Apr 04, 2017 11:49AM
By Steven Hoffman
On a Friday afternoon, Jerry “Crabmeat” Thompson sat on a piano bench in his sunny living room and talked about his life.
Though he claims to be shy, he has a larger-than-life presence, and people are drawn to his animated personality. Like his counterparts in folk music, he is a natural storyteller, and his tales are often punctuated by his explosive laughter.
Thompson is a teacher and a musician. For him, the two occupations go hand-in-hand as he creates tunes that can be teachable moments, and educates using his storytelling and musical skills. He’s been a wanderer, criss-crossing the country for both music and teaching jobs, driven by whatever he finds to be intellectually or creatively stimulating -- or sometimes just in search of a paying gig.
His first foray into music came in middle school, as a member of the chorus. However, at Brandywine High School, he turned to football, wrestling and track. He made a good friend in fellow teammate Bobby Ferrara when they were forced to run laps as a punishment for fighting.
“Bobby was in a band called the Astronotes and I was a groupie,” Thompson said. Years later, he would reconnect with Ferrara, playing tunes around Wilmington, but music stayed in the background until college.
“When I was beginning to play, I fell for the tone and the bite of the Martin guitar, still the best in the world,” he said. “Then there was Bob Dylan.”
The “Great Folk Music Scare,” as Thompson referred to it, occurred while he was in college and changed everything. “Folkies talked about something other than puppy love, and introduced me to the world of caring folks,” Thompson said.
He was teaching at Oregon State (and working on a doctorate in English) when he gave music a serious try. “My students were always asking me to sing them another song or tell them a story,” he said. “So I thought that’s probably what I should do.”
He started playing folk music at venues throughout Corvallis, Ore. Eventually he gave up his teaching and doctorate work, and headed to San Francisco, where he enrolled in Blue Bear Waltzes School of Rock and Roll.
“Terry Garthwaite was my vocal teacher,” Thompson said. Garthwaite’s band, Joy of Cooking, was the first female-fronted rock band. “It was a great place to be,” Thompson recalled. He also performed with the Golden Gate Theater Company.
When his girlfriend left for Big Sur, Thompson followed, working as a cook and playing music. He met a guy named Frank Chiaverini and went to Tahoe with him to play in a country rock band.
“Country rock had just started, so we thought this was a good idea,” he said. When the band called it quits in 1978, Thompson headed back to Wilmington. He reconnected with his old friend Ferrara, who was playing jazz around the area with Harry Spencer and Gerald Chavis. “I’d go out and put on my show during their breaks,” Thompson said. “I’d also try to play a little with them, but I couldn’t keep up. That’s how I got my start playing in Wilmington.”
Thompson worked as a teacher, and performed in Wilmington and at the Delaware beaches for a few years until his buddy Chiaverini beckoned. He asked Thompson to come out to Montana and sing with his current band, the Live Wire Choir. Thompson hit the road again, toured the West with the band and wrote a lot of original tunes based on his experiences. “At least one was inspired by peyote,” he said, laughing.
As bands do, they broke up, and Jerry returned once again to the East Coast. He found a teaching job and resumed playing local gigs. He had already established a strong fan base before he left, so area clubs welcomed him back.
“I returned to Wilmington with a valise of new songs,” he said. Through his friendship with Johnny Neel, he was given the opportunity to record an album. “Animals, Vegetables and Mineral Springs” was released in 1983. On the album, Thompson was backed by local musicians, and with the exception of two songs, it was all original material.
One of the songs on the album is Thompson's tribute to Delaware, called “Small Wonder.” As to be expected with Thompson, there is a story to be told about the writing of the song.
Jerry was playing at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach when he was offered a job playing at the World’s Fair U.S. Pavilion in Knoxville, Tenn. “I agreed to go down. There was no pay, but they said they’d feed me and buy me beers at the Australian Pavilion,” he said, chuckling.
Thompson approached the State of Delaware to ask for funding. He was told to write a song about Delaware in exchange for a bus ticket and lodging. “They gave me a list of things to put in the song, so the whole tune is really, really long,” Thompson said. “So there I was at the Word’s Fair. I was the Delaware exhibit, singing 'Small Wonder' and passing out pamphlets.” Thompson is especially proud that Jerry Silverman included “Small Wonder” in the Mel Bay guitar songbook, “Songs for the American People.”
“Jerry Silverman is like Moses among folk guitarists,” Thompson said. So “Small Wonder” keeps company in the book with songs by folk legends such as Woody Guthrie.
Thompson is a fine storyteller, but he is also a keen listener and incorporates what he hears into his music. Filled with local references, his tunes range from sentimental and self-reflective to quirky.
“I feel my forte is whimsy,” he said. This is evidenced by his CD, “South of the Moon,” that includes an operatic treatment of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” But he can just as easily craft a touching song such as “Robert and My Mother,” that tells the story of his mother’s time in eldercare.
“Mexican Oktoberfest” is his wife Janice’s favorite, because it was written about her. Thompson explained the inspiration: “She’ll get up and dance anywhere! Plus, at that time, Mexican bars were an odd find at a polka bash.”
Some of his tunes were written simply because he had a great title that needed a song. “Poodles From Hell” and “You’re the Reason God Made Alcohol” are examples of how he can start with a central idea and weave lyrics around it. Thompson has six CDs available through his website store. “My latest CD is 'Birthday Trampoline.' That’s the title poem, and I got more poetic on this one, even scraping elbows with Dylan, Eliot and Kerouac,” he said.
Years ago, Thompson wrote a song with Rehoboth elementary school students called “Save the Bays.”
“I had been playing children’s concerts, singing this song, and I had the idea for a coloring book,” he explained. Through friends at the Division of Natural Resources, he got the go-ahead to create the book “Stretch Saves the Inland Bays.”
Stretch is a Great Blue Heron who encourages kids to care for the environment. “They really liked it and published 15,000 copies, and distributed the books to schools in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania,” Thompson said. He performed at the schools, singing songs about the environment. These days, he's hard at work updating “Stretch Saves the Inland Bays” to include both English and Spanish lyrics. He felt it was time to bring the coloring book back to life, and plans to have it available on Earth Day when he performs in Bethany Beach. He will also re-release his children’s CD, “Crabmeat for Kids,” as a companion piece to the coloring book.
Thompson has been living in Middletown for about 20 years, originally moving down to teach at Middletown High School.
“I got the job at Middletown because they were all Crabmeat fans,” he said. He shares his home with his wife Janice, an elderly cat named Cleo, and several dozen rubber chickens. He shoots the chickens out at the audience during gigs to keep things lively.
Thompson met Janice at a Delaware beach bar. He was hired to sing, and she was waitressing. Janice made the first move on her future husband., “I had to ask him out; he thought he was too old for me,” she explained. “No, I thought you were too wild!” Thompson retorted.
They both teach English at the University of Delaware English Language Institute. ELI helps students whose secondary language is English to improve their fluency.
Thompson continues to incorporate music and stories into his lessons. Recently, to the delight of his students, he put on a western hat and kerchief and performed “I Want to be a Cowboy Sweetheart” to celebrate National Cowboy Day. The students enjoy learning about American culture through holidays, even the offbeat ones.
Thompson has a full calendar of gigs. “The music has gotten very, very busy. What has helped is the brewpub explosion,” he said. “For years I was going out to play at coffee houses. You know, there weren’t any other places to play. But people in coffee houses are not that much fun.”
Brewpubs such as Brick Works in Smyrna provide a great venue. He is adaptable to his audiences, and can provide family entertainment when needed, or pull out the classics.
“If I see people around my age, I talk about how great it is that Dylan got the Nobel Prize, and start playing those old songs,” he said. He performs folk, originals, classic rock, as well as some old blues songs. “That’s what I cut my teeth on, and people love it,” he said.
Thompson has received many honors, including awards and fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Delaware State Arts Council. In 2007, has was recognized as an emerging folk musician; and in 2010, he was honored for his artistic excellence in folk music.
He downplayed his honors, and said, “I just like doing things that make me feel good.”
With all that he has accomplished and has yet to do, Thompson could be considered a Delaware wonder himself. New interests continue to pique his curiosity.
“He is a very interesting person,” Janice said. “He has been taking a Chinese calligraphy class because he doesn’t have enough to do,” she added, laughing.
Thompson’s creativity seems to be boundless, and his sense of wonder and adventure keeps life interesting. He smiled at his wife and said, “When I turned 60, Janice asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said an electric guitar, of course!”
Crabmeat Thompson will be performing on April 22 at the Bethany Beach Nature Center, on April 28 at Brick Works in Smyrna, and on May 6 at the Trapp Pond Wetlands Celebration. Visit https://crabmeat.net.