Peggin On in 1970
An Interview with Banjo-player Tommy Thompson
Interview by Robert V.N. Brown, Editor
The north carolinANVIL
Vol. 3, no. 149 weekly newspaper of politics and the arts April 4, 1970

Our thanks to Jesse Thompson Eustice who sent us this piece from her father's collection.  The 
sketch of Tommy is by Barbara Sydenham Thompson, his wife, and was used in the original article.

Tommy Thompson stands on the stage before the mike in Dukeís coffeehouse, the Celestial Omnibus, rocking gently from one foot to the other, seeming to caress his banjo as he slips the strap around his thick neck.  Heís a big broad guy and the instrument looks more like a toy dangling there, but one that belongs.  Thatís the feeling I had as I sat there listening and watching, like I had before with another banjo player, Phil Fraley - another out in the county type of fella - whom, it turns out, Tommy had heard of; this kind of music and players have been part of the area for a long time now.

The red and white pinstripe shirt Tommy wears with built-in sleeve garters, Billy Eckstein collar and deep V-cut seems strangely out of context for an out in the county musician till someone comments, ďThatís a made shirt, made by a woman, whooeee, but itís got a lot of soul in it.Ē  And it may seem strange to describe country musicians as playing ďsoulĒ but thatís what it is.  Traditional soul, old timey soul.

The room they play in is ugly with its black walls and abortive attempt at psychedelia, but it is small enough to be comfortable in and it is quiet.  The 80 or so people who are here have come to listen and they are hushed as Al McCanless on fiddle, Jim Watson on guitar and Tommy on banjo make ready to do music.  Together they call their group the New Academic String Band.  Theyíre very fine and itís a sorrow not to be able to reproduce their music here.

The Interview
When I first got interested in playing music, it was because of the Kingston Trio.  I never played any music at all and I was a junior at Kenyon College and that was the latest thing in í58.  I just figured if I could learn to play the banjo like the guy in the Kingston Trio, man Iíd be something.  But, ah, things changeÖwhen I first went to Union Grove, I realized that the music I was doing, that all the stuff was derived from, was not dead, not fossilized, was still alive and thatís when I really got involved in it.  I could go there, and go to the mountains, take a recorder and a banjo, visit somebody, and just learn from himÖlisten to him play, play along with him.

In West Virginia, my home, I picked up a feel for the music, but my family and all their friends and that sort of thing were people that were trying to put down their rural background as much as they could so this kind of thing would come on the radio - you could still hear it on the radio in the late forties and all - and it would come on and they would turn it up and laugh at it.  And I learned to do that.  But I think I learned to like it some, too.

It was when I was in New Orleans that I first picked up an instrument and started learning.  That was in í60 when I was in the Coast Guard.  I bought a $25 guitar and started strumming on it, but I was really interested in the banjo.  I didnít know anything about but I had an idea that was what I wanted.  A guitar was an easy thing to buy in a music store - not many people had banjos in those days - so thatís what I got.  Guess I was kind of wandering toward the mountains where it all was.

And in New Orleans I started going to the library and getting collections of folk songs, stuff that other people made in the mountains.  When I started doing like Burl Ives things and Kingston Trio things, I couldnít help but want to know where they came from.  I donít know exactly where I first got the idea that there was such a thing as folk music, but while I was at Kenyon my roommate and I once went to the library and got out an Allen Lomax collection, and there was a song that they had taped from somewhere in the mountain I donít know where - I didnít pay much attention at the time - called ďTom DooleyĒ and my roommate played tenor banjo a little bit, and I didnít play anything.  Well, I played washboard in a skiffle band then, but I didnít play any good instruments.  And so we learned to do this just for the hell of it and about the time we got it sort of worked out, ďTom DooleyĒ was a big Kingston Trio thing.  So maybe thatís what started me, too.

A lot of the fiddle tunes we play now are from West Virginia, but I donít think I learned any specific thing, any song or tune that I do now when I was there.  I just sort of picked up the feel of it.  I didnít really start to learn any of these specific tunes until I came to North Carolina.  Most of the fiddle tunes that I know I learned from Alan Jabbour, a fantastic fiddler and probably THE authority on fiddle tunes.

I have very little genuine ethnic background to draw on.  As far as my connection with folk music goes, I might just as well have been from New York City.  Itís all picked up as an outsider going in looking for it.  Been playing around here and at conventions since í63.

We made a record, on Kanawha, in March of í68, called The Hollow Rock String Band: Traditional Dance Tunes.  All instrumental.  That was when Alan Jabbour was our fiddler and all the tunes were stuff that he had collected, about half of them from West Virginia.  The record sold out.  Matter of fact, I donít even know what happened to my copy of it, and I canít get one.

I call what we do old-time country music.  Itís rural music from the upper South, almost all of it derived from Scottish and Irish sources, and it goes under various names; old-timey, old-fashioned, homemade music.  Itís strictly out in the county stuff.  Ah, this is the music that the first settlers brought here, when they came with just a fiddle or with no instruments except their voices.  You can go to Williamsburg and hear the same stuff.  Itís amazing, the tunes of the Fife and Drum Corps at Williamsburg, the instrumental tunes that they play, theyíre just like the fiddle tunes that we play, very similar music and itís all derived from the same Scottish and Irish sources.

Thereís political content in some of the music that we sing, I think, because around the turn of the century, a lot of country people began to know more and find out more about what was going on in the world around them.  They are intelligent, independent-thinking people and their music was really a part of them, and they expressed what they felt in all the different ways there are of expressing things.  And one of them was in music.  But as far as Iím concerned, first and foremost as a musician, the thing has got to be musically sound.  I mean, if it has political content and the content is more like the way I tend to feel, I will use it.  I would never use the music for political purposes.  Iím a purist in a sense.  I donít want to base my repertoire on political grounds.  I want to base it on musical grounds.

I think that this traditional music expresses on a deeper level the same kinds of things that have to do with humanity and love and what peopleís basic values really are.  In a way, even better than more explicitly political or topical songs. And there are a lot of people that do the explicitly political things, which is a good thing because you have to be explicit now and again.  You have to be explicit a lot, but I think underneath that you have to have a solid core of humanity that I think really comes out better in the songs that have been around long enough so that generations of people  have honed them down to their bare bones and thereís nothing left except what their heart really forced them to say.  But it takes both kinds.  You know, I mean, youíre just supposed to hear it in the song.  And either you do, or you donít, kinda.  I feel like thereís a whole bunch of stuff, a whole bunch of musical material that nobody is doing and where I personally just feel more at home, and thatís where I seek it out.  Itís like, Iím doing a Ph.D. in philosophy and it would be a hard job for me to articulate verbally, fill in the gap, between what Iím doing as a neophyte philosopher and what Iím doing as a musician.  I mean, ah, itís all part of the same thingÖI donít think thereís any conflict, thereís a lot of relevance.

I think that weíre losing an art, weíre losing in a culture where entertainment, where not only entertainment but everything that our spirit thrives on is provided from the outside.  Weíre losing the art of providing our own spiritual food.  People donít talk any moreÖpeople donít make music any moreÖpeople donít make useless little things with their hands any moreÖpeople donít do anything any more, you know, except what they need to do to make a living or what they need to do to sort of keep themselves busy, like, you know, buy a boat, an outboard motor, a set of skisÖbuy a camperÖbuy yourself some stuff to keep you busy.  Nothing comes from inside the people and out, it all comes from the outside.  Just buy - get a lot of stuff.

I enjoy things like that, too.  But they can take over and eliminate, just make you forget about you being a person and having your own well springs of creativity.  There was a time when we werenít provided with prepackaged entertainment and in those days Ö What I want to emphasize, itís the creativity, the ability to produce a useless thing for the sake of producing it.  The ability to do something which only a person can do, a machine canítÖand it so happens that I think that traditional music is one of the high points, one of the great flowers of what can come from people who are not academically trained to be a this or be a that, itís just something that comes from themÖThatís why I like to call it homemade music.

Rock is thatÖrock is probably the only example that I can think of that people are currently captivated by, thatís not almost entirely canned.  And yet, even a lot of that is.  In a way, it necessarily is because rock music, just to do I t, to do it right, requires fine, expensive instruments.  Thereís a big outlayÖitís not something that people can just do a little bit now and then.  Youíre either really into it or youíre not into it at all.  Ah, and then, you see, the thing about it is that there is in rock music the process.  I mean, you know, everybody knows what itís like in recording studios and recording a rock number.  Ah, thereís so much technology, so much put into it to produce what comes out on the record beyond just what came out of the four or five guys who are playing it.  Not necessarily all of it.  Another thing is, we have very definite explicit clear-cut models of quality in rock music, the dominating bands of the time.  What happens is that this produces at least a tendency towards homogeneity, which doesnít or at least didnít happen prior to the times of recordings and radio.  Then it was in traditional music; from region to region, almost from county to count, it comes down to just about county to county, everything thereís just a tremendous difference in repertory, in style, in instrumentation and content, point of view, itís just amazingly heterogeneous, traditional music is.

Rock music certainly reflects our own age, our own society, our own culture, every bit as much and every bit as well as traditional music.  The good stuff, I mean, is original and creative.  And I like it.  But traditional stuff is different, and I donít mean guys doing stuff that they just learned off the Nashville production.  There are some counties that you still can, by God, Iím glad to say, ah, if you look hard, hear those original tunes from the people they belong to.  Itís not so much because I think that what was played then was better than whatís played now - only what was played then was too good to throw away.  And it has value to the present time.

I mean, take the love song that I like so much, ďGold Watch and ChainĒ - you know, it doesnít say explicitly value love more than this, I value you and your love more than my gold watch and chain, which Iím willing to pawn, and yet at the same time it says, it implies that the guy sings ďtake back all the gifts youíve given me but a ring and a lock of your hair and a card with your picture upon it, itís a face thatís false thatís fair.Ē  You know, he says, he implies that I value what we had spiritually more than I value the presents, the material things that you gave me.

Itís not so much that I donít feel itís expressed in contemporary rock, but itís certainly not expressed in a lot of the rest of our so to speak social literature.  Itís not expressed in what we do as businessmen.  But the thing that I like, which turns me on so much about it in the traditional music is that itís expressed under the surface, you know.  I think these are the values we still hold, down underneath we are all human beings, but today we canít really be that so weíre schizoid.

Going down and hewing out a place for yourself. There is thatÖah, nostalgia is involved in my musicÖand thereís just the sheer idea of quaintness.  You know we all have this idea or at least I do, which I try to get away from, but I do have this little picture.  What is my music?  Well itís two old guys sittiní on chairs in front of a fireplace with a long rifle over the mantle, and all that shit, just like in the picturesÖand of course thatís not the way it was, and certainly not the kind of places that exist if you go out and visit a fiddler now.  Theyíve got linoleum on the floor and an autographed picture of Jesus on the wall and itís easy to get this idea of quaintness where everything was pure and holy and true and Christian and itís not.  Well, it was a little like that, but it wasnít all the way like thatÖyou know itís easy to idealize the past.  But I know itís a mistake to do it.

Other writers on the Red Clay Ramblersí web site whoíve addressed this key time in the development of the band are here:

Blurred Time: "The Sleeper"
Hollow Rock String Band
Fuzzy Mountain String Band
Coming to Hollow Rock
Peggin On in 1970 (An Interview with Banjo-player Tommy Thompson)
Home Tommy
December 23, 2001