Local musicians immortalized in sculpture, featured in UNC-TV program

Reidsville artist Brad Spencer came up with the concept of "Knee to Knee," a clay sculpture featuring Joe Thompson and Odell Thompson, that is on display at the Mebane Community Park. Although a dedication ceremony for the sculpture was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNC Public Television ran a special program on the sculpture on its "Muse: The Art Show" telecast on March 19.  

Editor’s Note: On March 19, University of North Carolina Public Television (UNC-TV) hosted a special on the Thompson sculpture on its “Muse: The Arts Show” program. All of the quotes in the story below were provided in that program, which can be watched online at https://video.unctv.org/video/muse-307-knee-to-knee-gbxou8/.  

Thanks to a unique artist in Reidsville, two of the area’s legendary musicians, Joe and Odell Thompson, have been immortalized in the new Mebane Community Park through a clay sculpture. And while a March dedication ceremony had to be temporarily postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will eventually be an event honoring Joe and Odell and their years of contributions to the local music history of Alamance and Orange County.

In the meantime, however, the statue is there, paying tribute to these two men and the unique art that they helped fortify for generations to come.  

Joe and Odell Thompson, cousins from a large family that lived and worked in what is now Mebane and surrounding towns in the area, came together to play mostly later in life, as the Muse: The Arts Show program explains. But Joe, Odell, and Joe’s older brother Nate Thompson were all born into music. It was a part of the fabric of the society of both white and black culture in the early years of the 20th century, as community events in the were often surrounded by the sound of old-time fiddle and banjo music in the background. 

“The community they were in on the Alamance-Orange County line, there was a lot of back-and-forth between white and black musicians,” said musician and songwriter Bob Carlin. “The barriers came down when there was good music. This music was an integral part of community functions - corn shucking, hog killings, playing for house dances, and primarily tobacco. It (tobacco) was a long process. So you had to stay up and stoke the fires, and often you’d play music when you stayed up.”

As children, Joe and Nate grew up listening to their father and uncle playing at the square dances and other community functions in the area way back in the 1920s and 1930s. In those formative years, they learned the art of old-time string music. 

“My daddy, he learned me how to play a fiddle. He could make a fiddle whistle like a cat,” Joe Thompson said on one of the old VHS tapes that would be used by artist Brad Spencer to create the final clay sculpture. 

“He (Joe) always said that the fiddle hung up on the wall a bit little high up there, but he always seemed to be able to reach it,” said Dom Flemons, a member of the Grammy Award-winning band Carolina Chocolate Drops, who were interviewed by UNC-TV in 2010 on the Thompsons’ influence on their work. 

“It’s reverse psychology. I (Joe’s father) am going to hang the fiddle here on the wall. But I don’t want you messing with that fiddle. You don’t touch it. But I’m going to be gone, and there’s the fiddle. And it’s tuned up. And the bow’s over here. But don’t you mess with that fiddle,” said Carlin. “Well, what’s the first thing Joe does? He gets up on the chair and gets the fiddle down, and he starts to mess with it. And this is often the way people learn (musical instruments). He had heard the tunes since he was small. He had watched the way his father moved his hands. So eventually he got a half-size fiddle (with two strings).”

Before too much time passed, Joe and Nate were getting invited themselves to play at the square dances, as they continued to hone their craft. 

“They were young. But if you could keep the beat (the adults would let them play),” said Carlin. “The white folks called it ‘square dancing,’ and the black folks called it ‘frolicking.’ But the music and the dance was the same.” 

Joe started out in his early years with a two-string fiddle, but he found a clever way to eventually put together a traditional four-string fiddle. 

Joe says, ‘I’ll show you what I’ll do,’ Carlin said. “He forced his way into the tractor shed, got a pair of pliers, got two strands out of the screen door and put it on the fiddle. 

According to the PBS program, Odell, Joe’s cousin, was a guitar player and a fiddler who took up the banjo after World War II. Joe’s brother Nate had moved up to Philadelphia to drive a truck, and Joe needed a banjo player to go along with his fiddle. 

“He (Odell) and Nate played what we call downstroke, or ‘clawhammer,’” Carlin explained. “You hit down on the strings with the nails to play the melody, and your thumb follows behind. They played a very rhythmic banjo style, and a very rhythmic fiddle style to go along with the dancing.” 

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s, the Thompsons didn’t play much, reserving most of their playing for family reunions and other local get-togethers. Joe Thompson settled into a career at Mebane’s White Furniture Company. 

“Joe, he liked to say Elvis Presley and Rock-N’-Roll drove our music out,” Carlin said. 

By the 1980s, however, the local music community rediscovered the Thompsons. Coming together as The New String Band Duo, Joe and Odell played at sites all over the United States, including New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. 

Fortunately for the sake of posterity, they were regularly videoed playing together and talking about their craft. That would prove to be fortuitous, as the possibility of many years of Joe and Odell playing together into old age ended with Odell's tragic death in a car accident in 1994. Joe Thompson would live on until 2012, when he finally passed on at the age of 93. 

“They were literally the last guys standing,” said Spencer. “These guys were primarily dance musicians. I think a lot of people played music in Joe’s society. But not that many were at the level of the Thompsons. Maybe what’s even more important than the work that they created themselves is the way that they’ve influenced that style of music to carry on.” 

In their early days, the Carolina Chocolate Drops spent considerable time with Joe Thompson, learning many of his old songs and the legendary style of music. In essence, Joe passed the baton on to these talented young musicians, ensuring that the music would live on beyond the grave. 

“Since we started off never thinking about, ‘Let’s go play big halls and stuff,’ we started out going to see Joe,” said Rhiannon Giddens, a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. 

“We all started going down there, as a band, and learning all the tunes. It gives us a real living connection to the music,” added fellow member Sule Greg Wilson. 

As the City of Mebane began making preparations for its new Community Park, the town wanted to page homage to these local musical icons, giving them their due praise for the impression they made on arts and what they’ve passed on to the future. 

Spencer, the sculptor of “Knee to Knee,” spoke extensively on the UNC-TV program about the process of putting together a clay sculpture. It begins with a small model - a tiny scale of what the final product will ultimately look like.  

“I have a certain amount of hours that I need to be uninterrupted. There’s an excitement when you think you’re onto something. I find drawings just doesn’t help me as well as just digging into some wet clay,” Spencer explains. “I’m really not looking for total realism. I actually go for a slight bit of caricature, because that can sometimes help give more of a sense of being alive. But you still have to remember that it’s not just one person doing one thing and one person doing another, and you sit them beside each other and that’s going to be it. There needs to be a sense of how it all works together.”  

“The opportunity to do Joe and Odell - immediately I’m all in. They represent the influence of black musicians on old-time music,” Spencer added. 

The concept of “Knee to Knee” came from the way in which Joe and Odell would sit closely together as they played, creating rhythm together through the beats of their various knee bumps. 

“This whole idea of Knee to Knee - a lot of times when they played, they actually faced each other,” Spencer said. “One knee would be in-between the two knees of the other, and so they could know when it was time to make the change in the song. Particularly in the square dances, where the song might go on and on for quite a while, it’s important to have signals. And that’s the way they did it. It’s that idea of being close together - having actual physical communication. That’s a big part of that kind of music. That was their code.” 

“If you're playing fiddle and banjo music, you better be knee to knee,” added Carlin. “You’ve got to be close together to catch the nuance. When you’re just two instruments, you’re interlocked. And that’s the most exciting thing. It’s not the number of notes you play. It’s in the experience that comes out in the music, and the history of it. It’s in the heart that comes out. You hear it all when they play.”

In order to find a proper likeness of Joe and Odell Thompson as they were depicted in the clay sculpture in the early 1990s, Spencer had to rely on a few photographs and old VHS tapes. The sculptor admitted that created some challenges in the design process.  

“The thing that was most helpful was looking at old videos of them. Really from the ground up, it has to be thought out - how the pieces kind of integrate,” Spencer explained as the UNC-TV documentary showed him calculating the scale of his model of the to the full-scale sculpture. 

“There’s principles of masonry that you have to adhere to. You have to think, how does this relate to the course below it? How is the next course going to look? Also, you have to make pieces that are not like a rectangular brick. I’m kind of doing what the Babylonians did, and the Egyptians did. And that’s kind of comforting to me,” Spencer said. “When you’re working on sculpture. You’re always looking for the edge, to see how that flows. To see how that moves into the next form. In order to really check yourself, you look at the edge. And then you look at the new edge. There’s always a new edge. Multiple that by an infinite number, and that’s what you’re doing when you’re sculpting.” 

“In trying to do people, some of it is kind of like detective work. You’re looking at pictures. But you also look at certain features. No matter how old you are, there’s just a few features on your face. The subtleties that make people unique is just incredible,” Spencer added.  

The sculptor indicates that this region of the country is part of the tectonic plate shift that created the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

“Structures have been worn down over the years. We’re in this dumping ground for the sediment of the mountains as they erode. And that’s where the clay comes from. This is a major clay belt in the world that we live in - North and South Carolina,” Spencer explains in the film. 

Spencer worked with Pine Hall Brick in Madison, North Carolina, who created him special large pieces of masonry that he carefully molded and shaped into what became “Knee to Knee.” 

“I have them (Pine Hall Brick) cut me larger pieces. Instead of a 4 x 8 (inch) chunk of clay - an old brick - my pieces are 8 inches by 12 inches,” he said.

After many hours of meticulous carving, brushing, and shaping, Spencer ultimately came up with the final product, which had to be sent back to Pine Hall Brick in Madison as a huge, carefully-packaged pile of bricks for a final turn through the high-temperature burning process in order to harden. Once the pieces were hardened, they were transported to Mebane, where Spencer, piece by piece, put the sculpture together. 

“When you’re trying to tighten up the finest details, you’re only looking at small areas,” Spencer said. “You can’t have flat spots, or it stops the eye. You’re making thousands of decisions all the time that you’re not thinking about. The subconscious flow is more important than anything else. And you’re connecting. You’re tapping into a lot of things. And one of them is you’re tapping into experience - because you’ve been there before. You can get obsessed with this kind of thing. But that’s what you end up doing in order to make something as seemingly inanimate as brick turn into something that feels alive.” 

“It’s all about telling a story of people who are substantially important to their art form, and to that community and to North Carolina music tradition. This is another chapter of their life. 

This is about individuals whose lives are intertwined with the history of Mebane.