It’s time to honor legendary musician Joe Thompson who linked past and future


Joe Thompson in 2007. Photo by the National Endowment for the Arts.

They call it the Joe and Odell Thompson Legacy Project. There is something so right about it. In fact, it might be the rightest thing I’ve read about in a while.

What was presented to Mebane city leaders Monday night and reported in the Burlington Times-News was an overview of the Joe and Odell Thompson Legacy Project, a move to honor two late African-American old-timey string musicians who kept a family and cultural tradition of music alive through one century and into another. It’s a tradition carried on today by banjo and fiddle players mentored by Joe Thompson — a local, state and national treasure who died Feb. 20, 2012 at age 93. He and his cousin Odell, who died in a car accident in 1994, were lifelong Mebane residents. Joe Thompson was honored by a slew of organizations prior to his death, most notably in 2007 when he traveled to Washington to pick up a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among those influenced by Thompson’s fiddle-playing are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina-based Grammy-award winning old-timey band that has since split up and once included the incomparable Rhiannon Giddens. Here’s a video of Thompson performing with the group.

Joe Thompson is on the short list of most influential artists from Alamance County in its history.  Here is a pdf of an editorial I wrote about him upon his death in 2012.

Joe Thompson

The Joe and Odell Thompson Legacy Project would create a brick statue and an annual concert in Mebane. Both would be outstanding additions not only to Mebane and Alamance County but North Carolina. State funding would help support the fall concert series. Mebane would pay for the statue, which would be $30,000. City leaders will be discussing the issue further at a budget workshop on March 19.  Off the top of her head, councilwoman Patty Philipps suggested putting the statue by the new Community Park amphitheater, which would then be dedicated to Thompson and used for the concert series.

It all sounds like a plan to me and a damned good one — something so right. The timing is perfect, too. This year Thompson would have turned 100.

In today’s Times-News story by Jessica Williams there is quote from Dr. Iris Thompson Chapman, a distant relative of the Thompsons and chair of the Joe and Odell Thompson Legacy Project committee.

“When (Joe) picked up his bow, it’s like we’re going back to either the late 1700s or the early 1900s. We’re hearing a sound. … The songs were the same, the tune, the cadence were the same. Can you imagine that? That’s just like looking at a Picasso to me.”

So true, Dr. Chapman. So true.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Joe Thompson performing with Rhiannon Giddens.

One thought on “It’s time to honor legendary musician Joe Thompson who linked past and future

  1. Pingback: Joe Thompson –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s