Track 1 – “Lights in the Valley” (Live) by Joe & Odell Thompson
The drive from my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, to the neighboring town of Mebane is about forty-five minutes, pretty much all tree-lined highway. To an adult, it’s over as soon as you’ve settled into it; to a young person, it’s approximately two hundred years long. I remember making that long trip as a child—“are we there yet?”—every year for the Morrow Family Reunion; memories of eating home-cooked Southern food, playing with cousins, and listening to the adults gossip are an indelible part of my childhood. But I grew up, and the yearly visits to Mebane ceased. I went to college up North to learn opera, of all things; I came back to Greensboro, vaguely unsatisfied but thoroughly trained in how to wear a corset and sing very nice high notes; then I found the banjo. Shortly thereafter, I was told about a black fiddler named Joe Thompson, who lived in Mebane. And so I found myself, years after the fish fries and games of tag, making the same pilgrimage to the same very small town, driving down the same road but for a very different family connection—a musical connection that would become foundational to my identity as an artist.
Joe Thompson was the last in his family’s line of community musicians. He learned the fiddle from his father, and his brother learned the banjo from an uncle; as soon as they were old enough, they took over the family band and played for the local square dances—the black and the white. They were part of a dying tradition: musicians from the community playing functional music for social dances, not to make a living but because that’s simply what they did. They were also among the last living links to a vast black string band tradition that used to be spread all over the South and other parts of the U.S. but had slowly disappeared until very few were left. And they were swallowed up by the wider societal notion that fiddle and banjo music was strictly a white preserve. Along with the other original Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to sit at Joe’s feet. For that is what we did. On Thursday nights we would make that pilgrimage to Mebane and gather at Joe’s house to play. We had each come to old-time music in different ways, but we all felt the huge import of having a black elder to learn from. Each of us was well used to being the only splash of color in any traditional music gathering. Joe himself was a natural-born teacher, and had been playing with white musicians in Mebane for years. They were a close-knit group that supported him and were well aware of his importance. After his brother and cousin died, he would have most likely quit playing if not for that community; he was well known for never taking out the fiddle unless there was a banjo player present.
Dom, Justin, and I would settle into Joe’s tiny living room and bring out our instruments. His wife Pauline would come around with a tray of ice-cold bottles of water, her back bent almost double with the weight of it, but insisting on her hostessing duties. That ice-cold water was welcome because, like many folks of a tender, older age, Joe and Pauline liked to crank up the heat to ninety, and without those bottles I believe we may have occasionally passed out, instruments in hand. Then our sessions would start: Joe would take out his fiddle, strike the strings with his left hand to make sure it was in tune, and he would say, “Boys, what we gonna start with tonight? Let’s play ‘John Henry.’” The question was always asked and answered in the same sentence, and we were always “boys,” myself included. We played the same tunes over and over, and Joe never instructed in so many words. If we were getting it right, he kept playing. If we weren’t, he’d stop and say, “You know, I believe we’re going a little fast” or “a little slow,” and we knew to pay closer attention. Then we’d start it up again. We listened, and played, and listened, and played, and one day we were playing with him, and we finished a tune, and Joe turned to our audience and said, “So what do you think of my band?” We looked at each other and knew those were the best words of praise we’d ever, ever get from him. And the only ones we’d ever need.
In addition to his stunning bow arm, which was a national treasure, Joe had a beautiful, soulful singing voice, and a very clear relationship with church and God. His cue for us to play “Lights in the Valley” was “Well, you got to let them know you go to church every once in a while.” I felt the spirits stir when Joe sang, felt connected in a visceral way to the ones who have come before. For me, Dom, and Justin, Joe was our musical grandfather. He spoke and behaved in an idiom that we understood in a way we couldn’t explain; the black experience was inseparable from the music we played and experienced in his presence.
In those early sessions, Joe often had to be reminded of our names. He was in his mid-eighties when we met him, after all. Remembering all my family reunions, I told Joe that I had relatives in Mebane. “Who are your people?” he asked in the time-honored Southern tradition. When I told him the Morrows, he said, “Oh they live on Mebane Oaks Road—all the way on the other side of Mebane,” as if it was as far as the dark side of the moon. Forever after I was Miss Morrow, and I realized I had come home again.