On the evening of February 20, fiddler and National Heritage Fellow Joe Thompson died in Burlington, North Carolina. He was 93 years old. Born in rural Orange County, North Carolina, in 1918, Joseph Aquilla Thompson, along with his older brother Nate and their first cousin Odell, grew up farming. From their fathers, John Arch and Walther Thompson, Joe, Nate, and Odell learned a tradition of African American string band music that, by the time the younger Thompsons were growing up, had grown very rare. In their family, though, it was still a central part of life. “All of us did it,” he recalled to Wayne Martin in a 1988 interview published in the Old-Time Herald (vol. 1, no. 8, May-July 1989). “ . . . my brothers, the cousins and all of them did it. We grew up in it. I learned how to play the music from my father. He was a great musician, as were his brothers.”
Thompson became interested in playing music when he was only five or six years old, he recalled. When his mother’s cousin gave him a fiddle, and he replaced two missing strings with wires from a screen door, he was playing “Hook and Line” within a couple of days. His father’s reaction on first hearing him fiddle was, “God durn boy, you playing that thing, ain’t you.” John Arch Thompson gave Joe his own fiddle, and by the time Joe was seven years old he and Nate were playing for dances. He remembered playing half-hour sets when he and his brother were still so little that, sitting in straight-back chairs to play, their feet didn’t reach the floor.
Joined by their cousin Odell, Joe and Nate played music together all through the late 1920s and the ‘30s. He told interviewer Mary Eckstein in 2007, “Whenever we had a corn shucking, a big corn shucking, we would have a dance. And Christmas time, we would have a dance every night somewhere, square dance, corner single, stuff like that. All would dance through the night.“ By World War II, though, the black string band tradition was fading fast. Nate found a factory job in Philadelphia and settled there. After service in the military, Joe Thompson made his home in the town of Mebane, North Carolina, near where he had grown up, and began to work at White’s Furniture. “We went for 20 years not playing nothing,” Odell would later recall.
Mebane is only 20 miles from Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, which in the 1960s and ‘70s became one of the pulse-points of the old-time music revival. Kip Lornell, followed by other UNC and Duke graduate students, learned of and became interested in the music of the Thompson family. Thus began a second musical career for the cousins. In the ‘80s and ‘90s Joe and Odell gained wide recognition in the world of old-time music for the importance and excellence of the by-then-rare music that they played. In 1991, they received the North Carolina Heritage Award. They would tour around the country and internationally, often playing with banjo player Bob Carlin, performing at Carnegie Hall, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, and other far-away and prestigious venues.
Back in North Carolina, Joe and Odell Thompson were featured performers at MerleFest in 1994. One evening during the festival, Odell was returning on foot to his and Joe’s motel, after supper at a nearby restaurant. While crossing the highway Odell was struck and killed by a passing car. For Joe, the tragedy of losing his cousin and companion carried the additional sorrow of losing his musical partner. Prayer and the encouragement of friends brought Joe through this crisis, and in time he returned to his music career. The same strengths brought him through another crisis several years later, when a stroke nearly deprived him of his ability to play.
The last decade of Thompson’s life brought many honors and recognitions. A new generation of roots music listeners have learned about him, and Piedmont black string band music, through the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who credit Thompson as their mentor. He received the National Heritage Fellowship in 2007 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
On the occasion of Thompson’s 90th birthday, David Brower interviewed him for the Old-Time Herald (vol. 11, no. 9, February-March 2009). Thompson, he wrote, “has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is the grandson of a slave. He voted for Franklin Roosevelt, survived the Jim Crow era, and last year voted for the first African American to be elected President of the United States.” He also lived through the low ebb of the musical tradition of which he was a master, followed by a resurgence, in which he played a central role. Joe Thompson is survived by his wife Pauline Thompson, and many relatives and friends.