March 2000

Joe Thompson - Family Tradition
Rounder CD2161
Released: 1999

by David J. Cantor 

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]If Joe Thompson had hung around Greenwich Village clubs in the late 1950s/early 1960s, no doubt he would have been embraced by the folk-revival luminaries and their audience as an authentic source -- in the way of Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Josh White, and others who gave way, commercially speaking, to Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary and soon afterwards to Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters.

Thompson’s grandfather Robert, born in 1849, was said to have been a fiddler. The sons of Robert and wife Catie (born in 1858), including Joe’s father, were all accomplished musicians. They played at dances and other gatherings throughout their area, in the North Carolina Piedmont, trading songs and riffs and thereby putting their generation’s stamp on parts of the folk music tradition.

Family Tradition, the only album to date devoted exclusively to Joe Thompson’s music -- he performs on some out-of-print anthologies and on an earlier release with brother Odell Thompson -- is tall on talent and dedication and short on pretense and self-indulgence, in true folk-music fashion. It was produced to coincide with Thompson’s 80th birthday, and Thompson doesn’t sound a day over 57! He gives brief, spoken introductions to some of the songs, sings honestly and melodically in a pleasant untrained folksinger’s voice, and plays masterful and often subtle fiddle.

"I Shall Not Be Moved," well known as a protest song of the civil-rights movement and often sung as "We Shall Not Be Moved," was utilized by striking tobacco workers in North Carolina in the 1930s. Thompson credits it to a white neighbor, and it originated as a religious song in the Anglo-American tradition. The "tree standing by the water" that "shall not be moved," the singer’s faith withstanding life’s vicissitudes, came to represent steadfastness in resisting oppression. The song, then, asserts the spiritual core of liberation movements.

"Goin’ Downtown" is striking for the tension created by alternate lines’ ending in a dissonant A on top of the C-major chord -- as opposed to the same note in an A-minor or F-major chord, which would sound more predictable. This repeated non-resolution of the verse yanks the listener in and can plant the song in one’s head for the rest of the day. The song that follows, "Black Eyed Daisy," does something similar: Phrases in the middle of some of the lines end in a sequence of the six and two notes, but the verses ultimately resolve on the root, permitting the listener to exit calmly.

My favorite track is "Careless Love," which Thompson sings in a blues style. Rather than the familiar version from the perspective of a woman who "used to wear [her] apron high" and "see[s] what careless love has done," Thompson’s is from a man’s perspective and emphasizes the singer’s death that will come, suggesting women who spurned him then will be sorry. "Will you do me one, one kind favor" (thrice)/"Will you let my poor soul rest in peace." Having failed to let him live in peace, that’s the least she can do!

Thompson’s fiddle dominates. You’ll just about always hear a fiddle verse between the verses he sings, and some of the tracks are entirely instrumental. Odell Thompson plays banjo on three tracks and does some singing. Brother Nate joins them on one track. Most of the CD features Bob Carlin on banjo, Clyde Davis on guitar, and Pam Davis on bass. Most of the performing besides Joe Thompson is backup, allowing Thompson to stand out.

While it is fair to say the album lacks musical and lyrical surprise and originality, such are not Thompson’s objectives. Like a tree standing by swift and turbulent water, Thompson brings us music not exactly as old as the hills but as old as human communities in the hills, an enduring chapter in America’s folk-music tradition.