Perry Deane Young's 3/20/99 column from the Durham Herald-Sun - "Ramblers Reunion"

Fiddlin' Bill's article "A Remembrance: In Honor of a Reunion of Middle-Aged Old-Time Musicians at Camp New Hope, Orange County, NC, April, 1989"

Folk Life Interview with Tommy Thompson, April, 1978

Fiddler and Old Time Herald writer Kerry Blech talks about the magical moment the Red Clay Ramblers first performed on stage, times in NYC with Diamond Studs, and RCR plays for Tommy Thompson's class reunion at Kenyon College

This column by noted author Perry Deane Young appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Saturday, March 20, 1999.
Ramblers Reunion

 Perry Young

With 1960s hippie hair down to his shoulders, this fellow came from the workout area into the locker room at the Spa Health Club, removing his shirt to expose the trim physique of a teen aged athlete.  He looked like nobody old enough for me to know, but as he moved past me, he stopped and asked if I weren't Perry Young.

 Memory loss being a fact of advancing years, I had to stop and think, but, yes, I was pretty sure that was my name.  "Jim Watson," said the healthy stranger.  "Good Lord," I exclaimed, "YOU have certainly taken care of yourself."  "It's been a long time," he said.

Yes, I said, it sure has been a long time since we were all young and living in New York with our first taste of success and our whole lives spread out in front of us.  Guitar and mandolin player extraordinaire, Watson had been a member of the original Red Clay Ramblers when they took their first show, Diamond Studs, to New York 25 years ago, coinciding with the publication of my first book, a Vietnam memoir entitled, Two of the Missing.

Nobody ever had as much fun in The City as we Chapel Hill exiles did in the 1960s and 1970s.  One native New Yorker said with envy, "we just don't have friends like you people do."  I recently came across a letter one of the cast of Diamond Studs sent me in response to a gift copy of my book--loving, supportive words about how everybody was reading my book and wished me well.  It was a raw first effort.  The book got some very nice reviews but it did not sell very well. Diamond Studs not only got rave reviews, it also had a long and very profitable run off Broadway.  Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times that the old-time string band music was "the real, the authentic America." Remembering the weekends we'd sat around various country houses out from Chapel Hill and listened to these talented few invoking the music of our ancestors, I couldn't have been prouder of these folks from back home in North Carolina who'd been so successful in the toughest city of all.  I took dozens of friends to see the show and introduce them to Tommy Thompson, Jim Watson, Bill Hicks and Mike Craver.

I told Watson I'd been back in Chapel Hill five years and every year I plan to go to his annual Christmas show at the Cave and every year I don't make it.  When, I asked him, was he going to have another show in the area?  "Well," he said, "as a matter of fact, we've got one March 27 at St. Bartholomew's Church in Pittsboro."  "Hey," I said, "that's my birthday and I'll be there."

As many people know, the great Tommy Thompson fell victim to a hideous kind of Alzheimer's Disease and had to leave the band several years ago.  The last time I saw him playing with the Ramblers was eight or nine years ago the first year of Raleigh's First Night celebration.   The band was set up in the sanctuary of the Baptist church across from the old Capitol in Raleigh.  Tommy spotted me coming down the aisle and yelled from on-stage.  I walked up and said hello and told him, "Only you and the Ramblers could get me back inside a Baptist Church."  The next time I saw him, two years later on Franklin Street, Tommy didn't know who I was or where he was.

Craver, Hicks and Watson had left the Ramblers even before Tommy did and I don't really know any of the current Ramblers.  This concert next Saturday at 8 p.m. in Pittsboro, will be a rare reunion of the original band whose members have gone on to successful but separate careers.   Craver, who played with the Ramblers from 1973-1986, has had phenomenal success as a songwriter, musician, actor and author.  He co-wrote and performed in "Oil City Symphony," a musical which won several awards during an 18 month run at the famed Circle in the Square theater in New York.  He also co-wrote two other musicals, "Radio Gals" and "Bosh and Moonshine at the Gaiety Saloon."  And Craver and Joan Kaghan wrote a children's book, "Beaver Ball at the Bug Club," published by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

I had run into fiddler Bill Hicks at Tommy Thompson's memorable concert in Carrboro last year and we'd kept in touch by e-mail.  Recently, I traded a copy of my seventh book for his latest cassette, "Where Cowpunchers Don't Go."  My favorite of his new songs is based on a true story about an old fellow who got so frustrated with his fiddle he tied it up a tree and shot the durn thing.

And I swapped a book for Jim Watson's new CD, "Don't Tell Me I Don't Know."  It features a portrait of his beloved bulldog, Belle, who suffers from untold embarrassing allergies but you'd never know it from the lovely picture on the CD.  Watson says it'll be a grand reunion next Saturday night at the church house in Pittsboro and not just of the original Red Clay Ramblers.  It'll be a rare performance by the Green Level Entertainers, whose members are so busy with other bands they rarely get to play together.  Bluegrass star Alice Gerard is on the CD with Watson and she'll also be playing and singing.

Among an aging party of Sixties survivors, I mentioned that I'd run into the youthful looking Watson at the Spa and that there was to be this reunion and it was all happening on my 58th birthday.  "Oh, wow," said one old friend, "far out," said another.  "Should we ask him to take his shirt off?" one female survivor asked about Watson's physique.  "Go ahead," I said, "just don't ask me to do the same."

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Fiddlin' Bill wrote this article which appeared in the Greensboro Record about the early days....
A Remembrance: In Honor of a Reunion of Middle-Aged Old-Time Musicians at Camp New Hope, Orange County, NC, April, 1989.


I rode up on my motorcycle (BSA 441) with my fiddle tied on the back with bungie cords.  The yard was full of cars, and the house in the autumn night was ablaze with light, the front door wide open, people sitting on the steps talking and drinking beer, and the strains of something: "Take me in your lifeboat, take me in your lifeboat" maybe, circled up like chimney smoke.

The house was big, white, old, complex in shape, rooms added on to rooms, so that in the hall or bathroom, one wall if you looked close was really lapped siding under twenty coats of paint, an outside now inside.  Deep in the middle of the house the floors were big, worn planks.  Up in the attic there were logs and hewn beams, and there were five chimneys and four fireplaces.

I put my beer in a corner of the porch or pushed a pint into my back pocket.  In the living room, around the fireplace, was a band: Tommy and Bobbie Thompson, Tom Turner (singing "Lifeboat"), Bert Levy, no doubt others.  Tom Turner liked to sing in G and C mostly.  I didn't play fiddle then; I was relearning by ear the violin skills of childhood that I had laid aside ten years before.  I tuned a whole-step low and played along quietly (I hope now) in A-fingering, which had lots of free open strings.  When they went to C I could shift to the D-scale and find even more easy notes. 

People kept driving up to the big house in Hollow Rock community on Randolph Rd. as the night wore on.  When Al McCanless or Alan Jabbour arrived I'd put my fiddle away and watch their fingers and listen.  Sometimes there'd be a second band in the kitchen, playing fiddle tunes.  Sometimes, before the party began to dwindle, there'd be a square dance in the living room.  Sometimes, with the dancing, and the rhythm, the walls of the house would bow in an out like an early Disney cartoon.  (After one Friday night, Tommy got worried enough to crawl under the house with some big log rounds to set up under the dubious joists.)

At twelve or one or two I would strap the fiddle back on the bike, wrap up (although I wasn't feeling much cold), and ride home with tunes whirling in my helmet.  I didn't have a tape recorder (there were no cassettes in those days), or a fiddle record.  Fiddle tunes were just blurs, really, and mysterious melodic phrases that popped into my head days later, walking across campus in my other, grad-student life.  They spoke to my heart, somehow, in a language I couldn't yet understand.  It was 1967.


It was 1967.  We were as close to World War II then as we are to then, now.  Everybody was going to San Francisco.  Martin Luther King and Janice Joplin were alive.  So were Carter Stanley and Jack Kerouac.  So was Henry Reed.  Tommy Jarrell had only recently retired from his life as a motor-grader operator.  The war was on, and it was so mean and ugly and absurd that it lit every act and plan and choice anyone could make or not make with it's lurid, sickening glow.

In a time when Vietnam made everything ironic, the music was, for me and perhaps for all of us, another country.  The tunes, in their beauty and sheer independence, justified themselves.  And if just playing music--any kind of music--can be a solace, the traditional music revival around Durham and Chapel Hill achieved a brighter intensity by being infused with the spirit of carrying on, keeping alive for another generation, a real, living tradition. 

Though other people around the country had similar perspectives, it was Alan Jabbour who set the standards for the fiddle tune revival in these parts.  Primarily because of Alan, what had started as a loose Friday-night jam session evolved, cooked down, into groups of dedicated musicians searching out new tunes up and down the country, putting in hour after hour, working to play them "right." 

I never met Henry Reed, though I play a lot of his tunes, but I suspect he would get on Alan to "play it the right way."  Alan certainly passed this discipline on down to his cohorts in the Hollow Rock String Band: Bobbie and Tommy Thompson, and Bertram Levy.  Bobbie passed it down to me, as she later became the link from the Hollow Rock band to the Fuzzy Mountain Band.  But it's there in every relationship between teacher and student.  There's a great example of it in the recent film Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, between Chuck Berry and Keith Richards.  There's French Carpenter's message in a bottle: the "two little notes that won my grandfather's freedom."  Tommy Jarrell used to drive me to distraction over a pair of 8th notes in "Little Bunch of Keys" that I've never yet got right.

In one sense, of course, as we all began to realize after a while, this "getting it right" doesn't entirely parse out.  But the product of this attention to detail was a lot of players around Durham and Chapel Hill with a solid repertoire of real tunes that came from someone, somewhere.  "Oh that one, that's Taylor Kimball's 'Poor Johnny Love.'  It does sound sorta like 'Walkin' in the Parlor,' but it's a little different."  And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why it was sure a heartwarming feeling for me, one day in 1972, standing in a field outside of Philadelphia, to hear a bunch of guys I didn't know striking up the old school song, "Over the Waterfall," and sounding just like Alan.  Well, maybe except for a little note here or there. 

And what did all this have to do with Vietnam?  I think what we found in the music, more or less, was something real and true to care about, something bigger than the time, something rich enough to carry us through.  And the music opened us up to the people, to Tommy and Fred, to the Hammons of Marlinton, to Taylor and Stella, Oscar and Eugene--people who had lived a long time and seen a lot of things.

We gave them something too, of course, and in our ardor for them and their music didn't even know it.  How wonderful, when you're 75-years-old, and your kids are working in the mill or in Chicago, and listening to rock and roll, how wonderful to have, from out of the blue, visitors almost from another planet; people who treat you with utter respect, who care about your life and who you are, and your music.  I hope it happens to me in 20 or 30 years, some kids on my doorstep wanting to learn a tune.  For one thing, it'll mean the tunes are still alive!

But oh, what those old fiddlers and banjo-players and story-tellers gave us, back there in the long ago flaming '60s: a lifeboat, nothing less, to pass the raging storm.

---Bill Hicks, Silk Hope, NC, February 1989 

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Kerry Blech reminiscing on the first RCR performance, being in the Big Apple during the Diamond Studs run, and Tommy Thompson's class reunion
We hired the Fuzzy Mountain String Band and the Hollow Rock String Band in the early 1970s ('73 I think) for the Kent State Folk Festival. After the last set, Hollow Rock (which was then Alan Jabbour, Tommy Thompson, and Jim Watson) returned to the stage, with Bill joining them. They did their proto-Red Clay set, even mentioning that Tommy, Jim and Bill were the Red Clay Ramblers, and they were about to record the Folkways LP with Fiddlin' Al McCanless, which came out in '74.  I think it was around the next summer when they really started performing as the RCRs -- I remember seeing them do so in Glenville, WV. I think Mike may have joined by that time.  I'm sure "Electric" Bill and Mike can give you the proper chronology of all this.

Somewhere along the way, I did some drawings for them, that at one time they were using for letterhead. I think I sent that to Tommy. So who knows where it is now. His and Cece's house was kind of a jumble of interesting items at that time, including a couple of shoeboxes with slips of paper that contained all the data for Tommy's dissertation, which I don't think he ever got past the shoebox stage. 

We went to NYC to hang out with the Mumblers (Dead Sea Mumblers, one of their many "aliases") when they were in rehearsals for Diamond Studs then later went to one of the performances.  At their urging, a bunch of us auditioned for a road show cast (though they wound up taking it on the road themselves, I think - we saw them at Niagara Falls, at "Art Park,"  a year or two later). That is where I was introduced to Jack, who was in the New York cast.

During our visit during Diamond Studs rehearsals, some of the cast wanted to go to the midnight world premiere of the Mel Brooks film, Young Frankenstein. My friend Mary Siders and I, after being invited, decided to go along and stand in line to save places (it was December), while others sat in a nearby diner (yes, we all took turns). When we got in, I think I remember Mike Craver and Jim Watson leading the charge up the stairs to the balcony where we established a beachhead of "Red Clay-ness" in the first row. The celebrities from the film arrived later and were quite visible to us from our balcony seats. What a fun evening. 

from a 3/8/99 post to the Fiddle-L mailing list:
I recall going down one weekend to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (next to Mt. Vernon, ancestral home of the Snowden Family and Dan Emmett) for a reunion weekend. It was Tommy Thompson's class reunion, and his band, the Dead Sea Mumblers, was playing for the alumni, but mostly, in the beer tent. I recall at one point walking along the walls of fame in the gymnasium with Mike Craver, looking at old team photos and action photos of memorable moments. We found that Tommy not only was a guard on the football team, he was team captain his senior year and won the homecoming game by recovering a fumble for the winning touchdown. Tommy was a winner in everything he did -- banjo, football, acting, songwriting, singing.  Bill, thanks to you and the boys for inviting me down to share in those festivities -- hope I didn't embarrass ya'll too much.

It was a really fun time.

Thanks for putting this stuff up on the Web.


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July 30, 1999
updated January 8, 2002