photo: Wayne Martin
Art Form: Folk/Traditional Music
4770 Mrs White Lane
Mebane, NC 27302-9431
It is not widely known in this day that the fiddle and banjo were commonly played by African Americans from slavery times to well into this century. The two instruments in combination once provided much of the dance music for the balls and frolics of both white and black Southerners. And thousands of dance tunes--waltzes, schottisches, and reels--were adapted and composed for the fiddle and banjo.
Scholars have long established the African origins of the banjo, the prototype of which was made of hollow gourds and animal hides. The fiddle, of course, is the familiar name for the European violin, which was brought by early settlers from the British Isles and Germany. No one knows exactly when or how the instruments were first played together, but it was a marriage of two radically different cultural traditions, giving rise to one of America's first truly indigenous musical forms.
Joe and Odell Thompson were among the few "old-time" stringband musicians who remained active in the South. They were first cousins who made their homes near the Alamance and Orange County line north of Mebane. Born and raised on farms in the area (Odell in 1911; Joe in 1918), they grew up helping their parents tend crops of tobacco, cotton, corn, and wheat. Music-making was much valued in their households, and the sounds of the banjo and fiddle could be heard often in the evenings and on weekends, whenever the work was done. Their fathers, Walter and John Arch Thompson, were constantly sought after by neighbors, black and white, to play for square dances.
The Thompson boys soon began performing at Saturday-night dances with their dads. Joe recalled taking his position in the doorway between rooms filled with dancing couples. "We were playing [four- and eight-hand square dance] sets--I was only seven years old. We had straight chairs, and my feet couldn't touch the floor. And we were running them folks, man, a half an hour."
As popular tastes in music and dancing changed through the years, there was less call for fiddlers and banjo players. Joe played his fiddle at dances and parties throughout the 1920s and '30s, while Odell took up the guitar and learned the blues. But their love of the old-time dance music persisted in more private settings, and they continued to perform favorite traditional standards such as "Georgia Buck" and "Hook and Line" at home and family reunions.
The early 1970s brought a revival of interest in African American folk music traditions. The Thompsons were "discovered" by folklorists who encouraged them to play publicly again, only this time for predominately white audiences at folk festivals and special events. They appeared at the National Folk Festival at Lowell, Massachusetts, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Washington state, and at New York's Carnegie Hall. They received a N. C. Folk Heritage Award in 1991.
Until Odell's untimely death in 1994, the Thompsons’ playing was as inspired and vigorous as ever, thanks in large part to the love and support of their wives, Susie and Pauline. Their dynamic instrumental styles and soaring vocals packed plenty of punch and brought attention to the rich tradition of African American stringband music in the South. Joe Thompson received the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 2007 and continued to play his fiddle for appreciative audiences in North Carolina into his 90s. He passed away in February 2012.