by Tommy Thompson
Jesse Thompson Eustice sent us this piece her dad wrote with the name "Randolph Road." She says, “In the early 1990’s, dad was trying to write down everything he could remember to preserve it. Perhaps he was thinking about writing an autobiography. He only wrote a couple of these pieces, but I am grateful that he did.” We’re grateful, too.
I came to Chapel Hill in 1963. I was here to study philosophy, but it was music that led me to find a reason to be in North Carolina. I grew up in a household that listened to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and the West Virginia Barn Dance that night. And when everybody else was asleep, I'd listen to "Night Train" out of Gallatin, Tennessee. In the early 50's I bought records by Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and The Inkspots. At high school dances, there was Ray Charles on 45s or live bands with the same sound. Later on I became a folk boomer, bought a guitar, and learned to strum from the "Burl Ives Song Book." In New Orleans in 1961, I bought a five-string banjo and went to work with Pete Seeger's book. I listened to his records and to the Weavers, Odetta, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and Joan Baez. There was every kind of stuff in the folk boom--pop and politics, existential campfire songs, collegiate rah-rah, you name it. I liked the "folksongs" best, though I came to mistrust the singing. Why did it sound so Carnegie Hall, when the songs were strictly Barn Dance? Where'd those songs come from anyway?
Around that time, I met a young Tulane English major and folklorist named Henry Glassie. He was about twenty years old. He had a wonderful record collection and had been recording traditional folk musicians himself for years. He said the best stuff came from North Carolina, and we listened to it for days on end. There were Bascomb Lunsford, Obray Ramsey, Etta Baker, Mac Presnell, Leonard Glenn, Lost John, George Pegram, and more. It was Pegram's sound that impressed me the most. Henry had taped him picking his banjo and singing flat on his back, drunk on a sidewalk in Boone. The song was "John Henry," hammered out with resolute steadiness by a man clearly out of control. Henry brought me to western North Carolina once, in the spring of '63. I met Leonard Glenn, the master banjo maker, and Mac Presnell. Mac was a skinny, rough looking old ridge runner who lived miles from the nearest square foot of level ground. He gave us a short tour around his mountaintop domain, and showed us where he'd blown up a county motor grader to discourage road improvements. In the house we talked banjos for awhile, and he played us a tune. He told me proudly that other folklorists had been there before and showed me an old wire recorder to prove it. He insisted it was two hundred years old. I judged its weight to be two hundred pounds. Whoever dragged it there is probably buried nearby.
With a head full of rounders like Pegram and Lost John, I moved to Chapel Hill that fall. My wife and daughter and I settled into Victory Village, and the first sound I heard from the adjoining apartment was a banjo. Lord, I was living on the slopes of the True Vine! I made friends with that guy, and with his friend Peter Gumpert, who had a Martin guitar and had once had violin lessons. We tried to play together, but we didn't know how we wanted to sound.
The next spring, my wife Bobbie found us an old farmhouse in the Hollow Rock community off old Erwin Road. We rented it from the Few family in Durham and hung onto it until Bobbie gave it up eight years later. Hollow Rock was out in the country in 1964. I remember driving out there one night so dark and clear we could see the Aurora Borealis over the Yukon Territory.
In that big house I had a music and study room where I wrote term papers, practiced banjo, and listened to records. Along with Pegram, I made room in my head for Hobart Smith, Doc Watson, Gaither Carlton, Clarence Ashley, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Rodgers, all the members of the original Carter Family, and all three New Lost City Ramblers. ("The Something or Other Ramblers" is a traditional southern formula for the naming of bands.) The NLCRs were three urbanized young men who had begun in the '50s recreating country string band music from the 20s and 30s. String band music! Now there was something feasible. I could never be a Hobart Smith or a Doc Watson. It was culturally impossible, even if I'd had the talent. But a string band--you could kind of blend into a thing like that. For the first time, I had a notion what I wanted from music. I wanted to be in a string band.
Of course I was enrolled full time in graduate school and struggling to find space in my head for rounders like Plato and Descartes and Wittgenstein. It was not always a happy family there. Still, there were some nearly perfect days here below. I remember setting up folding chairs on a sunny Saturday morning in our mossy front yard with sweet wisteria breezing through the oak trees. Bobbie was working on a drawing, and our little girl was teasing ant lions with pine needles. I'd put a case of beer in a cooler on the porch, a fresh pack of Camels and a box of stick matches on top. I had nothing to do but anticipate the arrival of Pete and his wife, their two goofy Bassetts, and the pleasure of making music with friends.
For folk-nuts like me, Chapel Hill and Durham were good places to be around. There were no monumental players, no Tommy Jarrells here, but there were people worth listening to, and I learned some lessons early on. The first certified folk fiddler I ever met was a man living near Chapel Hill named Brack Sparrow. A mutual friend took me to his house, and the old man got out his fiddle and insisted we play some tunes. So I got out my extra-long-neck, Pete Seeger-style folk singer's banjo, tuned it to the fiddle, and we had a "picking session." Of course, I couldn't follow music I hadn't already memorized, and our session was a solid dud. When Mr. Sparrow decided it was over, he remarked that my banjo seemed not to have known when to stop growing. He allowed that I might learn to play some music if I'd get myself a proper instrument with the correct notes on it. Within a week I acquired a Gibson RB-250. "RB", by the way, stands for "regular banjo."
Bobbie and I bought our gasoline and notions from John Brown at the Hollow Rock Grocery on Erwin Road at New Hope Creek. John was a soft-spoken gentleman, probably about as old as our century. He would gladly note down your "box spaghetti" and five gallons of regular, and you didn't have to pay till Saturday. Sometime after he knew us well enough to extend this trust, he also told us about the music gatherings at the store on Friday nights after closing.
I can't remember for sure when we first attended, but it was probably in the winter of '64 and '65. There were two or three standers around that night, one guitar player who knew pretty much when to hit the chords but not which, and another who was a good country strummer and fine singer. His name was Tom Turner. John was a fiddler and banjo player, but too shy to be heard in a crowd. He was the first person besides myself I'd ever seen "frail" a banjo. His playing didn't sound like mine, or even look like what I'd been learning from Seeger's book. John called his method "knocking" the banjo, and he hadn't learned it from any book. He wasn't familiar with the term "frailing." That was my first lesson in regional and individual stylistics. I've since heard that peculiar way of sounding the strings (i.e., with the back of one's fingernail), called flailing, rapping, downpicking, clawhammer, and "that old clubfisted way." Not only do the terms vary from place to place and person to person, but so, to a degree, do the method and the sound. Seeger had adapted his method from a banjo man in eastern Kentucky.
The Hollow Rock Grocery was the kind of store you could stand in the middle of and reach all merchandise. Bobbie and I became regulars, and one night when a few extra listeners dropped in, the little store began to bulge. We offered to move the whole shebang to our house, and thus initiated a weekly event to rival in cumulative attendance any secular gathering in the history of Durham County except sports. By the summer of '66, it would be common to have 150 people in and around our house on any given Friday. And the party went around the year. Every Friday night except Christmas, Easter, and any major fiddler's convention weekend.
Most of the locals dropped out early on. I think they were put off by an untraditional household where the woman held a job and went to work, the man wore canvas shoes and went to school, and drinking was permitted indoors. But Tom Turner stuck with us. He was a winning singer with a seemingly endless repertoire of bluegrass and country songs. Bobbie and I had pretty much figured out harmony singing, and the three of us would stand in the living room and sing everything Tom had the patience to teach us. He usually brought along his son Jerry and sometimes a slim, shy fellow with tattoos who worked in the "powder room" at the BC plant. He was a wonderful singer, and I wish I could remember his name. When he joined us, I'd drop down and sing bass, and we had four-part harmony. I was still working on bluegrass banjo at the time, though it was a pretty blunt instrument in my hands. At least it gave us one melody instrument, and we all pretended it sounded OK and made us into a band. We'd practice on Sunday afternoons and then play what we'd learned for fun on Friday nights. There were always a few people around to listen, and I was having the time of my life. The fireplace had a built-in mirror over the mantle, and I used to sneak glances just to see how much we looked like a band.
Bobbie had studied piano all through her school years, and though art was her passion, she was pretty musical. She decided to learn guitar, and we bought her a new Martin D-18. I showed her the chord shapes, and within a few months she was sounding like Roy Harvey on the Charlie Poole Records. She preferred the more relaxed old time band sound over bluegrass, and we looked for other like-minded players. A Duke graduate student named Eric Olson moved in nearby and became a Friday night regular. Before long, he was joining us on autoharp and then banjo. Near Duke's East Campus in Durham, there was a coffeehouse named Null and Void, and the three of us played there one night doing Charlie Poole and Carter Family songs. It was our first performance away from home.
We went to our first fiddler's convention in the summer of 1964. I don't remember which one it was, though I know we missed Union Grove. Maybe it was Galax; it seemed like Heaven to me. Pete was there, but we didn't dare enter the band contest. I did foolishly enter the old time banjo contest. I don't know what I tried to play, but I remember clearly how my knees shook and my hands turned to slurry as soon as I got on stage. For the rest, it was wonderful --three days and two nights filled with playing, and listening, and gabbing with the few other like-minded "outsiders." That's where we first heard fiddles and banjos being played together by people who'd been doing that very thing all their lives. We no longer had to wonder how it was supposed to sound. All we had to do was sit down and play together till we made it sound that way! We'd sit in a circle on camp chairs and beer coolers and share fiddle tunes for hours. It was ideal for learning, and with a crowd gathered at your back, a risk-free performance.
Bobbie and I spent many weekends at fiddlers conventions after that. I listened to the old time banjo players and asked questions trying to figure out how they got the sound they did. I gave up bluegrass altogether and concentrated on "claw hammer" style. I never did master that true Blue Ridge technique, but I got something I liked that sounded pretty good with a fiddle.
I had to find myself a regular fiddle player. Pete moved to New York about then and gave up fiddling. My philosophy teacher, Dick Zaffron, was a fine guitar player and was learning fiddle almost quicker than you could believe. But I needed to find a fiddler who was already there, somebody I could learn from. I'd been hearing rumors about someone living in Durham who knew 200 old-time tunes. I don't know where that number came from, but it seemed like enough for a start.
One Friday night, Bertram Levy, whom I'd met at the Null and Void, told me he'd discovered the rumored fiddler. He lived only a few doors away from Bertram in Duke student housing. The following Wednesday, Bertram arrived at our front door with a tall courtly gentleman, age twenty-four, named Alan Jabbour. We set out four chairs, got our bearings and set sail with "Old Joe Clark." I'm not sure what instrument Bertram played that night. He is a fine banjo player, but at some point he set himself to learn mandolin since I was already working on the banjo. Whatever it was, "OJC" sounded fine. Bobbie's smooth bass-run style guitar provided the right underpinning, and I think Alan was happy. He had learned all his tunes by ear in direct contact with his sources and wished to pass them on to us by the same method. It would be a way of extending the aural/oral traditions instead of merely imitating and exploiting them. I welcomed the idea. A philosophy student wants a band with a rationale.
We played together for about two years. Beginning that first night, Alan taught us tunes at every session. He'd play them medium-speed, and we'd try to catch the general outlines. Next session, we'd start filling in the details, and usually by the third week, we'd have them. We played for a few square dances around here, and at the Duke Folk Festival (where fellow banjoist Pete Seeger never even gave me a nod), but our most satisfying performances were at fiddler's conventions.
You had to compete in the contests to attend the conventions for free, and to compete, you had to have a name. We became the Hollow Rock String Band. There were usually two band contests--one for bluegrass and one for old-time. Our category always had the fewer entrants, which statistically enhanced our chances. But those other bands were packed with the likes of Earnest East, Kyle Creed, and Fred Cockerham--all great players and "from around here." We picked up a few ribbons and dollars in prizes, but we never took to honors at any of the biggest events. When Union Grove was outgrowing itself at the school ground, they established three distinct performing areas with separate prizes in ALL categories, for EACH location. I remember Eric Olson congratulating me for having won "First Runner-up World Champion Old-Time Banjo Player In The Gym." (The Hollow Rock's main venue was not on the stage, but in those old circle sessions. We always played with a few good friends and drew good crowds, and that was a winning combination.
Alan and Bertram were both due to leave Durham in the spring of 1968. To preserve something of our two years together, we recorded an album of tunes learned directly from Alan's sources, few of which had ever before been recorded. Five hundred copies were issued on the Kanawha label just as Bertram and Alan were leaving. The record was dedicated to Henry Reed from whom came most of the tunes. Alan is now Head of the American Folk Life Institute at the Library of Congress, and Bertram is a urologist and master musician practicing in Port Townsend, Washington. Bobbie was killed in a car crash in 1972. After '68, I played music with Jim Watson, a long time friday night stalwart, and Al McCanless of the New Deal String Band. In '71, Jim and I went to Union Grove and played in the contest with a young fiddler named Colin McCall. That year they finally gave me the Old Time Banjo prize, and I haven't been back. In the fall of '72, Jim and I teamed up with Bill Hicks of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. We decided to call ourselves the Red Clay Ramblers, but that's another story.
© 1992 Tommy Thompson, 809 Colonial St. Durham, NC 27701 (919) 680-4919
Other writers on the Red Clay Ramblers’ web site who’ve addressed this key time in the development of the band are here:
Hollow Rock String Band
Fuzzy Mountain String Band
Coming to Hollow Rock
Peggin On in 1970 (An Interview with Banjo-player Tommy Thompson)
December 23, 2001