N.C. folk musician Joe Thompson dies at 93

Band preserves his influence

dmenconi@newsobserver.comFebruary 22, 2012 

Sad news from the world of Piedmont old-time music: Fiddler Joe Thompson has died at 93. If you've ever listened to Carolina Chocolate Drops, then you've heard some of his influence, and not just because their upcoming album leads off with one of the songs they learned from Thompson ("Riro's House").

The Chocolate Drops spent time woodshedding with Thompson in their early days, playing with him at his Mebane home as well as various festivals including Merlefest (where they recorded a live album together in 2008).

Rhiannon Giddens of the Chocolate Drops remembers the first time Thompson heard her band mate Dom Flemmons playing a jug during an early Chocolate Drops jam session.

"Joe had never heard jug in a fiddle tune before and he would turn around while playing and just give a look," Giddens said, laughing at the memory. "He'd go back to playing, then turn around and look again. He finally decided it was OK, and we knew without him having to say anything. That was Joe, always real subtle and gentle. He'd never say, 'You're not playing that right.' It was always, 'That might be just a little too fast.' Not saying it was good or bad, just nudging it along until we were where he wanted us to be."

The Chocolate Drops weren't the only youngsters to learn from the master, either.

"Nobody was too big or too little for Joe to sit down and pick with," said Larry Vellani, a musician from Mebane who often played with Thompson. "He never met a stranger. If you were into music, Joe was into you. Just that straightforward. Everywhere he went, he left kernels of wisdom, good sense and good musical taste."

In recognition of his influence, Thompson was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2007, to go with a North Carolina Heritage Award he won in 1991.

"Joe Thompson was a gentleman, and a gentle man," said Joe Newberry, another of Thompson's frequent playing partners. "To hear his legacy in a younger generation of musicians is very satisfying to all of us who play this kind of music. He really was a one-of-a-kind fiddle player, and we're all lucky and honored to have just walked in his garden."

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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