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Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Saturday, October 17, 2020

The BallyDesmond Polkas are not included in the tabs Tommy Thompson worked on in the 1970s with Patrick Couton.[1]


The tune does not appear to have been mentioned in any of the documents included in The Tommy Thompson Collection at UNC's Southern Folklike Collection. 


Nor did I find a tab or mention of the tune in any of the private papers that his daughter Jessica shared with me while I was working on a writing project about Tommy.[2]


But I do have some notes on Stolen Love, the 1975 Red Clay Rambler LP, stuff from the cutting room floor:


Bill Hicks recalled a night at the Cat's Cradle in 1974 - just before the cast left for New York for their run on Broadway with Diamond Studs.  The Cat's Cradle performance included short sets by Red Clay Ramblers, the Southern States band, and the Nicotones - all those bands pulled together members who acted in local community theatre groups. 


All the Ramblers found the idea of using traditional music in a theatrical setting was certainly encouraged by Everyman's productions - Bill Hicks, for one, seemed to view the nexus of theatre and music as the result of the proximity of the creative forces in a small community that came together by happenstance.  And, even decades later, he remained amazed how as newborn band, the Red Clay Ramblers were able to get recorded by a big ticket record company early in their music career:

I think the Folkways LP was sort of our kitchen sink of the moment.  Fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, songs from various folk genres including black rural string bands, early bluegrass from the Stanley Brothers, a fiddle duet with harmony playing.  "Stolen Love" was more focused on the same wide range of material.  It was the four of us - Mike Craver [by then] an integral part [of the band], Al McCanless [involved] with only a couple of tracks with extra people (sort of studio needs).  "Stolen Love" expresses the band concept as we all envisioned it, but without any band-written material.  The bass was passed around between Jim and Tommy as needed.  No horns (not even the idea).  But there were a few things that could have had horns, including "Got What It Takes," a Bessie Smith song.  I don't think early bluegrass made the cut either.  Maybe there was by then a Carter Family number, a feature of Red Clay Rambler shows which in early days was incarnated in Mike Craver's solo rendition of "Will You Miss Me." 


At that early point in the band's history, between 1973 and 1974, Bill Hicks wrote up most of the sets.   By the time the band committed to performing with the Diamond Studs production in New York, the Red Clay Ramblers were doing some original songs, including "Hobo's Last Letter," a song Bill wrote in the vein of Jimmy Rodgers style songs, and another tune, a raunchy song, that he wrote  - "You Were Only F---ing While I Was Making Love," very much a country style song that Bill sang in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis.  Bill recalled that the song earned considerable recognition from concert audiences:


We actually produced old-timey sheet music of that song, black and white with a 1900 nude post card cover, and sold [it] at the Cat's Cradle and elsewhere for a buck.  We never recorded it - unfortunately I think.  Debby McClatchy did, but changed the style to sort of a women's lament, took it very straight.  It was covered in that form by I think two other female vocal bands, and Debby might still do it on occasion. 


The Red Clay Ramblers cut the "Stolen Love" LP for Flying Fish in 1975 (Flying Fish, FF- 009, 1975).  The album was probably one of Bill's favorite projects.  He thought that the band's wide-ranging musical interests were very apparent on that recording, and he may have believed that his own musical interests widened in the 40 some years since that recording - perhaps as the result of that project.  "At that point," Bill noted, "we were just very engaged in the music, played mostly locally with the odd road trip now and then, had no idea of even how to become full-time working musicians." 

Bill observed that the tune "Kingdom Coming (In The Year of Jubilo)," also on the "Stolen Love" recording, was notable because it was written by a black song writer, was instrumentally a fiddle tune - Bill got it from Alan Jabbour who got it from Henry Reed who may have learned it from the music of Henry C. Work.  The tune tells a great and fairly hilarious story of the freeing of the slaves by the Union troops - in one verse the slaves throw "massa" down the well to accomplish that act.  Bill thought that Henry C. Work, though black, reflected a widely shared fear of the end of slavery, anticipating that Southern masters might seek to "pay back" the African Americans who participated in the freeing of the enslaved.  Bill reminisced:  

We used the song in Diamond Studs, along with an unaccompanied ballad called "Unreconstructed Rebel," sung by Jan Davidson as a rag-tag veteran.  Jesse James, the 'hero' of the play, was of course a member of Quantrell's raiders, a murderer, in the middle of Missouri, the divide state par excellence.  We really had no clue of all the deeper politics--it was just rollicking fun, a Western musical with zero conscious politics beyond some sort of vague affirmation that the South was not really so bad.  But that got us, the Ramblers, into the full time musician business, for good or ill. 

Bill did Besse Smith's 'Got What It Takes' on the Stolen Love record "because I liked the song and because it was slightly risque."  The tune was included in the LP "on the rationale that it was recorded in the 1920s, just like much of the other music on the record, so in that sense it was "old time."   Mike Craver's "Home Fires" was of a similar vintage, as was Tommy Thompson's "She's Been After Man Ever Since," from Blind Alfred Reid, who was sorely concerned with the "problem" of the women.  Stolen Love was the second recording made by the Red Clay Ramblers, after The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCanless (Folkways Records, FTS 31039, 1974), but to Bill it was the first recording made as a coherent band with the lineup that would endure through 1981, when Bill left the fold.[3] 

To Watson, one story captured the manner in which Red Clay Rambler music had evolved as the result of immersion in stage work. Watson recalled that in the mid– 1980s, Sam Shepard wanted one particular Red Clay Rambler song for the play A Lie of the Mind:


[Shepard] had gotten a bunch of our earlier records once he decided that he wanted us in the play. There was a song from an earlier album, on the Stolen Love album, that he really wanted in the play and we tried several other things in that specific location [where] he wanted [that specific tune] and he would always say “Yeah, that sounds good, but what about this song ‘Honey Babe’?” so finally we just said OK, we’ll do “Honey Babe.” The problem was that we didn’t remember “Honey Babe” any longer but fortunately there was a friend of ours in New York City who had the album, and [we ended up getting] the words [to the song] from the album. We figured out which verses we were going to do because there wasn’t enough time to do the whole song—and that was generally true with a lot of the material we did in that play. There was transition stuff, and we would do [...] maybe two or three verses out of a five or six verse song. [So, in the case of “Honey Babe,”] we just kind of did what our arrangement had been before. [...] I always did like the idea that basically we learned a song off of our own record. So, there was still some of the cooperative work on some of the material, but for plays, it’s a different thing from actual going out there as the Red Clay Ramblers and doing just a regular show. [...] I mean, there has to be consistency from one show to the other and one way to do that is really nail down what everybody’s parts are going to be. And Jack was pretty much in charge of that. Maybe Tommy a little bit [...] but I think Jack was the main guy on that.


Craver remembered that Lenny Rogoff was a good friend of the band’s and that he traveled with the Red Clay Ramblers on occasion. He is listed as co-writer on “I’ve Got Plans,” one of Tommy’s original songs on the recording “Merchant’s Lunch.” Craver believed that Rogoff contributed a few of the lyric lines or ideas for that song but could not capture specific memories of his collaboration.[4]  Rogoff told me: “Tommy was generous in listing me as co-lyricist of ‘I’ve got plans’ and even once sent me a royalty check. He had come up with a melody, asked me to write the lyrics, and then re- worked them into the song. He jokingly told me that he wanted to write a song about a loser and thought that I was just the person to do it!”[5]Hicks recalled that Rogoff was an early fan of the band’s, and was at Tommy’s a lot. He’s even in the pic on the back of “Stolen Love.”[6]





[1] “He Could Surely Make a Banjo Talk” - 109 Clawhammer Banjo Tabs of Old Time and New Time Tunes Played By Tommy Thompson.   Text by Lew Stern and David Brooks.  Bealeton, Virginia: Little Bear Banjo Publishing House, a subsidiary of Little Bear Banjo Enterprises, 2019. 

eBook version:

Paperback version:


[2] Tommy Thompson: New Timey String Band Musician.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2019.



[3] 4 March 2015 (752 AM) email from Bill Hicks to Lew Stern. 


[4] 31 July 2016 (11:39 a.m.) email from Mike Craver to Lew Stern. Craver also acknowledged that Rogoff himself had minimized the extent to which he was central to the writing work involved in “I’ve Got Plans.” 6 September 2016 (1:17 p.m.) email from Mike Craver to Lew Stern.


[5] 20 August 2016 (4:52 p.m.) email from Leonard Rogoff to Lew Stern.

[6] 31 July 2016 (11:05 a.m.) email from Bill Hicks to Lew Stern.



JanetB Says:
Sunday, October 18, 2020 @7:45:06 AM

Thanks for the details surrounding the band at the beginning. As eclectic as they were, Tommy included only three exclusively Celtic tunes in his tabs. Most were the now-familiar Scotch-Irish tunes being passed around in the southern mountains here in the states. The Ramblers may have helped popularized these in the 70’s and 80’s, I gather. The current TOTW, Ballydesmond Polkas, has been shared more recently in the states in Celtic sessions and is new for me.

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