Artists in their own words: Gwen Thompkins

Gwen Thompkins (Photo by: Tracie Morris Schaefer )

Who: Gwen Thompkins

What: Writer and host of Music Inside Out

Where: Pontchartrain Park

Q: How can someone think like someone else?

GT: That would seem difficult, and I’m not sure if someone can completely manage it. But the first and most important step is empathy. Even if you come from very different backgrounds, it’s possible to think like someone else if you demonstrate an informed empathy. That means you learn where someone is coming from, you observe, and then maybe you’re able to anticipate their thoughts.

I’m not suggesting you become a medium [laughing] and try to predict ALL of their thoughts. But you have to think beyond your own opinions and forget yourself almost entirely.

The important element about empathy, though, is that there is love there — not so much a romantic love — but  the kind of love that makes others feel as if they’ve been heard.       

In my line of work, I have to make every effort to understand where someone is coming from — and usually it’s someone whom I’ve never met before. I wrote an introduction for the reissue of Danny Barker’s memoir, but I’d never met Mr. Barker when he was alive. So getting to know him was a serious undertaking. There isn’t a secret to it–you simply research the heck out of a subject. And a subject like Danny Barker has so much material–his life was so long and he knew so many people–so the job wasn’t as hard as it could have been.

I tried not to take too many liberties with what I thought about the different aspects of his life. I subscribed to the notion of letting his actions demonstrate his mindset. In many ways, his situation was singular. But there was also a context to his life. He was a black musician  traveling with a black band during segregation, so some of the same pressures and challenges faced by other black musicians were also on him.

The beautiful part about writing an introduction to a memoir is that the author has already told you a lot about how he or she felt and and thought [laughing]. Your subject may not tell you everything. For instance, at no point in the book does Danny Barker mention that his nickname in the Cab Calloway band was ‘Stallion.’ [Laughing]. There’s only a handful of reasons why a man would be called ‘Stallion.’ And he probably wouldn’t want to put any of those reasons in a book that his wife might read [laughing]. He and Blue Lu Barker were married for more than 60 years.

Q: What is something you love to watch?

GT: Every day, I try to expose myself to something that’s bigger than I am or ever could be.  It’s a wonderful way to contextualize whatever you think your major concerns of the day are. That’s one of the reasons why in movies you have characters with big decisions to make walking next to huge bodies of water. Yes, you have problems; we all have problems, and it might be difficult to see around them. But something in nature or art that is viscerally exciting can immediately — as Dr. John would say — ‘shift your whole day.’

Q: When do you know you’re on the right track?

GT: Unless you are experiencing serious arterial issues, when you feel your heart go pitter-patter, it’s a good sign.

For instance, when I’m writing, and I cannot wait to get to the computer in the morning or when I’ve delayed going to bed at night because of writing, then I know I’m close to something. I’m really enjoying myself.

In terms of interviewing, when something unexpected happens in the conversation–and it almost always does–then I feel like I’m onto something. It’s been a couple of years now, but we interviewed Susan Cowsill, the singer-songwriter, for Music Inside Out. Susan had been a  child singer with her family, The Cowsills,  back in the 60s. She was also a founding member of the Continental Drifters. On the cover of her solo album is a photo of her as a young girl. Her hair is short, she’s wearing a pair of jeans and one of those striped knit shirts that your mother always bought you when you were a kid.  

Susan walked into the studio and I said in the introduction to the interview that on the album cover she looked like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. As soon as I said it, she started crying. She said, ‘That’s what my mother used to call me.’

Moments like that make you feel like kismet really exists.

Q: Who would you want to write the intro to your memoir?

GT: I read a book called The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, recently.  The whole world read it before I did. Beatty is the first American to win the Man Booker prize, and it was for that book. I just think he’s brilliant; in large part because he’s a very serious thinker and he’s also the funniest man I’ve ever read in print. I’m talking, I-have-to-leave-the-coffee-shop-where-I’m-reading-because-I’m-laughing-too-much funny.

I would love to have Mr. Beatty write the introduction to my memoir; although, I’m sure he has a life of his own, and isn’t all that interested in my life [laughing]. But to have someone like that write the introduction would be great because I  like people who remember to laugh. I like people who appreciate that in every situation, no matter how dire, there’s an element of the ridiculous. That’s a part of life that we need. We need to laugh.

Maybe I could save up enough money and put him in my will. That way, if a book about me should ever be written, my estate could set aside money to have Beatty write the introduction [laughing].

Q: What is a concept of science that always intrigues you?

GT: The one thing that I love about good science is that it all hinges–like other noble  endeavors do –on the integrity of the individual. (It hinges on) the willingness of the scientist to not form an opinion before conducting research, and the willingness of the scientist to embrace  unexpected results that the research might yield.

Whether it’s medical science, geology, chemistry, or public health, it all works if everyone is willing to be clear about what they know and what they don’t know and if everyone is clear about the limitations and strengths of the research. That’s how you build anything useful.

It’s about building and fortifying a strong structure of knowledge. You have to have the confidence to be wrong sometimes. You have to be confident enough to be wrong and to say it. That’s what determines your character.


You can hear journalist Gwen Thompkins, host of public radio’s “Music Inside Out” and a contributor to the new edition of Danny Barker’s book “A Life in Jazz,” at the Algiers Point library on Tuesday, July 11, at 6:30 PM. She’ll be talking about  Barker’s life and legacy. The new, illustrated edition of Barker’s autobiography—released in December 2016 by THNOC—features an introduction by Thompkins, more than 100 images, a complete discography and a never-before-published song catalog.


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