If you’ve heard of Grammy-winning North Carolina-based old-time revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops, then you’ve likely heard its homegrown back story – how three African-American musicians who met at Appalachian State University’s Black Banjo Gathering in 2005 began a mentorship with 86-year-old Mebane-based fiddler Joe Thompson.
The trio that blossomed learning the string band tradition from Thompson in turn shined a light on the historical connection between African-Americans and banjo and fiddle music and launched its own brand of modern string band music.
Thompson died at the age of 93 in Burlington on Feb. 20, 2012.
On Friday, founding Chocolate Drops members Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens Laffan will reunite to pay tribute to Thompson during the Charlotte Folk Society’s Joe Thompson Memorial Concert at Great Aunt Stella Center. They’ll revisit Thompson’s tunes as well as some traditional Carolina gospel duets with Laffan’s sister.
It will be their first concert together since Robinson left the band in 2011 to pursue a graduate degree in forestry at N.C. State.
Greensboro’s Laffan credits Thompson with helping shape the sound that’s taken the Chocolate Drops from his living room to a nationally recognized, award-winning major label band (its last two albums were released by Nonesuch, a Warner Bros. label that specializes in classical and world music and whose eclectic roster includes David Byrne and Ben Folds).
“That’s how we became a band,” Laffan says of those early gatherings with Thompson. “We were relatively new to the old-time scene. So we were kind of blank slates. The importance of what we were doing kept it going. We were keeping his legacy going in the black community.”
The sight of the young trio jamming with the 80-something fiddler grabbed headlines. Thompson regularly jammed with musicians locally, but the Drops were different.
“What he probably wasn’t used to was (the musicians) not being white and the consistency with which we went – every week for a year,” Robinson adds.
In the early days Thompson gigged with the trio.
“When we started to do more he offhandedly mentioned, ‘When are we going to get us a van and go on the road?’ So for a while we took him around whenever we could,” recalls Robinson, a Gastonia native. “It became apparent we couldn’t handle that level of care on the road, because you need someone dedicated to just the caretaking of somebody that’s 87 years old.”
It wasn’t Thompson’s first foray into fame. He and his cousin Odell had played Carnegie Hall and folk and blues festivals. Beginning in 1990, Thompson played several concerts with the Folk Society; eventually, the organization’s publicist, Wanda Hubicki, nominated him for the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, which he received in 2007.
“I think he was proud (of us), but he would never say that. He’s cut from that cloth. We were having an interview at some point with Joe, he said to the interviewer, ‘How do you like my band?’ ” recalls Robinson. “That was the most direct and best compliment we probably got from him.”
Robinson describes Thompson as a humble guy who was involved in his church.
“He was funny in a sardonic way, very observational humor, not outwardly funny or constantly cracking jokes, just saying things as they are and that ending up being very funny,” he recalls. More so than his humor, he adds: “He was somebody that was willing to share his knowledge and time.”