The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
"Twisted Laurel" (with Banjocity)

"Twisted Laurel" (with Banjocity)

#251 / Sept. 8 Podcast

We have great memories of attending folk festivals over the years. One of the fondest is the time we heard the original Red Clay Ramblers back in 1977. That was just a few years after that great old band formed, and it drove up to play a festival in Grayson County, Ky.

We in the fledgling Flood had bought The Ramblers’ new album, and we were simply blown away by its second track. How astounding it was to discover that one of the best new songs about West Virginia was recorded by a North Carolina band. What??!

Only when we dug a little deeper did we find out why that song was so good. "Twisted Laurel" — the title track of The Ramblers' 1976 disc — was written by none other than Tommy Thompson, who was born and raised just a few miles away from us in St. Albans, WV.

Today we still remember that summer night in Grayson, sitting on the ground in the front of the stage and hanging on every single note Tommy sang. Ever since then, "Twisted Laurel" has been deep in The Flood’s own musical DNA.

Celebrating Tommy

Native son Tommy Thompson is lovingly remembered in The Mountain State. In fact, he was posthumously inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in October 2011.

As the announcement at the time noted, “After a stint as a Coast Guard officer in New Orleans where he heard many of the great old-time jazz players and was introduced to Cajun music, Thompson entered the graduate program in philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963. He divided his time between five-string banjo and academia.”

By 1966, Tommy was deep into old-time tunes with the Hollow Rock String Band.

When that group dissolved five years later, Thompson continued performing locally and at folk festivals, including the prestigious gathering at Union Grove, NC, where in 1971 he took first prize in the World Champion Old-Time Banjo contest.

That same year, back in Chapel Hill, Tommy joined fiddler Bill Hicks and multi-instrumentalist Jim Watson to form The Red Clay Ramblers, which he would anchor for the next 22 years. In those decades, the band did a lot more than play at little festivals like our Grayson, Ky., gathering. The group toured North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, doing four separate U.S. State Department tours.

In 1974, The Ramblers began its long involvement with American musical theater, writing and performing in a number of off-Broadway plays. The group’s music also was featured on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” in Sam Shepard’s work, and on TV shows such as Northern Exposure and Ryan’s Hope.

Originally, The Ramblers stuck with the tunes they learned from 78s by pioneers like The Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole. However, they quickly tired of this and developed a style that Thompson once called "new-timey music; a bridge that connects the past and present."

Their approach was simple. "We like to make a big noise,” as Thompson put it. “We're entertainers, not preachers or poets. We get people hopping, laughing and feeling good."

The year 1985 found the band in New York, performing incidental music for Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. They later collaborated with the playwright on two of his films, Far North (1989) and Silent Tongue (1993).

But by the time the latter was released, it was clear that Tommy was experiencing serious health problems. Diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, he was forced to retire from performing in 1994. Twenty years ago this year, at age 66, he passed away.

Our Take on the Tune

Well, this has been Bowen’s Banjo Summer. At the beginning of June, on an impulse, Charlie got a five-string from Paul Callicoat at Route 60 Music and started studying the videos and audios of Dr. Josh Turknett of Brainjo Academy.

He’s still learning — probably always will be (an old song says, “I can be the doctor ‘til the doctor comes” and that also applies to banjo pickers) — but after three months he was ready this week to try this bit of banjocity with The Flood at its weekly rehearsal.

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The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: