Our March 8th Gathering celebrates the life and music of fiddler Joe Thompson, a national treasure and mentor to the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We are honored to have Rhiannon Giddens Laffan and Justin Robinson, Grammy winners and founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, leading our celebration. Joining them will be Lalenja Harrington, Rhiannon's sister. We are delighted to welcome Jacquelin Peters, as well. She will share her memories of traveling with Joe and Odell Thompson to the International Music Festival in Brisbane, Australia.
The concert gets underway at 7:30 PM in the Great Aunt Stella Center, 926 Elizabeth Avenue, in the edge of Uptown Charlotte. Doors open at 7 PM; we recommend early arrival, as this is sure to be a full house.
CFS Gatherings are family-friendly, open to the public, and free. Donations, which support the series in part, are greatly appreciated and essential to supporting the concert series in the Stella Center. Free parking is available in an adjacent deck after 7 PM; exit without paying after 8 PM. Accessible entry and an elevator are available through the ground-floor door on the parking lot side of the building. Drivers with guests needing accessible entry may park temporarily in designated drop-off spaces opposite the side door.
Visitors are invited to come to the downstairs Cafe after the concert to enjoy refreshments. A song circle, informal jam sessions, and the Charlotte Appalachian Dulcimer Club meeting follow. The Dulcimer Club makes available loaner instruments to visitors interested in "taking a test drive." Both listeners and participants are welcome to all these activities.
Joe Thompson died last year at the age of 93. In his lifetime, he played at Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and the Kennedy Center and he toured in Australia, Yet, he might well have left this world without passing on the African American fiddle-and-banjo string band tradition handed down through the Thompson Family, from Joe's enslaved grandfather to his father, John Arch, and his uncle Walter, and on to Joe, his brother Nate, and his cousin Odell. None of his younger family members were interested in taking up the string band tradition.
In 2005, then 86-year-old Joe Thompson met three young musicians at the landmark Black Banjo Gathering in Boone. Soon, the young folks were traveling to Joe's Mebane home every Thursday night. During those weekly visits, Joe shared his family legacy with Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons.
The trio went on to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops string band, "mostly as a tribute to Joe," they said. Their recording Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2011. The Boston Globe praised the multi-instrumental group for reclaiming and reviving a near-forgotten brand of banjo-driven string band music from North Carolina's Piedmont region, and doing so with "a contagious, abundant joy."
An important aspect of the band's performances is education. They raise awareness of the banjo's African roots and enlighten both African American and white audiences about the merging and melding of fiddle and banjo music that resulted in a shared string band tradition.
In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Joe Thompson's preservation of his family tradition with a National Folk Heritage Fellowship. Happily for us, Joe not only preserved it - he passed it on.
The Charlotte Folk Society enjoyed a relationship with Joe Thompson dating back to 1990, when Karen and Jon Singleton met Joe and his cousin Odell Thompson in the course of coordinating the Blues Stage at Charlotte's Jazz Festival. Over time, they became acquainted with the extended Thompson Family and attended family reunions held in Charlotte. Through the years, CFS presented Joe Thompson on various Folk Society stages. In 2006, we recognized Joe with the CFS Folk Heritage Award. Later that year, Wanda Hubicki initiated and coordinated a successful nomination of Joe Thompson for a 2007 NEA Folk Heritage Award.
CFS helped to make possible the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, where Rhiannon, Justin, and Dom met Joe Thompson, by holding a concert to benefit performing musicians traveling to the weekend. In October 2005 we presented the string band Sankofa Strings at our monthly Gathering. The band consisted of Rhiannon, Justin, Dom, and Sule Greg Wilson. Since then, the Folk Society has partnered in two different years with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and several community organizations to offer a ticketed public concert, workshops, and school programs.
It is fitting to close the circle with a tribute to Joe Thompson led by Rhiannon Giddens Laffan and Justin Robinson.
CFS Gatherings are made possible, in part, with funding from the Arts & Science Council and the North Carolina Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Cultural Resources, and the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.