Joe Thompson Wins National Heritage Award

Fiddler Joe Thompson (center), who for decades single-handedly preserved the tradition of African-Carolinachocolatedrops_2 American fiddle music, has won the National Heritage Fellowship award, the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts! 

The award, which is presented annually by the National Endowment for the Arts, was awarded to twelve recipients in 2007. The awardees were chosen on the basis of artistic excellence, cultural authenticity and contributions to their field, and were chosen from 259 nominations.

On July 4 in Port Townsend, Thompson will give a performance of traditional African-American string tunes at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. He’ll play with the Carolina Chocolate Drops (pictured), one of the finest string bands in the country.

The show begins at 1:30 at Fort Worden State Park’s McCurdy Pavilion, a WWI-era balloon hangar converted into a 1,200-seat concert hall. Tickets are available by calling Centrum at 360.385.3102, x117 and online at our secure Acteva site.

Thompson has upheld and represented the tradition of African-American country fiddling for more than eighty years. The tradition, representing some of the earliest string band instrumentation on the continent, melds African and Anglo instrumentation and styles. Born into a North Carolina farming family that dated its musical heritage to before the Civil War, Thompson was playing fiddle by the age of five.

Joe_thompson Thompson’s father was sought after by both black and white neighbors to provide music for local square dances.  As soon as Thompson took up the fiddle, he and his brother, Nate, and their cousin, Odell, were in demand for local house parties.

Most of the tunes they learned have today become standards for Southern fiddlers and banjo players, but some were unique to the African American repertoire. Thompson punctuates his performance with sung verses and square dance calls, many of which are rarely heard today.

After Odell’s death in 1994, Thompson considered giving up music but he began playing publicly again with younger musicians in the region. 

In 1999, Rounder Records released Joe Thompson: Family Tradition, which focuses exclusively on his unique musical repertoire.

“Joe’s music is important,” says Centrum program manager Peter McCracken.

“He has essentially single-handedly preserved an African-American fiddle style. He is acutely aware of the tradition he was bearing, and he took it seriously. Joe’s music is instantly identifiable, recognizable, the culmination of multiple generations in his community blending Scottish melodies with African rhythms.”

In addition to Thompson, other 2007 National Heritage Fellowship recipients were Nicholas Benson, Sidiki Conde, Violet de Cristoforo, Pat Courtney Gold, Eddie Kamae, Agustin Lira, Julia Parker, Mary Jane Queen, Irvin L. Trujillo and Elaine Hoffman Watts.

These honorees join the ranks of previous Heritage Fellows, including BB King, Michael Flatley, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. Fellowship recipients are nominated by the public, often by members of their own communities, and then judged by a panel of experts in folk and traditional arts on the basis of their continuing artistic accomplishments and contributions as practitioners and teachers.

The National Endowment for the Arts is the public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as independent agency of the federal government, the Arts Endowment is the largest national funder of the arts, bringing great art to all fifty states.