“The Last Song of John Proffit,” a one man play written by Tommy Thompson over the course of a decade, from 1980 to 1991, and refined and revised during the course of its several performances, was in its origins about Dan Emmett, an American songwriter, entertainer, and founder of the first troupe of the blackface minstrel tradition who laid claim to the tune “Dixie,” that research has shown was actually  authored by an African American family, the Snowdens.  In the earliest versions of the play, Tommy switched over to an invented character, John Proffitt, as the center of gravity for the play, the single person who holds center stage in this one-man theatrical work. 

It is hard to say whether the incomplete play about Charlie Poole might have wandered down similar paths of thought that Tommy took in working on "The Last Song", but cryptic notes dating to the 1980s, Tommy thought about two African-American banjo players, Dink Roberts and James Roberts - who he had met in the Piedmont area while working with Cece Conway on research for her dissertation that became her book about Black Banjo Songsters - and the challenges the two musicians might have had to cope with in their musical life. 

During the course of my research and writing work, it became clear to me that Tommy Thompson brought a special touch to the five-string banjo in both his work with the Hollow Rock String Band and the Red Clay Ramblers that contributed to the distinguished musical accomplishments of those two bands. 

In the Hollow Rock context, he brought a precision to his banjo playing that complemented Jabbour's fastidious fiddle work in a way that accurately replicated the traditional tunes played by fiddlers such as Henry Reed and meshed seamlessly with the rhythmic guitar playing of Bobbie Thompson and the driving mandolin work brought to the mix by Bertram Levy. 

In the Red Clay Ramblers, Tommy's personal equation for mixing uncannily strong melodic playing with a firm rhythmic way of getting at a tune on the five string banjo lent itself to the edgy ventures of the Ramblers into all manner of music - Tin Pan Alley, jazz, folk, as well as traditional southern mountain fiddle tunes and more contemporary country music alongside of original music and lyrical compositions by Tommy and Mike Craver, and by Bill Hicks. 

In the mid-1970s, Tommy decided to take a crack at developing an inventory of banjo tablature - with the assistance of his friend Patrick Couton, a French musician who traveled to North Carolina with the goal of learning some banjo from Tommy.

Patrick Couton's tabs struck me as an artifact of Tommy's playing in the 1970s, reflecting the influence of his Hollow Rock String Band years, and showing at least glimpses of the clawhammer style banjo playing that would be shaped in the context of Red Clay Rambler musical anarchism that opened Tommy's five string work to a lot of non-traditional influences. 

Early in 2018, David Brooks and I began working to develop an eBook on Tommy's banjo work. 

That book is entitled: “He Could Surely Make a Banjo Talk” : 109 Clawhammer Banjo Tabs of Old Time and New Time Tunes Played by Tommy Thompson.

It begins with an essay depicting Tommy's banjo playing, provides reformatted versions of the original banjo tablature - undertaken by David Brooks utilizing current tablature conventions. 

The book also contains digitized scans of the original handwritten tabs done by Patrick Couton, in cooperation with Tommy Thompson - using Tommy's arrangements of the tunes presented.

That book will become available on at the same time that McFarland publishes Tommy Thompson: New Timey String Band Musician. 

I hope you find Tommy's music, and especially his banjo playing, as compelling as I did. 

* * *

During the course of working on these two book projects, one thing that struck me was the fact that there are still many artifacts of memories related to revival string band repertoire, especially original tunes worked up by band members.  

Those recollections are as worthy of capturing and preserving as are shards of the old time music revival history as the stories of how the source musicians from whom the revival fiddlers and banjo players learned the traditional repertoire. 

Here's one example of that, focused on Tommy Thompson's tune called "A Beefalo Special."

* * *

Tommy wrote "Beefalo Special," and the Red Clay Ramblers recorded the tune on the LP "Merchant's Lunch." 

Jim Watson remembered some back and forth among band members regarding the title.  At one point, the tune was called "The Road to Bynam." 

Bill Hicks devised a counter melody that stood as something of a  harmony part that was intended to go along with Tommy's melody that Tommy plays and sings at the start of the tune.  Bill Hicks told me that he "just charged along on my own ‘track." 

 Tommy was quite fine with that.  Some composers would have not been happy with what I did and [might have] forced me to get with the program.  But Tommy liked the results more than he liked forcing it all into a mold.

(Sadly, Bill passed away in early November, about three months shy of his 75th birthday.)

Between 1972 and 1986, the Red Clay Ramblers, Mike Craver remembered, went through four buses in their long history as string band road warriors.

The first was a used Ford Econoline.  That was followed by a Dodge Maxivan.  The third vehicle was a big GMC city bus that did not last long too long - and at this point remains a fixture in Jack Herrick's backyard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, serving as a static display of contemporary conceptual art, as well as storage place for all manner of artifacts.  The fourth band vehicle was a  used orange thing, the make and model have been lost in the thick mist of string band history.  The Ramblers used that vehicle used for years. 

However, the second van that served the Red Clay Ramblers was a new and really big Dodge van.  Mike described it as being "beefalo beige" in color.  It was customized with an interior shag upholstery that was also that hue of beige.

"We called it the Beefalo, ergo part of the title of the song Tommy wrote."

Reflecting on long ago history, Mike Craver thought that it didn’t seem like an out of the ordinary tune to begin with.  It was Jack Herrick's idea to open it up the number with the a capello vocal to which all the band members scatted along in their individual fashion.  In Mike's words:

We were recording our third album for Flying Fish at Bias (when it was located in Falls Church) and we took a studio mic out on the street to do the vocals for the beginning, live, in the middle of hot August day, 1977.  Thus, the motorcycle.  Jack and I came up with some piano bass counterpoint for the 5th time through the tune, and I added a quote from Percy Grainger’s “Country Gardens” during the last time through the tune toward the end.  I came up the little declining chordal fanfare bit at the very end.

Jim Watson had a slightly different recollection: the band had just starting to record the tune, and the power went out at the studio (Bias Recording Company in Falls Church, Virginia) so the engineer, Bill McElroy, grabbed a portable tape recorder and the band went out on the sidewalk and did the vocal introduction, and that yielded the sound of traffic in the background.  

At one point, both Mike and Jim recalled, there was talk about calling the new album “Beefalo Special” but “Merchants Lunch” prevailed as the album's title.  It might not have been a band favorite, although the Ramblers did perform the tune on stage for a while. However, it never quite became a permanent part of the Red Clay repertoire.

David Brooks developed this tablature for banjo, derived from the tab work Patrick Couton did with Tommy in the 1970s. 

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