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A Tune for Tommy 

Family and friends collaborate with Manbites Dog Theater in a tribute to Red Clay Ramblers founder Tommy Thompson

The jovial old-time musician who wrote about a makeout king's backseat exploits in "The Ace," can no longer drive. The man who sang about the last, long ride of the "Black Smoke Train," can no longer sing. And the lonesome striver who claimed, "The gleam that's in my eye is just tomorrow's enterprise," in "I've Got Plans," is running out of tomorrows.

Tommy Thompson, 63, original member of the Hollow Rock String Band and founding member of The Red Clay Ramblers, is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease. Confined to a bed and fed through a tube, he has lost all sense of time. Robbed of the exquisite personal and musical memories still enjoyed by fans and friends, he waits--in lieu of a medical miracle--for the inevitable physical departure that will follow the loss of his mind.

Coming to terms with Thompson's illness--which forced him to retire from the Ramblers in 1994--will be the subject of "A Tune for Tommy," a workshop performance running April 19-29 at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater. Half of the opening night's proceeds will benefit the Eastern North Carolina Alzheimer's Association. A full production is expected to run during the theater's 2001-2002 15th anniversary season.

The play tells Thompson's story both in his own words and from the perspective of his daughter, Jesse Eustice, who--along with a group of friends and caregivers--has been looking after her father since his illness began. The script, co-written by Eustice and Manbites Dog's Jeffrey Storer and Edward Hunt, is based on a series of letters Eustice began posting to the Red Clay Ramblers Web site, www.redclayramblers.com, starting in May of 1999. Partly a service for concerned friends and fans, and partly a form of catharsis, these letters have chronicled the small victories, sad failures, and simple means of getting by that have occupied Eustice and her father as he slowly recedes into his illness.

I'm not sure how to explain how my father is doing. People want to hear good news, but my father is changed. My father has been unable to read for several years; to listen and comprehend things for several months. Will you be surprised when I tell you that he has conversations, in his babble-language, with dream-people? Or that when I am visiting him, he forgets that I am there? My father is gone, though the person that lives in his body has many of his traits. Will you understand if I tell you he has begun calling me "Tommy Thompson," or if I tell you that the name "Tommy Thompson" is the only coherent utterance he can make now? --Jesse Eustice, in a letter dated September 15, 2000

Reading through Eustice's letters, a sense of drama emerges out of the earnestness and detail of her retellings. Although frequently dealing with mundane activities--like going out for lunch--which were made challenging by Thompson's illness, they also paint a picture of the strength of the human spirit and the power of song. In one entry, friend Susan Ketchin meets Eustice with her Sacred Harp Hymnbook and coaxes Thompson to join in on three-part harmonies. In another letter, Eustice describes the day she brought her dad to an August 2000 Red Clay Ramblers performance at the North Carolina Museum of Art, where he moved in his chair as if he were playing along. On another visit to her father's care facility, Eustice opens her husband's Bible to the 23rd Psalm and starts to read; suddenly, Thompson begins to recite the words from memory, his voice ungarbled.

It's letters like these, as well as Thompson's own writings and other correspondence associated with his care, that will be drawn on in writing the scenes that will comprise "A Tune for Tommy."

Hunt and Storer developed one scene from a job description Eustice wrote for a caregiver. In 1994, Eustice, her husband David, and Thompson's close friends Wally Hill and Jacques Menache, became a sort of coordinating team to deal with Thompson's interests. Eustice took on all the caregiving assignments, but then decided that she was turning into "a bitter old lady." So they hired a nurse, for whom Eustice had to write out a job description. The list turned out to be a compendium of superhuman feats.

"If I had known when I wrote it what kind of ridiculous job description I was creating, I wouldn't have written it that way," Eustice says from her home in Durham. "I would have realized it's time for dad to be in full-time care." Hunt and Storer saw the letter's theatrical potential. "They knew how to take something that was really dry, but really very overwhelming, and somehow ... turn it into something really funny," she says.

Another scene came from one of Thompson's own written recollections, made prior to his illness. His first banjo was a long-necked Pete Seeger model, which was better for sing-alongs because of its wider range of octaves. After moving to Chapel Hill, he brought it along for a lesson with a local old-timer named Brack Sparrow. Try as he might, Thompson couldn't keep up with him. Sparrow, Thompson writes, "remarked that my banjo did not seem to have known when to stop growing. He allowed that I might learn to play some music if I got myself a proper instrument with the correct notes on it." Thompson bought a new banjo before the week was over.

Other topics handled in the play are more serious. One is Eustice's coming to terms with the absence of her mother. Thompson's first wife, Bobbie, played in the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, divorced him in 1968, and was killed in a car accident in 1972. "Missing her has become central to my dad's and my relationship, because if she were alive, she might have been the caregiver," Eustice says. "And she certainly would have been more comfortable doing some of the stuff I had to do. So I had to deal with missing her, and being sad and angry that she wasn't here." The play is, in part, about how Eustice and her father finally came to terms with each other, with the divorce, and with the grieving after her death.

Another poignant topic is what Eustice describes as the "generic approach to Alzheimer's," in which the individual is not honored. "How do you provide continuity between a person's life before they were sick and after?" she asks. "I believe that even people with Alzheimer's can enjoy their lives. What dad said to me, in so many words, is that people should be treated as individuals, that they be known and understood."

"Oh God, I'm a piece of meat," Eustice recalls her father saying after he entered a care facility. "The play is a catharsis for me, because there were so many moments when he said things like that, and I never shared them with anybody," she says. "Sometimes I just forgot them. But they're all there--and it was hard."

Viewing that photo, like viewing any photos that have been taken since his illness was diagnosed, brings bittersweet feelings. The man in the picture is both my father, and not my father. Like a battle-torn flag, one can still project the familiar pattern, but enough is missing that it takes a conscious effort. It is sometimes better for dad to have new friends, friends who met him recently. These new friends know and love the person he is now and are not torn to pieces seeing him, remembering a person they once knew. --From a Web site entry dated January 18, 2000, in which Eustice recounts an a capella concert performed by Thompson and friends from his care facility

In 1961, University of Indiana folklorist Henry Glassie, then an English major at Tulane University, made the acquaintance of a New Orleans Coast Guard lieutenant named Tommy Thompson. A friend introduced them because of their shared interest in traditional music, which Glassie had been collecting and recording for years. They both turned out to be budding banjo players, and together they spent days listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Obray Ramsey, Etta Baker, Leonard Glenn and George Pegram.

Thompson moved to the Triangle in 1963 to earn a Ph.D in philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill, but he claimed it was music that really brought him to North Carolina. One day, Glassie and Thompson piled into a pickup truck and headed into the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the cabin home of old-time banjo picker Mack Presnell. It was the first time that Thompson--who like many others was working off of Pete Seeger's banjo instruction book--had actually witnessed old-time music being played live and up close. It was, as Glassie recalls, "a moment," one that solidified Thompson's love of the genre.

In the mid-'60s, Thompson and his first wife Bobbie, a musician and artist, were living near the Hollow Rock Grocery in Durham County, where a series of informal music jams took place on weekends. As the number of participants grew to as many as 150, the parties moved to Thompson's house. They were loose, legendary gatherings with both music, and Thompson, at their heart.

"There would be fiddle tunes in one room, and bluegrass in another, and people just sitting and talking in the kitchen, and Tommy was a part of all of it," recalls original Red Clay Rambler Jim Watson.

It was out of these sessions that the Hollow Rock String Band--comprised of Thompson, guitarist Bobbie, fiddler Alan Jabbour and mandolinist Bertram Levy--was born. Bobbie, along with party regular Bill Hicks on fiddle, would go on to join the Fuzzy Mountain String Band.

"Tommy was a particularly interesting person to play with, because he was very genial and open and friendly and accessible," says Jabbour, "and at the same time there was something very inward and intense about him. He was a person who, when he concentrated, he concentrated with every ounce of his body and soul. And every ounce of his body, at various times in his life, amounted to quite a few ounces." In fact, Thompson's big, bearlike frame later earned him the affectionate stage name "Uncle Wide Load" from his pals in the Ramblers.

When Duke students Jabbour and Levy graduated and left North Carolina, Thompson took up with Watson in 1969 as a duet, playing banjo, guitar and autoharp. They found a bar on Franklin Street, The New Establishment--referred to as "The New E"--that let them stand in a noisy corner and play for beer and tips.

It was while the pair were playing a Rosemary Street club called The Endangered Species that future Ramblers pianist Mike Craver saw Thompson up close for the first time. "I remember watching him and thinking, if I had to describe a Shakespearean character, it would be Tommy," Craver says. "He was big then, and he had that kind of Falstaff quality to him: red hair, and a red beard. He was amazing-looking, and the word that comes to mind is probably 'charismatic'--you looked at him, and you had to look back, because he had such a presence, he just exuded this personality."

Watson and Thompson joined with Craver, Hicks, Fiddlin' Al McCanless, Tom Carter on banjo and Laurel Urton on washtub bass to record the first Red Clay Ramblers album, The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCanless, in 1974. Thompson brought an academic bent to the liner notes: "We persist in calling ourselves an 'old-timey' band," they read. "We have avoided musical sounds and ideas which seemed to us alien to our adopted tradition, and left unmolested those songs and tunes which could not withstand the divergent stylistic stresses we put upon them."

The Ramblers continued to evolve and record, adding core members Jack Herrick, Bland Simpson, Clay Buckner, Chris Frank, and Mark Roberts. Simpson, who roomed with Thompson on the road, remembers one late-night stop when Buckner, exhausted from driving, appeared at the door. "He said, in this melodramatic voice, 'Speak to us, Father Banjo. Read to us from the book of gigs!'" Simpson recalls. "We just collapsed and laughed for five or 10 minutes. After that, we referred to Tommy as Father Banjo."

"I've never worked with another banjo player who really played all the banjo styles," Hicks recalls. "Tommy played great clawhammer banjo, but he also played perfectly adequate three-finger bluegrass-style banjo, and he could do flatpick, plectrum-style banjo, too. It gave the Ramblers this really wide range."

Eventually, the Ramblers branched out into film and theater projects, including an eight-month off-Broadway run in Diamond Studs, a musical about the life of Jesse James. They performed in an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in Durham, and toured North America, Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. They joined Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion, and Sam Shepard enlisted them for his off-Broadway play, A Lie of the Mind, and his films Far North and Silent Tongue. And in 1993, Thompson and the Ramblers hit Broadway in the musical Fool Moon.

That's when a series of forgetful moments--leaving his banjo behind during a call to a movie set, getting disoriented on well-known streets in New York City, having trouble tuning his banjo--made him realize that something was wrong. When the Ramblers went on to perform Fool Moon in Los Angeles, Thompson stayed behind for medical exams. Eustice was in the process of moving from her home in Pennsylvania to North Carolina when the letter came, informing Thompson of his prognosis. He was alone when he read it.

Thompson's odd state of stasis, of being neither here nor there, is ill-suited to a man who loved to ramble--musically, geographically and romantically--for four decades. Some friends and supporters contributed money to keep him in a private apartment until greater care was required. Others visit and sing, balancing the comfort they hope to bring against the terrific sadness they feel for Thompson's loss, and their own. Others wonder what, if anything, he makes of their fond wishes, and take comfort in their memories.

Bill Hicks likens it to the death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt: "We don't really want to think that things can change like that," he says. "One moment, someone is just so there. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, things are different and will never be the same."

"Tommy was the sweetest man ever, had the greatest voice, and was one of the few people I knew who sang with emotion and sincerity," says Jacques Menache, who became a close friend after The Red Clay Ramblers opened the original Carrboro ArtsCenter. As the illness began making itself known--and Thompson's third wife departed, leaving the caretaker role to Thompson's daughter--Menache helped him keep body and soul together, encouraging Thompson to give him banjo lessons.

Old-time music champion Mike Seeger is one of many who have visited Thompson during his illness. "I greatly enjoyed playing music with Tommy, and I especially enjoyed his singing," he says. "He wrote some of my favorite recent songs."

Folklorist Glassie says Thompson penned "some of the finest songs of the genre of his period," citing "Hot Buttered Rum" and "Twisted Laurel" as two that should become part of the standard Southern country repertory. "It's always seemed to me a slight irony that a man of Tommy's breadth and genius didn't become very famous. I think he should have," he says.

Today, Thompson can hardly say his name, but he continues to respond to others. "He does make moments of eye contact that seem like the old Tommy," says Eustice. "But it's hard to know what he experiences within himself."

A Tune For Tommy will help to illuminate his final years. In doing so, Eustice hopes, it may bring to others touched by Alzheimer's a measure of comfort and understanding. But it should also offer a taste of the sheer musical joy that is the biggest part of Thompson's legacy.

"A bittersweet comedy is a good way to describe it," Eustice says. "It's a tribute to my dad, and dad would not approve of any tribute to him that lacked humor. It's got some very, very serious and very heavy stuff in it, and it's hard to take a lot of serious, heavy stuff without laughing. I had to learn to laugh, and dad laughed a lot. And people are going to laugh with us when they see the play, I hope. And cry too, maybe."

In a tar paper-shack out of town across the track

stands an old used-up man trying to call something back

but his old memories fade like the city in the haze

and his days have flowed together like the rain

--Tommy Thompson, "Twisted Laurel" EndBlock

  • Manbites Dog Theater collaborates with Tommy Thompson's daughter in a tribute to the old-time music legend.

More by David Potorti

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