Over the past three decades, Suzy Thompson has been a leading force in many influential roots music groups, including the California Cajun Orchestra (two award-winning CDs on the Arhoolie label), the Blue Flame String Band (with Kate Brislin and Alan Senauke), Klezmorim (who started the klezmer music revival in the 1970’s), the all-woman Any Old Time String Band (featured on the Grammy-winning Arhoolie box set), and most recently, the Bluegrass Intentions (with banjo ace Bill Evans.) She has also worked with Darol Anger, Laurie Lewis, Beausoleil, Peter Rowan, Maria Muldaur, Jody Stecher, Del Rey, Geoff Muldaur, Alice Gerrard, D.L. Menard, Jane Voss, Rinde Eckert, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Sukay, and Frankie Armstrong, among others.
In 2003, she released her first solo CD, No Mockingbird which features blues songs and old-time fiddle rags. Her follow up CD on the Arhoolie label, Stop & Listen, came out in 2005.
Thompson currently records and performs in a duet with her husband and longtime musical partner, reknowned flatpicker Eric Thompson, with the Aux Cajunals (a Cajun/blues band, in which she plays Cajun accordion as well as fiddle and guitar), and with the Thompson String Ticklers.
Thompson discovered the music of Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, and other classic blues moaners in the winter of 1975, when a friend of a friend of a friend stored his LP collection in her room. She began learning and performing some of this early blues material, accompanying herself on the guitar. The next year, she formed the Any Old Time String Band, an all-woman quintet with a repertoire that included classic blues, oldtime country music, and Cajun music.
In 1976, her interest in Cajun music was sparked by seeing the Balfa Brothers perform. She traveled to southwest Louisiana, receiving an NEA Fellowship in 1980 to apprentice with Master Cajun Musician, Dewey Balfa; she also studied with Cajun fiddle legends Dennis McGee, Cheese Read and Wade Fruge. The 1980s saw Suzy touring and recording with the Blue Flame Stringband and the Backwoods Band, appearing on the Prairie Home Companion radio show, and touring throughout the U.S. and in Europe.
In 1983, she formed the California Cajun Orchestra, featuring Louisiana-born accordionist Danny Poullard. The CCO’s debut album, on Arhoolie, was awarded the prestigious Prix Dehors De Nous by the Louisiana French Music Association; their follow-up CD won a NAIRD Indie for “Best Cajun-Zydeco Album of the Year.” Suzy has performed with many of Louisiana’s finest Cajun musicians, including D.L. Menard, Beausoleil, Michael Doucet, Dewey Balfa, and Marc and Ann Savoy. She appears in Les Blank’s film on Cajun and Zydeco music, J’ai Ete Au Bal.
Thompson’s vast repertoire of quirky old-time country tunes and songs was learned from rare field recordings and old 78s, and she is particularly adept at the ragtime and blues-influenced playing of hillbilly musicians of the 1920’s and 30’s, such as the East Texas Serenaders, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Doc Roberts, and others of that ilk. Thompson’s passion for old-time music caused her to start the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention , which has become a four-day celebration attended by oldtime musicians who travel to Berkeley from all over the country.
In 1994, Thompson represented the U.S. on a Masters of the Folk Violin Tour in Scotland and England. In addition to performing, she has been an instructor at many festivals and music camps, including Centrum’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes and Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, Augusta Heritage Cajun-Creole and Old Time Weeks, Californa Bluegrass Association Music Camp, Port Townsend Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, California Coast Music Camp, Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, and Lark In the Morning.
(photo credits: Irene Young, Sue Reid)