December 21, 1996
Thompson Brothers Band members in March 1979, when this photo was made, included, from left: Frank, fiddle and guitar; Orvil, not a musician; Armel, guitar; and Bill, guitar. Another brother, Jim, who played fiddle and guitar, is not shown. Today, only Frank, 95, is still living.
This is Frank Thompson at 95, still providing hot licks on the fiddle. He’s the last surviving member of the Thompson Brothers Band.
A few years ago, Saturday night entertainment in the Perry area was highlighted by community dances featuring the Thompson Brothers Band. The group originally consisted of five brothers -- Bill, twins Orvil and Armel, Frank and Jim -- but a sister-in-law was added later on. Orvil did not play a musical instrument but he helped with loading and unloading their gear and generally made himself useful each time they played.
Today only one of the brothers, Frank, survives. He is 95. Frank and his wife, the former Georgia Murch, the one who joined the band, live in Perry. They had 11 children. Six of them survive, and all of them live in Perry. The band played every weekend for some 30-plus years and residents of this area who attended any of the functions where the Thompsons played remember their music and their family fondly.
From here, the story is being told by Darlene Thompson Cunningham, one of Jim Thompson's daughters and now the social services director at Green Valley Nursing Home. She has many warm memories of the times when her father and uncles were livening up the Saturday nights in Perry with their music. Since this holiday season is when family memories are treasured even more than usual, this seems an appropriate tale to tell. This is Darlene's account:
"The makeup of the original Thompson Brothers Band was like this: Jim, fiddle and guitar; Frank, fiddle and guitar; Armel, guitar; Bill, guitar; and Orvil. Later, Georgia played mandolin and fiddle. Jim Thompson and family were living in Red Rock when the other brothers joined him in Noble county in 1925. Armel, Orvil, Frank and Bill came here in a wagon from Purcell because no farmland was available around Purcell or the nearby town of Noble. The four brothers settled on a farm east of Perry and raised cotton as their principal crop. They never used a tractor. Mules and horses pulled their equipment. In 1961, they moved into Perry.
"They played for dances, parties and weddings in all kinds of settings. At different times they played in an old drug store building, an old schoolhouse, community building, or when requested they would roll back the rugs and play for parties in private homes.
"My Dad and Mom (Mr. and Mrs. Jim Thompson) would come to town each Saturday, like most farm folk. In the afternoon, kids would go to the movies. Later we would go to the dances, which usually started at 9 p.m., and stay until the end, usually at midnight. Entire families went to these dances, -- not just the adults. The kids would play outside until the band took a break, but some of the kids danced, too. Everyone would bring cookies, cakes, sandwiches and coffee for refreshments throughout the evening.
"Businesses in Perry stayed open until 8 in the evening on Saturdays. Families would visit around the square until time for that evening's dance, then they would head out to whatever site was designated for the get-together. The brothers played such songs as "Great Speckled Bird," "Down Yonder," "Beer Barrel Polka," and many others. For variety there would be circle dances, square dances and the grand march. They took up a collection to pay for refreshments or the hall, but the brothers never asked to be paid.
"Doreen Snider recalls playing hide and seek outside the hall while the grownups enjoyed dancing inside. When youngsters got tired as the night wore on, they would get into the back seat of the family car and go to sleep. There was no thought, and no need, of locking the car door. They would doze off listening to the strains of such lullabies as "Bonaparte's Retreat" and "Tennessee Waltz."
"Mrs. Floyd Bower remembers that everyone would dance together -- kids and grownups. Folks pitched in to serve refreshments as the good, clean fun went on. Zelma Rupp wistfully recalls those Saturday nights when there was good music, no fights, no trouble.
"My Dad, Jim Thompson, bought his first fiddle by selling seeds, then taught himself to play the instrument. He died in 1967. The band continued playing for dances and at nursing homes or anywhere else they were invited as long as they were physically able. They never charged for performing. Three of the brothers, Bill, Orvil and Armel, never married.
"The music of the Thompson Brothers Band is truly missed by many in the area, and it will be long remembered by those who were fortunate enough to hear them ‘live.' The band did make one recording, in 1947 in a session at Bohemian Hall, north of Perry. It originally was on eight-track audiotape, later converted to cassette format with a portable recording device. In the background, the audience can be heard dancing, laughing and having a great time.
"This is how I remember my Dad and uncles when we went every Saturday night to a dance somewhere."
My thanks to Darlene Thompson Cunningham for these mental snapshots of Perry in another time. I hope they bring you a sense of family nostalgia, as they did me, and that your Christmas will be the merriest ever!