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Ernest Thompson
Born:  February 20, 1892
Died:  December 7, 1961

About The Artist

Ernest Errott Thompson was North Carolina's first male country singer. Like Georgia's Riley Puckett, West Virginia's David Miller, and Tennessee's George Reneau, his livelihood had been and continued to be that of a street singer who made his way by using his talents to earn a meager living. A native of Clemmons just south of Winston Salem, Thompson suffered from a fire accident that damaged his vocal chords early in life and he sang with an atypical high pitched (some called it "squeaky") voice.

He accompanied himself on guitar and harmonica, eventually learning to play about every stringed instrument. Ironically, his eyesight was normal until he was about fifteen when he injured his eyes in a sawmill accident, but did not become totally blind for several years. He attended the School for the Blind in Raleigh from about 1912 to 1914 as his condition continually worsened. While trained to make brooms and mattresses and piano tuning, music offered a supplemental and perhaps preferable option.

Bad luck seemed to dog the man. On May 13, 1917, he married a woman named Bettie Viola Hauser (January 14, 1889 - January 12, 1964), but after four years she had a mental breakdown. Judged hopelessly insane, she was institutionalized (North Carolina State Hospital for the Insane) for the rest of her life. Meanwhile Ernest eked out a meager living on the streets of Winston-Salem and other towns as far north as Mt. Airy.

Still, family members with whom he stayed at times remembered him as cheerful and sometimes a practical joker. In April 1924, the opportunity came to make records for Columbia and he took it. In spite of his unusual sounding voice, his first release was a cover of "The Wreck of the Southern Old 97" b/w "Are You from Dixie." Some of the other numbers were instrumentals or old time and popular numbers.

Although his discs did sell as much as Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett's who began with Columbia about the same time, they showed sufficient potential to call him back again in September. This time his eighteen-year-old niece, Connie Sides, accompanied him as a guide and duet partner on two numbers (she also did some vocal solos with her uncle providing musical backup).

Although sales figures are not known for all his releases, the highest figures available suggest his best was about 9,500 copies. By contrast Tanner and Puckett's poorest seller was over 16,000. He tried again with Gennett in 1930, but his one known release seems to be so rare that no known copy has turned up from collectors. Thus ended Thompson's recording career.

Ernest continued as a blind street musician, but as the Great Depression deepened making a living thusly became even more challenging. In company with a mostly blind woman named Cora Pistollious, he still plied his trade. Both turned up virtually destitute in 1931 on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. Somehow they made it back to North Carolina. Still singing on the streets during World War II, newspapers reported him still singing old songs with occasional newer ones such as "Mexicali Rose" and "You Are My Sunshine."

In 1949 he and Cora moved to High Point where they remained. However, Ernest was in declining health and many cities enacted ordinances curtailing street musicians which meant that he followed his trade less and less. In early 1961, he died in the Guilford County Home of congestive heart failure. His tombstone near his birthplace at the Fraternity Church of the Brethren Cemetery reads "I once was blind, but now I see."

Research in the 1990s and later, first by Kirk Sutphin and then Bob Carlin, provided details on the life of this tragic figure and in 2004 the British Archive of Country Music released a compact disc containing twenty of his numbers.

Ernest Thompson and Connie Sides - Columbia 15002 D - Silly Bill - September 1924

Credits & Sources

Sound Sample—(YouTube Video Format)


The Wreck Of The Southern Old '97

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

 
Columbia
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  129 D A Jesse James
  129 D B Lightning Express
  130 A Wreck of the Southern Old 97
  130 B Are You from Dixie
  145 A The Lightning Express
  145 B Jesse James
  147 A Little Brown Jug
  147 B How Are You Gonna Wet Your Whistle? (When the Whole Wide World Goes Dry)
  15000 D A Alexander's Ragtime Band
  15000 D B Mississippi Dippy Dip
  15001 D A Sylvester Johnson Lee
  15001 D B Weeping Willow Tree
  15002 D A Silly Bill (w/Connie Sides)
  15002 D B At A Georgia Camp Meeting (w/Connie Sides)
  15006 D A When You're All In, Down And Out
  15006 D B Whistling Rufus
  15007 D A I'm Going Down To Jordan
  15007 D B Old Time Religion
  158 A Yield Not to Temptation
  158 B Life?s Railway to Heaven
  168 A Don?t Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls
  168 B Frankie Baker
  169 A Sparrow Bird Waltz
  169 B Kiss Waltz
  189 A Mississippi Sawyer
  189 B Climbing Up the Golden Stair
  190 A Red Wing
  190 B Snow Deer
  206 A Chicken Roost Behind the Moon
  206 B Coon Crap Game
  216 A The Little Rosebud [sic] Casket
  216 B In the Baggage Coach Ahead
 
Gennett
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  7139 A Sparrow Bird Waltz; Good Old Summertime
  7139 B Are You from Dixie; Swanee River


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