Born December 9, 1918 in Orange County, North Carolina, Joe Thompson grew up in a family where fiddle and banjo music was heard on nights and weekends after farm work was completed. Joe’s father and uncle played fiddle and banjo and were sought after by neighbors, both African American and white, to provide music for local square dances. As soon as Joe took up the fiddle, he was included in the music-making along with his brother, Nate, and cousin, Odell. On many a Saturday night during his youth, Joe would find himself positioned with his fiddle in a doorway between two rooms that had been cleared of furniture to accommodate couples dancing four- and eight-hand sets.
Joe modeled his music on his father’s playing, which came from a fiddle and banjo ensemble tradition in North Carolina. The African roots of the banjo in America are well-established and some evidence supports a theory that African fiddling traditions existed side-by-side with traditions from the British Isles. However fiddle and banjo ensemble playing originated, a common repertory was created in African American and mixed-race race communities in the South during the nineteenth century. Some of the tunes, such as “Georgia Buck” and “Hook and Line,” have become standards among Southern fiddlers and banjo players. Joe plays these pieces as well as tunes that are not heard widely today, such as “Pumpkin Pie,” “Riro’s House,” and “Dona Got a Rambling’ Mind.”
Joe has received many honors since the 1970s, when he began performing his music outside of his home community. He and Odell Thompson were the recipients of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 1991. Joe and Odell performed at Carnegie Hall, at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, the National Folk Festival, the Tennessee Banjo Institute, and the International Music Festival in Brisbane, Australia. Joe, Odell, and Nate are documented in Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork film series. In 1989 Joe and Odell recorded Old-Time Music from the North Carolina Piedmont for Global Village Music and Joe was featured on Family Tradition, released by Rounder Records in 2000. His music is also included on Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia and Backroads to Cold Mountain, anthologies issued by Smithsonian Folkways.
Bob Carlin has taken the distinctive “clawhammer” banjo style to audiences worldwide. He has studied the work of master players and learned directly from Nate Thompson, Joe’s Thompson’s brother and long-time musical partner. As a solo performer, and a member of John Hartford’s Stringband, Carlin has appeared at many prestigious music festivals including the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Merle Fest, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and on national radio programs such as NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage.” Bob is also the author of The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrels, published by McFarland Press.
Wayne Martin was born in Georgia and his family there included shape-note singers, country music songwriters and fiddlers. In his adopted state of North Carolina, he has performed with Joe Thompson and his cousin, Odell; with Piedmont dance fiddler Lauchlin Shaw and banjo player A.C. Overton; and with mountain ballad singer Doug Wallin. His friendship with the legendary blues guitarist Etta Baker allowed Martin the opportunity to learn some of her family’s tunes, which they recorded on fiddle and banjo shortly before she died. His performances on fiddle, guitar and harmonica can be heard on Birdie, a new CD from 5-String Productions by the stringband Martin & Johnson.