How I became interested in old time music
By Ryan Thomson
When I was a child, my grandmother on my mother's side told me stories that her
grandmother had told her about crossing the great plains westward to Utah in a wagon
train. I remember sitting in her kitchen where I was taught to build little model covered
wagons with paper and glue. When she learned of my interest in fiddling she told me about
the family fiddle and dulcimer (appalachian) that had also traveled on the long and perilous
cross country journey.These instruments were used to play for old time square dances and
quadrilles on the long journey.
At some point before I was born she gave the instruments to a museum where they now
are displayed as examples of pioneer life. I'm happy that they are safe, but I wish that I had
them to play myself, and pass on to other members of my family. When I had only been
playing the fiddle a short while, I visited her and played. After listening to a tune she asked
me to play again, and to my amazement, she began dancing. I didn't previously know that
She was either "clogging" or "step dancing," to use the modern terms. She told me that she
had learned how to dance to fiddle tunes as a child. I have a clear picture in my mind of
her dancing, and later, when I had a chance to learn clogging steps myself, I would
remember my grandmother's flying feet.
Even though my parents had provided me with formal piano lessons I was no stranger to
playing music by ear. My mother played pieces on the piano that she had learned by ear as
a child, by listening to her family's old player piano. My father played harmonica and sang
country songs. As I was developing an interest in old time music I was lucky enough to
discover a fine old mandolin in the cellar of my grandparents house (my Dad's parents)
When I began fiddling, my grandmother on my Dad's side presented me with an old
photograph of a man with a fiddle whom she claimed was one of my distant relatives. When
I later asked my parents about it, they knew nothing about the photo. I still have it. It
doesn't have the person's name on it but a label indicates that it was taken in Missouri.
After hearing Jean Ritchie play dulcimer at a local concert I decided to build one for
myself. I didn't know where to start until I saw an ad for a kit. I sent away for it and
enjoyed building and playing it. Meanwhile, a girl friend introduced me to contra and
square dancing. At one point my mother bought a banjo at a yard sale. No one in our family
played banjo but I had watched someone play a banjo in a "folk club, " and had square
danced to a live band with a banjo in it. I asked my mom to loan it to me and I sought out
the banjo player in the local dance band and took 2 lessons in which he taught me the
basics of "clawhammer" style.
One day, after several months of playing banjo, I was thumbing a ride home from a park
where I practiced, and a van pulled up beside me. The door opened and a woman who had
observed my instrument case asked me two questions: did I need a ride; and did I play the
guitar? I could play the guitar only a little bit at that time, but the woman and the man
driving explained to me that their band had lost a guitar player and needed a new one. On
the ride home I agreed to meet them the next day to start my lessons in old timey back-up
guitar. After many hours of concentrated practice and listening to old 78 RPM stringband
records, they proclaimed that I was ready to perform with them.
I was excited to be in my first old tme string band with David on fiddle, and Pam on banjo.
We played music seemingly non stop, 5 or 6 days a week, doing street singing, playing
dances, pizza parlors, church services, even once at topless go-go bar. My favorite gig was
playing at Old Town State Park. We started out playing there with an open hat for tips,
became popular, and then the local merchants took up a collection so as to guarantee our
Pam and Dave proved to be an incredible source of information on old time music. Pam had
been recorded in the 1960's by the Library of Congress, and had retired from banjo contests
after winning 1st place in the professional division at the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle
Contest. Dave was an avid collector of old time fiddle tunes and lore. Pam named our band
the "Chicken Cheek Tweakers." While still in the band, and picking up invaluable banjo
playing tips from Pam, I won some of my first banjo contests. My fiddle playing was coming
along also from listening to the many old time records in Pam's collection, and playing
guitar for many hours to Dave's fine fiddling.
After Dave and Pam moved out of state, I joined another local band with banjo player Ed
Cormier and other friends. I added Irish and Contra Dance music to my old timey
repertoire. I now played mostly fiddle and pennywhistle. For a while we were "Irish
Contraband," and then Ed came up with the clever name - "The John B. Stetson Memorial
Sweat Band." I started a local contra dance series at my college. Meanwhile I was listening
to and learning by ear from the many good musicians who lived in, or traveled through
through our area including Tommy Jarrel, Benny Thomasson, Gary Lee Moore, Judy Lipnick,
John Touhy, Bruce Culbertson, Kenny Hall, Ian Law, EZ Mark, the Balfa Brothers, Sam and
Kirk McGee, Roscoe Holcomb, etc. I have to give great credit to the efforts of Lou Curtiss in
providing venues for these players to present their music.
After graduating from college I formed another band and spent the summer crossing the
USA. We funded our trip by street singing at national monuments. At the end of the
summer in 1976 I had developed a serious interest in playing more contra dance music, and
so decided to move to New Hampshire which was then the center of the contra dance
Soon after arriving in New Hampshire I formed an old time band with Paul, Jim, and Charlie,
and named it the "Last Chance String Band." Our band hosted a twice a month contra dance
in the Newmarket town hall for several years but in performances we played strictly old
timey style southern dance music. We played for several years in the seacoast area of New
Hampshire, on my weekly radio show, for dances, and for many other events.
I made many trips to the southern appalachians to learn from old time fiddlers. A high
point was trading tunes with Tommy Jarrel in his kitchen in Mount Airy, North Carolina. I
stayed at Tommy Thompson's house in Chapel Hill, and was invited to play a dance with the
Red Clay Ramblers. After Jim and Charlie left the area in search of regular day jobs, and I
started playing music full time, Paul and I joined forces with Alan Brock on guitar and
formed the "Captain Fiddle Band."
I continued with this band until I was offered a stint as fiddler with the Nashville based
"Baked Apple Band," which was a full time, 6 day a week, touring country rock band. I
continue to play old time music for enjoyment to this day.
This article by Ryan J Thomson 2002