Ernest Thompson

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b. 1892, near Winston-Salem, Forsythe County, North Carolina, USA, d. 1961, USA. As a youth Thompson began working in a local sawmill where, while only in his late teens he was blinded in an accident.…
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b. 1892, near Winston-Salem, Forsythe County, North Carolina, USA, d. 1961, USA. As a youth Thompson began working in a local sawmill where, while only in his late teens he was blinded in an accident. He was sent to the North Carolina State School for the Blind where he decided against following any of the skills he was taught. Instead, he took to the road as a musician. Over the years, he became adept on many instruments, notably the guitar, and he played on the streets and at dances and other rural gatherings. In addition to his playing, Thompson sang in a very light tenor that bordered on falsetto. He composed some songs and he also rescued from obscurity many songs that were traditionally handed on although only rarely written down.

In 1924 Thompson made his first records. A rather flowery account in a local newspaper told how he was heard playing and singing on his front porch by William S. Parks, an executive with Columbia Records. Parks arranged for Thompson to go to New York where he was immortalized by the sides he made there. The two songs he recorded on this first session were ‘The Wreck Of The Southern Old ’97’ and ‘Are You From Dixie?’. This last song is the piece by which Thompson is best remembered. Although no simple starting point can be given for what would become known as hillbilly music, it is evident that this recording session by Thompson from 28 April 1924 is among a handful of very early records of the genre. That said, neither these Thompson sides nor indeed any of the almost 40 sides he cut for Columbia that year are truly hillbilly. Or perhaps it might be better to say that they were not quite what the record companies decided to label as hillbilly music. Like many of his country and mountain music comrades on the road in those years, Thompson’s repertoire ranged widely and incorporated the popular songs of the day, including hangovers from the drawing room ballads of times past and show tunes of the present.