Father Banjo
A requiem for the man as big as life.

Hal Crowther
Oxford American, Sixth Annual Music Issue 2003

Tommy Thompson was from West Virginia and he bore a certain resemblance to a mountain, or at least to someone who’d just come down from the mountain, after talking to The Boss.  He wore the weather on his shoulders.  “Tommy could close down the light and bring on the night,” said his second wife, Cece Conway, recalling the storms that rolled down the mountainside.  But when his sun was shining, birds broke into song and branches into blossom.  After his final performance, well into his fatal illness, he called Conway and told her, “I have a sunny disposition--even still, I guess.”  She doesn’t deny it.

Tommy Thompson, the huge man his friends called Father Banjo and the Cajuns dubbed “Uncle Wide Load,” died in January at sixty-five, after nearly a decade of silent decline with an Alzheimer’s-related dementia.  Though he’d been off the stage for so long and virtually beyond communication for several years, the response to his death defined the critical difference between the weightless thing called celebrity and the rare personality that actually alters other people’s lives.  “He was a wonder in many different ways,” said his longtime piano player, writer Bland Simpson.  “People would seek Tommy out--older, younger, men, women--to tell him, ‘I play music because of you.’  He inspired people.  That’s magic.”

United by a fear that he might have died forgotten or underrated, friends, scholars, and musicians fell over each other trying to explain Tommy Thompson.  It would have delighted and amused him.  Tommy was not so much a humble man as a compulsively reflective one, a philosopher by training and inclination--possibly the only entertainer who ever claimed the seminal influence of both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Uncle Dave Macon.  He took the long view.  “He was the philosophical graduate student always surrounding himself with unanswerable questions,” recalled mandolinist Bertram Levy.  “But when he got the banjo, it set him free.”

In a cover story for The Old Time Herald, written six months before Thompson’s death, David Potorti collected a treasury of reminiscences by Tommy’s musical collaborators.  It’s important to note that the Red Clay Ramblers, the band Thompson fathered and anchored for twenty-two years, must have the highest aggregate IQ and the most university degrees of any string band that ever lived.  We might all covet eulogists like these.  The quote that sticks with me is from Mike Craver, the Ramblers’ original piano man.  “I remember watching him and thinking, If I had to describe a Shakespearean character, it would be Tommy.  He was big then, and he had that kind of Falstaff quality to him--red hair, and a red beard.  He was amazing looking, and the word that comes to mind is probably charismatic.  You looked at him, and you had to look back, because he had such a presence, he just exuded this personality.”

Thompson was “amazing-looking.”  More antique even that “Shakespearean,” his was an Old Testament look, like Goliath in bronze armor or Ezekiel in a dusty sheepskin.  He was bigger and smarter and spoke in a lower register than almost anyone, and he could play the banjo like the Devil himself.  And none of that fully explains his singularity.  The elegant lyrics of “Hot Buttered Rum”-- a Thompson song I often hum or whistle--capture the essence of the man I knew because they’re both cynical and sentimental, side by side.

“It’s always seemed to me a slight irony that a man of Tommy’s breadth and genius didn’t become very famous,” said folklorist Henry Glassie.  “I think he should have.  Tommy wrote some of the finest songs of the genre of his period.  In some ways, Tommy will probably be forgotten and his songs will be remembered.”

It isn’t that Thompson performed in obscurity, or that show business disappointed him.  From Diamond Studs Off-Broadway in 1975 to Broadway’s Fool Moon in 1993, his credits for musical theater as an actor, musician, composer, and arranger would have made several careers for less expansive talent.  Two of the Ramblers’ great supporters have been Sam Shepard and Garrison Keillor, and thanks to their patronage, Tommy Thompson probably enjoyed more national exposure than any banjo player besides John Hartford.  The Ramblers’ music was featured on Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, in Shepard’s film Far North, and on TV shows, including Northern Exposure and Ryan’s Hope.  Thompson and company were the onstage band for Shepard’s off-Broadway play A Lie of the Mind, and featured players in his motion picture Silent Tongue.

For a decade or more, the Ramblers were in evidence everywhere, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa on tours sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency.  But a dozen fine CDs made no one rich, and in the music business that’s the single measure of celebrity. Thompson was a connoisseur’s musician, a stylist who took on the mountain masters and won the World Champion Old Time Banjo Contest at Union Grove, NC, in 1971.  The Ramblers were a connoisseur’s band, only with some wires loose.  They all wrote songs in different styles and eventually moved themselves beyond the protection of every established genre.  What began as a traditional string band, rooted in mountain fiddle tunes and superb instrumentation--“a band that might have existed in 1930, but didn’t”--evolved into an act that journalists struggled to describe.  “A fantasy roadhouse band from a vanished rural America” was the New York Times’ best effort.  When Sam Shepard cast them as a raffish, impudent medicine-show band in Silent Tongue, it was less a performance than a Ramblers self-portrait.

Even after Broadway and the African odyssey (“Regions of Rain” is Tommy’s ultimate road song), the Ramblers were proudly and thoroughly a local band.  It was in Chapel Hill that they first met Father Banjo, resident master of the clawhammer and the categorical imperative.

In Chapel Hill, the Ramblers and their faithful are not so much a cult as an extended family, with close family ties.  A Ramblers concert was not an entertainment option but a seasonal celebration, like Mardi Gras or the Blessing of the Fleet in a fishing village.  Everyone came--everyone with musical tastes to the populist side of Rachmaninoff--and everyone who could play wanted to play with the Ramblers.  There were memorable nights when nearly everyone did.  That atmosphere prevailed at Tommy’s funeral.  The service, a high-church Episcopalian affair with bells and incense, might have surprised the unchurched mountain Christian in the coffin.  But upstairs in the parish hall afterwards, a dozen-deep string band--led by folklorist Alan Jabbour, the protean John McCutcheon, and original Ramblers Jim Watson and Bill Hicks--recreated the anarchic splendor of the vintage Ramblers when Father Banjo was in his prime.

Thompson was always the big man at the center, at the hammering heart of the music.  How it must have stunned him, still in early middle age, when the music started to fade.  But the performance I remember best created a quiet place where his deep voice cast a spell and his banjo rang pure as a prayer bell. The Last Song of John Proffit, a one-man show he wrote and created in its entirety, could stand as his own last will and testament.  His portrait of a 19th century minstrel was a powerful piece of theater, charged with the passion and insight of a thoughtful man who’d been brooding and waiting a long time to take center stage in the spotlight, alone.  Two St. Louis reviewers compared him with Mark Twain.  Tommy was a riveting actor, with his stubborn streak of darkness and enough gravitas for the College of Cardinals.

And for once he was alone.  Thompson’s ego was so well tempered that he’d always worked with an ensemble--a formidable ensemble.  Talent aside, if you’ve never seen core Ramblers Jack Herrick, Clay Buckner, and Chris Frank, well, they’re not physical types you find every day in the coffee line at Starbucks.  In such company, even Mount Thompson wasn’t always the first thing to catch your eye.  The Yoda-like Buckner, the most effortlessly funny man who ever made a fiddle moan, was responsible for “Father Banjo”--as in “Speak to us, Father Banjo.  Read to us from the Book of Gigs.”

Tommy wore his learning lightly, and covertly in the company of old-time pickers who entertain no excessive respect for books. He was alert to the condescension of people who take string-band musicians for grade school dropouts, yet rarely yielded to the urge to embarrass them.  He was easy in the most literate company.  One of his best friends away from music was the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor, whose intimidating erudition has shamed everyone who knows him, including me.

Taylor never scared Tommy.  It was at the poet’s house on the Outer Banks that we had--in retrospect--a first foreshadowing of the illness that was gathering its forces.  We’d been drinking a little.  After dark, six or seven of us walked out to the beach to look at the starts; one of my jokes was calling Tommy “Ursa Major.”  We took to singing, and after the amateurs exhausted their repertoire we turned to Tommy to keep us going--a man who in his time must have known a thousand songs.  He sang one song, fumbled the lyrics of a second and then fell silent.

The evening was fairly young, and we thought it was just a mood, another cold front moving across the Thompson Range. This was a year before the first symptoms of dementia were diagnosed.  Tommy’s last song that night wasn’t one of his own--I never heard him sing his own songs in a social setting.  It was one of his favorites, an ancient standard he sang in A Lie of the Mind: “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

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March 14, 2003