The original Hollow Rock String Band–Tommy Thompson on five-string banjo, Bobbie Thompson on guitar, Bertram Levy on mandolin and Alan Jabbour on fiddle–grew out of mid-’60s jam sessions that took place at the Hollow Rock Grocery on Erwin Road at New Hope Creek, just outside of Durham. As the surrounding circle of friends and players grew larger than the store could handle–sometimes up to 150 people–the sessions moved to the Thompsons’ house down the road.
The music they played grew out of Duke grad student Jabbour’s mid-’60s excursions through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to record instrumental folk music, folksong and folklore. Though he’d been a classical violinist from the age of 7, he began a new kind of apprenticeship with old-time fiddlers he met along the way, like Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Va. It was around the old-time fiddle tunes from Reed and others that the Hollow Rock String Band oriented itself. But because they were largely solo numbers, the group had to invent band settings for them.
“I can remember sitting together, and all of us sort of puzzling out what chords we would play,” Jabbour says. “Imagining how it might sound was part of the excitement of this enterprise: To us, it really was kind of an adventure into this unknown artistic world.” But that adventure was not only about music, it was about a way of life.
“Only later did we puzzle about it, and wonder what it was that lit us up,” Jabbour says. “It was beautiful to us; there was something magical about the music itself, artistically. But also, we were drawn–how shall I say–to certain social and cultural values that the music seemed to stand for. And we were proud to re-assert that, to sort of throw it into the face of the world.”
For Jim Watson, who played guitar and was learning mandolin, the Hollow Rock jam sessions were a musical turning point. “I had started going to fiddlers’ conventions in the summer of 1965 and learning a little bit about it,” he remembers, “but not until I got in the midst of this music scene at Tommy and Bobby’s did I really start learning how to play it.” Watson and musician friend Bill DeTurk became regular visitors to the Thompsons’ jam sessions.
“It’s really hard to overstate the effect that those parties had on me, and a lot of people, back then,” Watson says. “A lot of us were learning music, and learning it in a group situation–and in a party situation, too, where you would just go and play hard and have a good time, rather than sitting in your living room with one or two other people. You had to play hard to be heard–to hear yourself, even–in some of those settings.”
In 1969, Jabbour was appointed head of the Archive of Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, where he exerted a tremendous influence on scholarly and popular understandings of American vernacular music. Meanwhile, as the ’60s became the ’70s, Watson and Tommy Thompson played as a duo, and as a trio with “Fiddlin’ Al” McCanless. Bobbie went on to join the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, comprised of other jam regulars. She died in a car accident in 1972, before seeing the release of the group’s first album, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band.
When Rounder Records asked Jabbour to record a new album of fiddle tunes in the early ’70s, he asked Tommy Thompson to join him, and Thompson invited Watson along to play guitar. With Levy’s blessing (he didn’t participate in the session), they dubbed the recording The Hollow Rock String Band.
“It was exciting to make that record, as an effort to recapture the Hollow Rock energy,” Jabbour says. “But that energy was spreading in other ways beyond us. The truth is, you want to keep making music yourself, but it has its impact, and it goes on beyond you. Others continue, and they continue it in their own way.”
In fact, Thompson, Watson, Bill Hicks and others would go on to form the Red Clay Ramblers.
In 1974, Jabbour became founding director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ grant-giving program in folk arts, and two years later became founding director of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. He retired in 1999, and plans to devote more time to playing, writing and teaching. Bertram Levy lives in Port Townsend, Wash.; in 1977, he founded the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, a nationally recognized gathering. Sadly, Tommy Thompson, suffering from dementia, has retired from performing.
Jabbour and Watson enjoyed a brief reunion at the 1999 Festival for the Eno, and it was Watson’s wife, Anne Berry, who broached the idea of arranging a house concert. “The amazing thing is, it really doesn’t go away,” Jabbour says. “If you’ve played music intensely with somebody for a certain period of your life, you can be separated for 20 years, and you fall back into it as if you never stopped.”
Jabbour and Watson admit to loving the house concert genre. “It’s a wonderful thing,” Jabbour says, “because it recaptures something that was precious to the whole revival music from the very beginning, and that was a sense of intimacy–the intimate relationship of the musicians to each other and to the people they’re sharing it with.”
Visiting Seattle last November, Jabbour played a house concert with Sandy Bradley, another musician and friend from the ’60s; with Tommy Thompson, the trio made a recording called Sandy’s Fancy in the early ’80s. And Watson, who’s been touring with Robin and Linda Williams for the past 12 years, says they aren’t adverse to picking up a house concert on their nights off.
“Basically, our theory is, if we’re out there, we want to work,” he says. “And, generally, we have a good time doing them, because they’re so intimate that there’s more interaction with the audience.”
Jabbour expects that his Durham appearance will take the shape of a “lecture concert”–talking about his experiences with old-time music, and playing tunes as illustrations. “I’ve discovered, to my amazement, that people actually like hearing stories about music,” he reports. “They like to peer through your eyes, and listen through your voice, and try to get back imaginatively to the experiences that you had with old-timers, [encounters] they can’t directly experience themselves.”
The members of the Hollow Rock String Band, he says, never lost sight of those old-timers, and of the importance of honoring their musical tradition. “We didn’t think that we were the important thing,” he insists. “We felt like it was the important thing. And doing something that properly reflected it was what we sought.”