Tommy Thompson - transcript of FEATURE: WUNC RADIO, MON 01/27/03 by DAVID BROWER

Chapel Hill musician and writer Tommy Thompson died on Friday after a long illness. He was 65 years old. Thompson was one of the founding members of the Red Clay Ramblers and a half-dozen other old-time bands whose members have since splintered off to form the core of the traditional music community in North Carolina. Thompson came to Chapel Hill in the 60’s to work on a PhD in philosophy - but he was distracted from the doctorate by the banjo and the music he played with people like Jim Watson.

[JIM WATSON] he was the center in a lot of ways in the string band revival.

[music from Hollow Rock String Band]

Tommy Thompson’s early bands were -- unintentional. He and his wife held parties every Friday night. Thompson’s daughter was off in a room coloring while in every room around her a different kind of folk music was being played. Both Jim Watson and Bill Hicks were a part of that scene they later joined Thompson in the Red Clay Ramblers.

[BILL HICKS] there'd be a living room band a kitchen band [music up in clear HERE] [JIM WATSON] and - yeah and he was willing to have these parties, he fortunately lived out in the country and so any neighbors didn't care if there was a bluegrass band swatting it out in the country at 2 in the morning because they were there or had been there earlier in the evening.

This was the early 70s, and at the time, Tommy Thompson was most interested in playing the old tunes the way he and his friends learned them from rural musicians. Thompson and others would pour through archives and make constant trips into the mountains to visit folk legends like Tommy Jarrell and collect tunes. Then, they’d all meet back at Thompson’s house on Friday night to share with each other what they’d found. According to Townsend Ludington, from the American Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill, what for some was just a good time Friday night, was actually an important part of the folk process that keeps the tradition alive.

[TOWNSEND LUDINGTON] collecting is extremely important if you are trying to mark and understand american culture which is the business of a lot of us certainly but what I thought was important and nifty about tommy and the red clay ramblers is how they adapted the old and brought in the new you know what they were doing is bringing recognition to the south and the south needed that.

The Red Clay Ramblers first big break outside of North Carolina came in 1974 with a show called Diamond Studs - which eventually led to a long association with Broadway and playwrights like Sam Sheppard. Diamond Studds was an almost vaudevillian telling of the Jesse James story. Bill Hicks was the fiddler in the show the big-barrel-chested Tommy Thompson played Jesse James’ mother.

[BILL HICKS] he's a real big guy, he had a big red beard, all he did was put a little bonnet on his head, and talk in a little squeaky voice, but, I mean it just was funny.

[music from show]

[MIKE CRAVER] the thing that I loved most about him is the way he could make people laugh.

Former Red Clay Rambler Mike Craver.

[MIKE CRAVER] he could make people laugh from their belly. it was almost Shakespearean the way he could amuse people and tickle them, just to hear an audience laugh at something he did was very gratifying it was the kind of laugh they hardly ever laughed at anybody else with.

Away from the Ramblers -- Tommy Thompson also wrote a more serious play called The Last Song of John Proffit. The one-man show was a stirring, one-sided conversation Thompson’s character had with a visitor about the history of the banjo, and the man who wrote the song Dixie. In 1996 friends helped him record a radio version of the show for WUNC. This was soon after he started showing the signs of an Alzheimer’s like dimentia.

[EXCERPT FROM LAST SONG OF JOHN PROFFIT]

Tommy Thompson also wrote songs, at least two of which his old friend Mike Craver says will likely enter into the unofficial cannon of American songs that are passed from musician to musician. One of those tunes is this one, Hot Buttered Rum.

[SONG Hot Buttered Rum]

The other song that is likely to enter the cannon is one Thompson’s family used when announcing his death. Mike Craver.

[MIKE CRAVER] I was thinking about that song the other day and it's about a young man and an old man, it's about an old man looking about at his life from a point of a lot of loss to himself and the world he lived in and if you want to apply it to tommy's particular situation it's about the loss of memory, of some things but not of others, I mean it's an incredibly powerful song and I just go around saying the words to myself a lot, thinking about it and thinking about him.

[verse of Twisted Laurel]

As Tommy Thompson suffered from an Alzheimer’s like dementia -- his friends say it pained them to watch him slowly slip away. He first forgot the words to his songs and lines in plays, then names, faces and finally left as only a glimmer of the man he once was.

[last verse of Twisted Laurel]

Tommy Thompson died last week at the age of 65. There is a visitation for him today in Durham. The funeral is Tuesday.

David Brower - WUNC News.