Suzy Thompson. Photo: MikeMelnyk
Suzy Thompson. Photo: Mike Melnyk

Some 40 years ago, Suzy Thompson inflicted on her mother and father just about every aspirational parent’s worst nightmare. Though she had been accepted to Yale, the folk-music-besotted teenager left her Connecticut home, boarded a Green Tortoise bus and headed to Berkeley, where she knew exactly one person.

Thompson not only ended up staying, she’s played a central role in turning the city into an extraordinarily vibrant nexus for an intersecting array of American roots music traditions. A powerful fiddler, skilled guitarist, and beguilingly blues-inflected vocalist, she’s an invaluable force as a player, bandleader, and inveterate organizer responsible for the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention.

Thompson celebrates her amazing musical journey Wednesday at Freight & Salvage with a stellar cross-section of friends and family, including bluegrass icon Laurie Lewis and her long-time musical partner Tom Rozum, and Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher, whose potent and celebrated partnership in old-time music making dates back 40 years. Amazingly, the evening features the first musician she heard perform in Berkeley, jug band legend Jim Kweskin, who she encountered at the Freight within days of her arrival. “I didn’t actually meet him, but I met other musicians and one thing led to another. It was a life-changing thing to hear him play.”

After considering throwing herself a big musical 60th birthday party next year, Thompson decided that the times called for a life-affirming confab. “So many people I know have died, and I’ve been involved in so many memorials and benefit concerts,” she says. “I thought, gee, I don’t want to wait until I’m dead or dying to have this happen.”

As part of Wednesday’s event Thompson will be honored by the city of  Berkeley and its mayor, Tom Bates, for her “contribution to Berkeley’s rich cultural life for the past 40 years, as a performer, presenter , community organizer, educator and advocate for the arts.”

At the Freight, Thompson will be joined, as is so often the case, by her husband, guitar great Eric Thompson. They’ll be performing together in the Blue Flame Stringband with Alan Senauke and Kate Brislin, and the Thompson String Ticklers with Dave Murray, Dan Kluger, Dan Warrick and Ben Sigelman. She also performs with two all-women bands, the old-time combo Suzy’s Floozies (with Maxine Gerber, and Kate Brislin) and the Hadassah Gospel Hour (with Evie Ladin and Allegra Yellin).

The concert only captures part of her peripatetic creative sojourn, which includes series study of styles from klezmer and bluegrass to Delta blues and Cajun music, the style for which she’s best known as a founding member of the California Cajun Orchestra and the Aux Cajunals.

Throughout her career, Thompson has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Raised mostly in a suburb of New York City, she studied classical violin throughout her adolescence. She had already fallen under the sway of Bessie Smith when she graduated from high school and took off for Berkeley, looking to get involved in the city’s lively roots music scene.

“I came here and crashed on a friend’s dorm floor,” she recalls. “I started playing on Telegraph, and I volunteered at the Freight, which was still on San Pablo, putting up calendars, so I could go the Freight for free. I went every Tuesday to the Hoot Nights, and after a few years I was finally offered a gig.”

Eric Thompson and Alan Senauke

After attending Cal for a few semesters she dropped out and moved to an arts commune near Cloverdale, where jam sessions with accomplished flamenco and traditional Irish musicians stoked her passion for old time music.

“The pace of life was very slow,” she says. “There was electricity and running water but no phone or TV, so we did what they used to do in the old days for entertainment, play music and sing together. That’s where I really started to get deep into it.”

Wherever she went, Thompson made a vivid impression on a scene with few female instrumentalists. Laurie Lewis, one of the women who paved the way, recalls the first time she encountered Thompson. “I picked her up hitchhiking up Spruce, and she had a bag of groceries and a fiddle,” Lewis says. The fact that Thompson was playing in a bluegrass band called the Cashew Family consisting of lawyers and law students from Boalt (the mandolin player is now a judge in Alaska) probably added to the memorable scene.

They got to know each other better several years later at jam sessions at Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco, and over the years Lewis witnessed Thompson’s tireless efforts to nurture the scene on and off the stage. She spent years on staff at Ashkenaz and has been deeply involved in the Freight. And in 2003 she relaunched the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, an event with roots in the folk scene of the late 1960s.

“She has had a profound impact from an organizational standpoint,” Lewis says. “If it were only the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which is a really important community-building event, than it would be plenty, but there are so may other things.”

Thompson started gaining recognition with the all-woman Any Old Time String Band, touring throughout California and recording for Arhoolie. She also played and recorded with the Klezmorim, a seminal klezmer revival band. But it was a 1976 encounter with the legendary Cajun fiddlers Dewey and Will Balfa that changed her life. Captivated by the sound, she started traveling to southwest Louisiana to study with fiddle masters Dewey Balfa, Dennis McGee, Cheese Read and Wade Fruge, research supported by an NEA Fellowship in 1980. At the time she was virtually the only female fiddler player in Cajun music.

Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum

“Now there are many young kids who are great musicians in Louisiana,” Thompson says. “It’s just totally taken off down there, which is great, because when we started going down in the 1970s there were about 10 people our age who were interested, the guys in BeauSoleil and a few other people.”

A key participant in the Cajun revival, Thompson formed the California Cajun Orchestra, featuring Louisiana-born accordion master Danny Poullard. The band’s 1993 debut album on Arhoolie was awarded the prestigious Prix Dehors De Nous by the Louisiana French Music Association, given to the best Cajun music recording from outside Louisiana.

“She’s one of the guiding lights of the vernacular music scene in the Bay Area,” says Chris Strachwitz, the founder and owner of Arhoolie Records. “Especially old-timey country, blues, Cajun and what have you. She’s into a number of traditions that she can do equally well and she’s totally devoted to it. She was one of the first to go back to the Balfas, to the old time fiddlers and she’s developed her own wonderful way of performing it. Suzy is one hot fiddler.”

One reason she’s not better known is that Thompson didn’t release an album under her own name until 2003’s No Mockingbird (Native & Fine Records), an acclaimed album that puts the spotlight squarely on Thompson, who explores a program of early 20th century rags and blues by artists such as Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Dock Boggs and Memphis Minnie. She renders each piece with the passion and soul that has made her such a valuable creative collaborator. In much the same way that Thompson has intersected with musicians from an array of musical traditions, she’s found that the players were sharing influences right from the start.

“The biggest part of what drew me here was the people and wanting to hang out and be like them,” Thompson says. “I’d try this and that, and in the course of doing that eventually I started to realize they were not as separate and delineated. There are a myriad of personal and musical connections between the styles and people from back at the start, and it’s mind blowing.”

Visit the  Freight & Salvage website for more information about tomorrow’s Suzy Thompson concert.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events.

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....