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Tommy Thompson, My Banjo Guru

posted Mar 25, 2011, 1:22 PM by Jared Libby
Tommy Thompson stands as a Giant Big Man in American cultural history. He founding fathered the Red Clay Ramblers, an ensnaringly charismatic, musically brilliant, wholistically eccentric, totally in your face, generation 1970's not only strings string band. He also holds a completely non requested non returnable unlimited lifetimes tenured professorship in the unnecessarily exisistentially accredited International Undocumented and Undeclared School of Uncensored and Unrestrictable Philosophical Upspeak, No Bull University(UNOBULL), Planet Earth.
Tommy left a wide load of sorrows and joys in some cosmic dumpster on January 24, 2003 when his undeservedly long suffering sixty-five year old body finished its earthly ramble and died. Tommy Thompson's legacy looms large. He left two genetic offspring, an outrageous and wonderful band, recordings, writings, theater works, and many profoundly inspired human beings. I am one of the inspired, and I offer this macro-rant to honor my banjo guru, Tommy Thompson.

I'll begin with some Sanabria family herstory:
My father, Pascual Sanabria, was a professional entertainer whose musical intensity and personal charisma touched peoples' lives the same way Tommy's did. His dark eyes always beamed with love and light as he played. He shared this beautiful spirit by playing fiery gypsy tunes and dazzling classical showpieces on his beloved piano accordion. He also made people dance by playing alto sax in big bands. Daddy was my first formal music teacher, and I started to sing and play Spanish gypsy tunes on a tiny but real piano accordion when I was four years old.

My mother, Margarita DeGrazia, was a larger than life, hysterically funny, too loud, lovable Sicilian drama queen. She was never embarassed and often embarassing as she engaged rank strangers in conversation, and regularly raised the roof with her attention grabbing macro-enthusiastic vocal renditions of operatic arias, jazz standards, show tunes, kids' folk songs, Italian songs, Elvis, Roman Catholic hymns, popular songs, Beatles, or her own inspired tune of the moment.
My father and grandfather traveled to America's Ellis Island from Quintana, Spain in 1920. My Italian grandmother carried mama mia to the new world in utero from Palermo, Sicily in 1912. Mama met Papa in New Yorka in the late 1920's .

I was born on January 14, 1954 in Brooklyn, NY during a blizzard. I don't remember the age I began speaking or singing, but both skills probably came to me around the same time, or else I learned English as a second language. I easily absorbed the magical sounds of the music that surrounded me, and could soon echo a musical phrase perfectly with my voice. I hardly wanted to do anything else besides sing and play my accordion, and always knew I'd be a musician when I grew up. By the time I was five years old it was clear I had inherited an unusually potent combination of my parents' creativity genes.
Fast forward this story to 1975. I am 21 years old, and share my first aparment halfway out on Long Island's north shore. By now I've ditched the accordion, learned to accompany my singing on an acoustic guitar, attended New York's High School of Music and Art as a voice major, worn out my Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Beatles albums, and brazenly led crowds of marching idealists in songs that protested the Viet Nam war and demanded equal rights for all people. I continue my lifelong musical journey by practicing classical guitar seven or eight hours a day as a performance major in Stony Brook University's demanding music program.
My talent, dedication and great references finally land me a coveted apprentice teacher position for the renowned Guitar Workshop's summer session. I'd soon be working alongside some of the finest folk, blues, and classical musicians around. I'd also signed up for a summer's worth of five string banjo lessons, as I could study for free as part of my pay. I had no idea who they'd scheduled to teach me, and was equally clueless about the profound effect these lessons would have on the rest of my life.
I believe Tommy Thompson's indelible marks on the pages of our cultural heritage bible began to appear that same summer. By night, the Red Clay Ramblers were wowing New York theatergoers with their performances in Diamond Studs. By day, Tommy stayed out of trouble and made some extra money as a traditional American music expert at the Guitar Workshop in Roslyn, Long Island.
My first banjo lesson with old Wide Load was unlike any music lesson I'd ever had. First he asked me to sing and play something on the guitar for him. I figured he wanted to evaluate my musicianship and would only need to hear a verse or two of whatever I played. I began my performance, fully expecting to only play part of my arrangement. That man remained completely silent and focused on my performance for the whole song. I finished playing and looked up at him. His reticence continued as he stared at me for what still seems like the longest thirty seconds of my life. I was starting to think my new music teacher wasn't too impressed with my musicality. Then he spoke up. "That was beautiful! Show me how you played that chord progression!" I spent the next forty five minutes teaching Tommy my guitar arrangement, and went home that day completely unaware that this big guy had just taught me one of the most important lessons I would ever learn.
He never really told me how to play the banjo. I learned by watching and listening as he played all kinds of music for me. I carefully studied his right hand position and figured out how he got that incredible sound. I listened to his recordings over and over and worked out how to play the tunes just like he did. I'd figure out how he played some tune, and then during my lesson we'd play it together, note for note for note. We also spent lots of free time hanging out with each other. The student-mentor relatonship we shared got stronger as our warm platonic friendship grew. By the end of the summer of 1975, I was hopelessly addicted to Tommy's banjo playing, the Red Clay Ramblers' music, and learning every fiddle tune I got my ears on. I was also sounding a lot like Tommy Thompson when I played the banjo.
The year is now 1984. I'm 30 years old and live in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts. I win every banjo contest I enter, and people call me the Banjo Queen of the Pioneer Valley. I make a living performing and teaching banjo and guitar lessons, and I'm also on the board of directors of the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society. I'd used my position on the board to get the Ramblers a gig up here a couple of years earlier, and this year I manage to book Tommy and the band for a return engagement. The boys stay over at my apartment in Northampton after the gig. I remember to buy film and manage to get a great photo of Jack Herrick juggling in my kitchen, one of the band playing the concert, and this wonderful picture of me with my banjo guru:

Since that time I've earned a music education degree, spent ten years teaching music to children in the public schools, and become somewhat of an expert on traditional American music and dance. I've also gained a modest amount of celebrity status as the banjo player in Rude Girls, a hot band of women whose great performances and first record on Flying Fish made quite a stir in the 1980's folk community.
I still teach music lessons and perform with Lyn Hardy, one of my Rude Sisters. I teach more banjo students these days, and have organized them into an eccentric and lovable turn of this century mostly banjo orchestra called BanjoMucho. We make people laugh and play music at family dances and hometown community events.

I am a piece of Tommy Thompson's legacy. His banjo playing is burned into my life's permanent soundtrack along with my father's accordion playing, my mother's singing, and Bill Hicks' and Alan Jabbour's fiddling. He is with me when I perform and teach lessons, and my banjo students echo Tommy's spirit and drive when they play. The Giant Big Man lives on earth inside all of us.
Happy trails, Wide Load. I'll meet 'ya at some future fork in my eternal journey's path, and we'll ramble the next stretch of road together, in the land beyond the blue.

Love, Queenee