The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 4


by David Potorti

In a tar paper-shack out of town across the track

Stands an old used-up man trying to call something back

But his old memories fade like the city in the haze

And his days have flowed together like the rain

And the dark water springs from the black rocks and flows

Out of sight where the twisted laurel grows.

—Tommy Thompson, "Twisted Laurel"


In 1961 University of Indiana folklorist, Henry Glassie, then an English major at Tulane, made the acquaintance of a New Orleans Coast Guard lieutenant named Tommy Thompson. A friend introduced them because of their shared interest in traditional music, which Glassie had been collecting and recording for years. They both turned out to be budding banjo players. And together, they spent days listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Obray Ramsey, Etta Baker, Leonard Glenn, and George Pegram.

A few years later, Glassie and Thompson—then earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill—piled into a pickup truck and headed into the North Carolina Mountains, to the little cabin home of old-time banjo picker Mack Presnell. It was the first time that Thompson—who up till then had been studying Pete Seeger’s popular banjo instruction book—had actually witnessed old-time music being played, live and up close. It was, as Glassie recalls, "a moment," one that solidified Thompson’s love of the genre.

In fact, Thompson would go on to join the Hollow Rock String Band, and to become a founding member of Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Red Clay Ramblers. And—at the height of his career—he would also develop a dementia resembling Alzheimer’s disease, a terminal illness that would strip away his ability to play the banjo, to sing, to walk, and to feed himself. It would force him to retire from the Ramblers in 1994, and would rob him of the exquisite personal and musical memories still enjoyed by fans, friends and loved ones. And it would leave him today under constant institutional care, waiting—in lieu of a medical miracle—for the inevitable physical departure that will accompany the loss of his wonderful mind.  (continued....)

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