Joe Thompson is the last of his kind, a legendary Carolina fiddler who has kept up the string band tradition. "I think I'm doing pretty good at it," said 87-year-old Thompson last week, by phone from his home in Mebane. "I've been doing it at least since I was 7 years old."
Thompson grew up playing square dances in rural Alamance County. He learned from his dad, who in turn had been taught by his father. In the prewar era, black musicians playing string music were not considered unusual. "From the time that African-Americans and Anglo-Americans started living together, there was already interactions that occurred across the fence," says banjoist Bob Carlin, who often accompanies Thompson and produced and played on his 1999 Rounder release Family Tradition.
Blues changed things, giving the guitar the voice instead of the fiddle. But string music maintained fiddle as lead and the banjo as rhythm. "That's the way I understood the white folks did it," Thompson says. "They let the guitar bass 'em a little bit, but a banjo and a fiddle play the square dance together." Although Thompson and Carlin play traditional string band tunes, Thompson labels his product old-time country music. "We just play like our dads, like we were learnt."
Thompson, a 1991 recipient of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, is willing and able to pass it on, as he has been doing with young black musicians like the Carolina Chocolate Drops -- but only if their attitude is right. "Look like the youngsters do what they want to do, ain't nobody to teach 'em nothing. If they want to do it, I'll learn 'em."
Despite a stroke some years back, Thompson has no plans to retire. "Well, I'm gonna go the end. I don't know how much further I'm gonna make it, but He's let me come this fur. I'm going fur as I kin."
Joe Thompson & Bob Carlin will perform at the Public Library's Francis Auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 6:30pm. Ticket prices: $12 general public; $8 Museum of the New South and Charlotte Folk Society members.