A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Monday, September 14, 2015

75th National Folk Festival Features Former GLFF Performers

The 75th National Folk Festival was held last weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina. The festival began in 1934 in St. Louis, Missouri, and was the first of its kind "to present the arts of many nations, races, and languages on equal footing." This was the first time the festival was held in North Carolina, a state with a very rich musical history. Among this year's line up were former Great Lakes Folk Festival participants Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Thomas Maupin & Overall Creek.

Giddens paid tribute to Chocolate Drops musical mentor, the late Joe Thompson, who was a resident of Greensboro. Thompson performed at the 2007 Great Lakes Folk Festival. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 93.

From the GLFF website:
"It is not widely known that the fiddle and banjo were commonly played by African-Americans from slavery times to well into this century. The instruments were combined to provide much of the dance music for the balls and "frolics" of both white and black Southerners. And thousands of dance tunes--waltzes, schottisches, and reels--were adapted and composed for the fiddle and banjo. No one knows when or how the instruments were first played together, but it was a marriage of two radically different cultural traditions, giving rise to one of America's first truly indigenous musical forms.
Joe Thompson is perhaps the last surviving African-American "old-time" fiddler. Joe and first cousin Odell (with whom Joe played until Odell died in 1994) made their homes near the Alamance and Orange County line north of Mebane, North Carolina. Born and raised on farms in the area (Odell in 1911; Joe in 1918), they grew up helping their parents tend crops of tobacco, cotton, corn, and wheat. Music-making was much valued in their households, and the sounds of the banjo and fiddle could be heard whenever the work was done. Joe and Odell's fathers, Walter and John Arch Thompson, were constantly sought after by neighbors, black and white, to play for square dances. 
The Thompson boys soon began performing at Saturday-night dances with their dads. Joe recalls taking his position in the doorway between rooms filled with dancing couples. "We were playing [four- and eight-hand square dance] sets--I was only seven years old. We had straight chairs, and my feet couldn't touch the floor." 
As popular tastes in music and dancing changed through the years, there was less call for fiddlers and banjo players. Joe played his fiddle at dances and parties throughout the 1920s and '30s, while Odell took up the guitar and learned the blues. The early 1970s brought a revival of interest in African American folk music traditions. The Thompsons were "discovered" by folklorists who encouraged them to play publicly again, only this time for predominately white audiences at folk festivals and special events. In more recent years, they appeared at the National Folk Festival at Lowell, Massachusetts, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in the state of Washington, and at New York's Carnegie Hall. Their dynamic instrumental styles and soaring vocals packed plenty of punch and brought attention to the rich tradition of African American string band music in the South."
Read or listen to the NPR story here.