Joe Thompson is sitting on a stage outside the Doris Duke Center, instrument in hand, mike on, crowd attentive.
At 89, Thompson is a pro, and he looks like the archetypical older-than-dirt bluesman-a now-fragile, somewhat grizzled old black man with an enigmatic grin and an arsenal of bawdy songs he knows by heart.
But Thompson isn't strumming "Hellhound on My Trail," or "Killing Floor Blues" or any of the other Delta blues warhorses. And he's not scraping at a beat-up guitar with a Coricidin bottle slide.
Instead, he's cheerfully mumbling the lyrics to the bluegrass standard "Old Joe Clark" while cradling a fiddle under his chin.
A lifelong resident of Mebane, on the Orange-Alamance county line, Thompson is a link to a rich but half-hidden black musical tradition in North Carolina. But don't call him the last in a dying breed.
In fact, sharing the stage with him are three musicians, all in their twenties, who are trying to revitalize the black string band tradition.
Like Dom Flemons, whose four-string banjo, newsboy hat, checked shirt and suspenders place him as an emissary from about 1925-the year Thompson learned to play-except for the bright red Chuck Taylor sneakers he's using to stomp out the rhythm.
Flemons is a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Durham-based band that's part of a surprisingly strong continued tradition in black music. Continuing, as in: Later in their set, they'll treat listeners to a banjo-driven rendition of Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style."
The Chocolate Drops, like dozens of other local acts, are associated with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a Durham charity that helps aging Southern musicians survive. With an advisory board that includes B.B. King, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, Music Maker is a major force in the blues world, and founder Tim Duffy says Durham's history makes the city exactly the right place for his mission.
Let's start with the glory days of the Bull City blues: In 1908, just 10 years before Thompson was born, Fulton Allen was born in Wadesboro, a hamlet near Charlotte (2000 census population: 3,552). No one's heard of Fulton Allen, but as Blind Boy Fuller, he recorded 120 sides that Duffy says transcended the black "race record" audience and caught the ears of white listeners.
Although he waxed most of his tracks in bigger cities, he was discovered playing on street corners and tobacco markets in the booming city, and when he died in 1941-at the legend-making age of 33- he was buried in Grove Hill Cemetery, a now-disused boneyard off Fayetteville Street.
Members of Fuller's circle included harmonica man Sonny Terry, guitarist Brownie McGhee and the most famous of the Piedmont bluesmen, the Rev. Gary Davis, who stayed in Durham from the 1920s until the 1940s, when he left for New York City.
These men didn't play the old-time music the Carolina Chocolate Drops do, nor did they play Delta blues like Robert Johnson, of soul-selling fame. Instead, they were the leading exponents of the Piedmont blues, a fingerpicked, ragtime-inflected style that flourished from Maryland down to Georgia.
Although the style is not as well-known as its Mississippi cousin, Davis and Fuller influenced musicians from Keb' Mo' to the Grateful Dead. A few musicians work to continue the style outside of North Carolina; the Virginia-based duo Cephas and Wiggins follow the harmonica-and-guitar format Terry and McGhee used after Fuller's death, and former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen is a devoted disciple of Davis.
But the style can still be heard on the streets of Durham, too.
Take John Dee Holeman (b. 1929). Like Joe Thompson, he was born in Orange County, in Hillsborough; when he was still a toddler, his family moved to a 100-acre farm north of the town, where Holeman worked until he was in his fifties. Now retired, he lives just south of downtown and remains relatively spry, caring for his wife, doing odd jobs around the house and even improvising a makeshift spigot so he can water his tomato plants ("Sometimes I use my head for more than a hatrack," he jokes).
Where Joe Thompson is charmingly casual, the lean, tall Holeman is sharp from his polished black shoes to his pressed khaki slacks (he even does yardwork wearing carefully creased jeans), short-sleeve beige button-down and trademark Kangol hat-yep, that's beige, too.
Add to that a carefully trimmed mustache, weathered skin and the pack of cigarettes in his pocket and he's the picture of cool. He sits bolt-upright to play, keeping banter to a minimum, and his soft voice and friendly smile belie the raucous stories he can tell, whether spoekn or sung.
Although he learned on an acoustic, he says he mostly plays a fancy new Gibson electric guitar these days; he's in the habit, and it's easier to deal with on a gig. But his percussive, intricate playing comes out sounding just transistorized enough to seem to be wafting out across the decades.
Holeman says he learned from Fuller-not that he ever took lessons from the man, who died when he was 12. Instead, he heard Fuller and other local musicians playing outside the city's bustling tobacco markets.
"Back in the Blind Boy Fuller days, he walked around a while and throwed his hat out to get nickels and quarters and dimes," he recalls. "That was back when I was a kid and so at that particular time, I seed him, but I didn't know how to play. I went down with my daddy sellin' tobacco and they'd be round there collectin' change at tobacco sellin' time."
In his late teens, Holeman decided he wanted to play guitar, so he got an instrument and taught himself to play along with Fuller's 78s-including the 1940 half-million seller "Step It Up and Go," a number Holeman still plays on occasion.
At first, he just played around his house, but pretty soon he started getting invitations to play at pig pickings, house parties and juke joints. It was a far cry from the urbane audiences he draws today, from Asia to Africa to the West Village courtyard in Durham.
"You gotta pick your place, because if it was an open house, anybody could come in and start to raisin' hell," he says. "There's a little place called Ten Top, I guess maybe you heard of it. There's a piece I play, the 'Chapel Hill Boogie.' I put that together myself in '54. This place was called Ten Top and you got some real-it was a juke joint, you had people throwin' bottles, and at nighttime I'm sayin' you had a party when everyone could come in and act difficult and I quit that, I said, I'm not going to mess with that. Had bricks, bottles, people throwin' crap.
"So you could expect anything out of a juke joint. Drinkin' liquor, drinkin' beer, get half-drunk, wanna turn it out and all that crap, so that's what I run into up at Chapel Hill, got knocked out."
Nowadays, Holeman has plenty of chances to play-both on his own and with famous guitar slingers like Taj Mahal and Kenny Wayne Shepherd-but gets fewer invites to play house parties, and he says there aren't as many blues bars anymore, either.
"Not a whole lot, 'cause no clubs around here b'lieve in that," he says. "It's a few people around here play. There's the sociable club 'round here. They got a little disc jockey. That was a juke joint when I was there."
But if the Piedmont blues is alive, is it well? Holeman doesn't seem too concerned, but Wayne Martin is a different story. As folklife director for the North Carolina Arts Council, he helps oversee efforts to keep traditions alive.
He says he doesn't want to seem like a "moldy fig"-an old musicians' term for stodgy musical curmudgeons-but he's concerned that the communities that fostered North Carolina's rich black musical traditions are going the way of the Durham tobacco markets where the music was played.
"I think we're losing the link to the musicians who came up at a time when they were learning music locally and regionally," Martin laments. "That's why we're all captivated when we find people like Joe Thompson, who has spent his entire music in and around Alamance County and learned his music from his parents, his father and his uncle. You just want to hold on to these people and absorb everything they have. Otherwise it becomes just, 'Who is most adept at learning from the Internet or CDs?'"
Of course, that's not too far a cry from Holeman's 78s. Flemons says it's important to remember that even by Fuller's day, artists were following a commercial imperative and learning each other's songs from recordings. Still, he prefers to learn tunes from elders like Thompson.
"Learning music from a person changes the way you look at music, compared to learning it from a record," Flemons says. "You can only take in the music on a human level when you learn it from someone."
Flemons, along with bandmates Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, have made a habit of hanging around with Thompson, absorbing his songs and stories of playing "frolics," square dances held in his rural boyhood community. And with all three members of the band 30 or younger, they represent a regeneration of the string band tradition. But most of the people who come to see the Chocolate Drops are, well, a few skin tones short of chocolate.
"If you put white people in front of folk music, they're going to come to it," he says. "Black people tend to like it when they actually come out, but getting them to come out is the hard part. A lot of folks are like, 'Fiddle and banjo, that ain't got nothing to do with me.' After they listen, it brings memories in people, and they revel in remembering the past."
Although he's got blues chops of his own, Flemons calls the current blues scene "a disgusting ghetto" and says he sees string-band music as a better way to connect with young black people than the guitar-driven blues, which carries too much baggage for many listeners.
"I don't think the blues is going to be the way to get people back into it, it's too dulled into their minds how it should sound," he says. "But I think the pre-blues music will grab people because it's so similar to the music that they know that it can't be denied. The only example I can even think of of a black artist who just played solo guitar is Lauryn Hill's Unplugged. You just don't think of that with black music, it's not a part of it. I wonder when that will come along. The old music has a way of creeping in on its last breath to die on the floor of someone who actually gives a damn."
Wayne Martin isn't ready to give up on the blues quite yet, though. He says that with the old communities fading, the worst-case scenario is that the tradition could become simply an historical fact, remembered by imitators and collectors, but hopes that there's a brighter future.
"It's the Durham blues, so I sure would like people in Durham to be carrying on the tradition," he says. "You can't make it happen. I have faith that the music is rich and that the people who are elders are interesting people and that if young people get a chance to be around them, they will gravitate to that."
As an example, he points to the Junior Appalachian Musicians, an after-school program in mostly white western North Carolina that the Arts Council supports. JAM matches older musicians with children in Alleghany County to teach them to play old-fashioned folk music. Success there has inspired a drive to create similar programs for rhythm and blues in former centers of black music including Durham and Kinston.
Most of all, Martin says the music needs exposure within the state. He says there is a trend of people moving from outside the state to western North Carolina to be close to the rich folk traditions, but doesn't see as much awareness inside the state lines.
"I guess what is really amazing to me is that we as North Carolinians don't know our music heritage," Martin says. "There are people around the world who know this, but we don't know it here in North Carolina. John Dee Holeman is phenomenal; we should be proclaiming him. I just want us in North Carolina to grow up and be educated about who we are as citizens of this state, and many of them come from African-American musical traditions."
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