A requiem for the man
as big as life.
Sixth Annual Music Issue 2003
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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