Rounder CD 2161
The name of Joe Thompson is hardly well known in music circles and yet in some ways he should be regarded as one of the most historically important American traditional performers active today. For, since his re-emergence in the Seventies and introduction to a wider audience, Joe has upheld and represented a tradition of Afro-American country fiddling now all but vanished.
Born into a North Carolina farming family that can date its musical heritage to before the Civil War, Joe was playing fiddle by the age of five and as a youngster he and his banjo-playing brother Nate were the regular musicians at house parties and square dances for friends and neighbours, both black and white.
After World War 2 musical tastes changed and Joe's music might have been lost forever had not folklorist Kip Lornell located him and his cousin Odell (also a banjo player) in 1972 and encouraged them to perform again. In the ensuing years they appeared at countless traditional music festivals, appeared on Alan Lomax's Patchwork TV series and on several recordings most notably their outstanding cassette on Global Village 'Old Time Music'. Odell's untimely death in a 1994 automobile accident has not stopped Joe's music and this CD is designed to coincide with his eightieth birthday.
And a fine and fitting tribute it is too. Thompson is a vital, dynamic fiddler with a distinctive short bow action that brings rare life to a good selection of old square dance tunes found in both black and white traditions. There is nothing pretty or slick about his playing - it is dance music pure and simple, and particularly when backed by the admirable Bob Carlin on banjo, displays all the restless energy that typifies the music's finest exponents. Compare the drive of Molly Put the Kettle On to say Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. (sound clip) Further fine performances are turned in on such familiar tunes as Goin' Downtown, Cindy Girl and the excellent Pumpkin Pie where Joe's vocal (heard on all the dance tunes) is especially fine. (sound clip)
Donna's Got a Rambling Mind is a cracking tune on the Old Dog Blue theme and Black Eyed Daisy is the tune to the hillbilly Child Ballad Black Jack Davy (though with different words), while - let's be honest - anyone who can breathe new life into Old Joe Clark and Soldier's Joy must be some musician. In a way I think I have just clarified in my own mind why I find Joe Thompson's music so satisfying. Of course, it is not musical expertise or outstanding material. But in the same way as when you first heard Fred McDowell you knew straight off that this was just how a Mississippi bluesman should sound, so is Joe's music so well-rounded as to paint the image of a black country fiddler perfectly.
As I have hinted there is very little to distinguish Joe Thompson's music from that of his white neighbours but from the Afro American tradition we have a fine Careless Love learnt from a guitar playing cousin Tommy Thompson and two finely sung spirituals I Shall Not Be Moved and Oil in My Vessel, a version of Keep Your Lamp enhanced by Scott Ainslie's sympathetic slide guitar. But if I have to pick a standout it is the rousing (and genuinely quite moving) minstrelsy song Ain't Gonna Rain No More where Joe is joined by Odell and brother Nate Thompson on banjos with all three swapping verses. (sound clip) Nothing could better typify the collection's title or conjure up an image of a world now past.
I hope that 'Family Tradition' does not get lost among the torrent of recent Rounder releases, for this is an immensely enjoyable collection by an outstanding musician and, short playing time notwithstanding, comes highly recommended.
Keith Summers - 18.1.00
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