One of the last links to the prewar African-American string band tradition, banjo player Odell Thompson was born on August 9, 1911, the son of John Arch Thompson, who was also a pretty fair banjo player. Thompson was raised in the northeastern part of Orange County in North Carolina, and when he began playing banjo, he absorbed his father's traditional repertoire, and was soon playing in string bands for square dances and frolics with his cousin, fiddler Joe Thompson. Odell took up guitar (he also played a little fiddle) and began playing the blues in the 1920s, but continued to play banjo in the old style in string bands with Joe until the 1940s, when pressure from bluegrass and other newer musical forms made their approach all but obsolete. In the early '70s, folklorist Kip Lornell discovered the duo and convinced them to start playing the old music again, which led to a new career of festivals and concerts for Thompson and his cousin. Odell played banjo in the old clawhammer style (a down-stroking technique that is known by several names, including frailing, thumping, and drop-thumb) on a fretless resonator banjo, and his sound had a wonderfully wild and archaic feel. Odell's banjo, coupled with Joe's ragged, swerving fiddle style, effectively re-created the feel of black string bands from the 1800s, and the duo's performances were literally living history lessons. Joe and Odell had just completed a set at Merlefest on April 28, 1994, when Odell Thompson was struck and killed by a car while crossing a road outside the festival grounds. He was 83. His passing broke the last link to the black string band tradition as a living, breathing art form.
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