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Fiddlin' With Tradition

Joe Thompson and the African-American string bands

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"I got the name of being a pretty good fiddle player," says Joe Thompson. "I even been to Carnegie Hall playing fiddle." The 87-year-old Mebane, N.C.-based farmer and fiddler doesn't do anything new. It's what he does with old stuff that's earned him entrance to that hallowed Manhattan hall and a place in history as one of the last African-American string-band masters.

Thompson is so old-school that he doesn't think of the music he plays as old-timey. He sees the music he plays simply as country mixed with a little bluegrass. "But I don't see no difference between bluegrass and country music," Thompson says. "They come up the same road, as far as I'm concerned."

That road leads back to the days of slavery. African-American musicians with talents were recognized by their owners, given somewhat better treatment and employed to supply plantation entertainment. "Often, musical Afro-American slaves were encouraged and even trained to play violin for white dances," says musical scholar and banjoist Bob Carlin, who often plays with Thompson.

After gaining his freedom in the wake of the Civil War, Thompson's fiddling grandfather passed his musical skills to his three sons. Thompson's father, fiddler John Arch, taught his oldest son, Nate, to play banjo, but 5-year-old Joe was told he was too young to play. Forbidden to touch his father's instrument, the child walked 10 miles to retrieve a fiddle offered by a cousin who said he would give him one if little Joe came for it. Replacing broken strings with a couple of wire strands he took from the screen door, the young Thompson so impressed his daddy with his ability on the instrument that he was given his father's fiddle to play.

"Square dance stuff -- that's all we know, what my daddy taught us," Thompson recalls. "He used to play the fiddle every night. We were little bitty boys lying around on the floor looking at him. So we just come up from the rock, from the bottom, all the way up."

When the Thompsons played for black audiences, the dances were called frolics, but the music was the same as that played for whites and labeled as square dances. "They wasn't that separate," Thompson says. "We played with white boys. We still play with some of 'em." Thompson is referring to Carlin, who has just left Thompson's house after a practice session.

Thompson is willing to pass along his heritage, but only to folks willing to learn. "Nowadays, children aren't giving much respect to their elders, so [Thompson's] aware of that and he doesn't have any time for it," says Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose whole band takes lessons from Thompson. "I think he's excited to have a black band to pass this on to. We go, we listen and we're respectful."

Though the Drops have been playing together only since last May, Thompson deems them good enough to back him publicly. The band -- Giddens on banjo; Dom Flemons on harp, jug and guitar; and Justin Robinson on fiddle and fife -- specializes in string-band music of the Piedmont.

There's a big difference when the band plays on its own bill; Giddens stresses that the Chocolate Drops are not a Joe Thompson cover band. "We don't take it out of context," she says. "We try to get to the heart of it and let it be translated through us and pull it forward together."

But even when Giddens and company play without Thompson, the master's presence is still felt. When other people join up, even if they've played old-time, it doesn't click nearly as easily because they're not Thompson students. "Going to see Joe has given us this groove that we wouldn't otherwise have that makes it so easy to play as a group," Giddens says. "'Cause it really is a piece of cake when we get together, and I think that's coming from playing with Joe for so long."

For Your Ears (and Eyes)

• Joe Thompson: Family Tradition (Rounder Select)

• Various artists: Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia

(Smithsonian Folkways) (features Thompson playing a range of Piedmont repertoire with late cousin Odell)

www.neonsky.com/joe/joeswf.html; www.sankofastrings.com

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