Marjorie Thompson is associate dean of biological sciences, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, is the mother of seven, and designs and sells "biologically correct" (that is to say, based on cell depictions) jewelry and clocks. In her spare time - spare time? - she writes, records, and performs some pretty good tunes.
Those tunes are starting to attract attention outside the world of cells, tissues, and organs. Vaughn Watson of the Providence Journal called Thompson's debut CD, Driving to Distraction, "a sterling collection of sixteen laid-back and persuasive songs." Thompson isn't exactly a virtuoso, but no track seems out of place on a CD steadfastly rooted to an old tradition.
Thompson plays acoustic country blues finger-style music. Her picking is clean; her voice, gentle and soothing. Her lyrics, though, won't let you drift too far. True to the country blues tradition, Thompson's subject matter is "hard-luck and love and even substance abuse," she says, but with a "contemporary twist." "Weather Report," as the liner notes specify, "is not really about meteorology" - it's about sex. "Empty Pillbox Blues," Thompson will tell you, isn't really about Valium or the handful of over-the-counter medications she lists. What she's after is more ironic than that.
Take "Prisoner of Love." Although it really is about love, it's about a love for ten very special . . . guitars. Thompson's passion for guitars began when she was ten, growing up in a New York City apartment too small for a piano. Her parents bought her a guitar, and Thompson has been playing ever since, influenced by the likes of Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and the Rev. Gary Davis. Thompson says her music plateaued during her student days (she describes herself as a "science-art nerd") and while raising children after that. Three years ago she saw an ad for the Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp, in Ohio, which was created by Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitarist of the Jefferson Airplane and founder of Hot Tuna. She enrolled and has gone back to play and to study thirteen times since. Soon after her first visit, Thompson began composing, a process she describes as a giant synapse forming in the brain, one that had been "posturing itself to form for all those years." Why now? "I guess it had to germinate for about thirty-six years," she says with a chuckle.
In "Day Job Blues" Thompson sings: "In the same old way / I turn that key and get in the car/Dreamin' 'bout playin' my guitar." She has written more than eighty songs, is producing a second CD, and performs locally. But Brown students are in no danger of losing Thompson to her second career.
"All kind of people wanna be musicians," she sings in "Day Job Blues." The song isn't about just her day job, really. And that's the pleasure in it.
Joseph Shapiro '04 is an intern at the BAM.