Kyle Thompson
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Kyle Thompson

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A Troubadour Pays Homage
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2004; Page B01
APPOMATTOX, Va.
As the last tourists were leaving Appomattox national park Saturday night, Kyle Thompson was just arriving, in his specially equipped van with the handicap tags and his tins of suckers and his recording equipment. They had come to mark the deaths of soldiers in the Civil War. He had come to mark his own.
When Thompson learned three years ago at age 37 that he had Lou Gehrig's disease, the California chef who grew up surfing in the Pacific saw his life rapidly narrow into a question: What was to be his legacy?

The disease, which often kills people in less than five years, already had left his arm muscles twitchy, too unreliable for pots of boiling water and sharp knives. Then the hand cramps took care of the guitar-playing he'd loved since he was a teenager. These days, the muscles in his throat sometimes fail, leaving him endlessly sucking butterscotch candies or Altoids to keep from gagging. And his doctors warned it could soon get worse: He could lose his ability to sing. That's what brought this great-great-grandson of three Confederate soldiers back to a quiet Southern field on a Saturday night.
Accompanied by a motley crew of musician friends, a few groupies and a park employee being paid overtime to work off-hours, Thompson began putting his dream in motion: to use his music to honor those who served and died in the Civil War; to record songs he'd written about the soldiers at the battlefields where they died; and to give the proceeds to a national group that keeps the sites from becoming shopping centers. After months of planning and requests to National Park Service superintendents throughout the East, that dream was launched Saturday night, when the group turned one of the Civil War's most famed sites into an impromptu studio, with a $1,000 store-bought recorder set up on a card table in the foyer of the McLean House, mere feet from where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant signed Lee's surrender, marking the beginning of the end of the war.
Tomorrow night, he heads to record at Old Salem Church, at the Battle of Chancellorsville site in Spotsylvania County, and then to sites north.
Thompson, in jeans and sneakers, began with a song he'd written about the war, a piece based on a diary of a Union soldier, while friends from California played guitar and violin. While Thompson had been writing songs about American history for years, playing them just for friends near his home in Orange County, Calif., his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis changed everything: Now the clock was ticking on his time to explore his own history, and the topic of fighting for your life had become real. He began devouring books about the Civil War.
"Before I would just write for my own therapy," said Thompson, a bear of a man at 6 foot 1, 220 pounds, who looks healthy and broad to the untrained eye -- except for when he winces as he swallows. "But when I got diagnosed, I wanted to do something with it. I wanted to give a voice to all those unknowns." He paused and began to smile. "I'm like the unknown voice for the unknowns!"
Thompson grew up playing Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and he aspires to their lyric-oriented, soft folk style. His music is simple, like early country tunes or ballads. The words are haunting, though, particularly as they are infused with Thompson's newly charged connections with his past and his conviction about having a meaningful future.
"As I write to you dear, there is nothing I fear into battle tomorrow I'll go . . ." he sings in "A Letter From Shiloh."
"From the fields I hear them callin' From the fields, where they fell . . .
From the fields there comes a' singin From the fields, a mournful song From the fields I hear them callin' Grab your guitar boy and come along. . . . " he writes in "From the Fields," the title track to the CD he's aiming to have on sale by next Memorial Day, hopefully in national park gift shops and Civil War-oriented magazines.
An aspect of Thompson's seven-day recording trip, which ends Friday at Gettysburg National Military Park, is his entourage -- four friends who took off a week from work and their California lives to play music, schlep bags and simply be present for what they see as an inspiring, life-affirming journey. So while the basic premise of the journey can hardly be called light, the ambiance of the group is celebratory, like a bunch of kids who ran away from home and realized there was a big, wide world out there.
There is little talk of illness and lots of laughing, with Thompson poking fun at West Coasters' cluelessness about the Civil War and them teasing him for bringing a bottle of Tabasco sauce with him on his road trip, an effort to add more zing to fast food. They make do with their improvised "studio" -- they brought beach chairs and will plug the recording equipment into the ci - The Washington Post


Wednesday, October 13, 2004
His battle, his hymns
Songwriter Kyle Thompson visits old Virginia, his swan song recording battlefield ballads.
By TOM BERG
The Orange County Register
APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE, VA. – First off, the place we're staying at is crawling with these well-coiffed, y'all-drawling women wearing what looks like actual war medals and ribbons and occasionally Miss-Universe-like sashes on their gowns because we've landed smack in the middle of a United Daughters of the Confederacy state convention.
Welcome to Dixie, boys!
On top of that, the first place we eat across the street is this hole-in-the-wall diner where the Coke is still served in 10-oz. bottles, everything is served with chili either on it or on the side, and the newspaper sports section is crammed with five full pages of high school football stories before even mentioning, oh, the Major League Baseball playoffs.
What more could you ask for in the land of the Confederacy? Kyle Thompson and I are here ostensibly to record some Civil War songs he wrote. But really, we're here to prepare for his death.
So far, things couldn't be going better.
He invited me to tag along because he can no longer play guitar. His fingers tremble too much, so I am his surrogate hands. Most people with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, die within three to five years. Kyle hit the five-year mark in August.
He's lost so much strength that he dislocated his shoulder three times this year simply reaching for things on shelves. He suffers frequent choking attacks because the soft palate at the back of his throat has atrophied.
By next year, he probably won't be able to walk. Then the disease will paralyze his swallowing muscles, his breathing muscles and virtually every muscle in his body. It is a gruesome, almost unthinkable end.
"I don't have good days anymore," he told me the day I arrived for our four-city battlefield tour.
He and his wife, Traci, had to sell their two-story Yorba Linda home last month because he could no longer climb the stairs. They moved to Arizona to save money.
The other musician in this escapade is a silver-haired, Jerry-Garcia look-alike who learned to play violin in a Jewish refugee camp in Germany.
When returning to Poland after World War II, his parents were nearly shot by highway robbers, then a border guard demanded a bribe. His father solemnly declared, "We have nothing." When 5-year-old Tad Korn volunteered, "I have gold in my shoes," the guard looked at the child and said, "You're not supposed to say that," and let the family pass.
Tad, now 63, of Laguna Beach, has played in the Santa Monica symphony and at the moment is trying to lead us to Appomattox Court House because his rental car has GPS.
It supposedly stands for Global Positioning System, but today it means Going Pretty Slow.
Tad and his wife, who is along for the trip, are at a dead stop in the middle of a street in Lynchburg, Va. We can see her pointing one way and him pointing the other. So far, the GPS has led us in a series of false turns, U-turns and long, midstreet debates with much gesticulating while they wait for the GPS to "re-adjust."
Finally, Kyle pulls up beside them and hollers out the window, "Follow me." I don't know if it's dumb luck or providence, but he turns the opposite way, and within 25 feet we see signs for Interstate 64 East.
We are on our way.
Excitement fills the air. TheWashington Post has dispatched a reporter and photographer to cover our trip. And now we're recording our first song in the very room where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant 139 years ago, ending the Civil War. No one has ever recorded here in the musty parlor of the McLean House. Maybe because no one ever asked. Maybe because of the bats inside or the 600,000 Civil War ghosts blowing through the open doors. Or maybe because no one has ever done what Kyle is doing: recording a CD of Civil War songs on location at some of the most famous landmarks of the war.
Crickets chirp outside, and fate sees to it that fireworks boom in the distance like cannon as he sings "A Soldier's Diary."
"And fine day, been a long, lost way, we are the dust parade of mighty woe. But I don't mind, marchin' in time, or carry'n my load."
I can't tell you how nervous I am. My hands are not as deft as Kyle's once were. I feel the weight of his lifelong dream resting in my fingers, yet now it seems like they're being guided by our faulty GPS.
On the second take, I improve. On the third take, I feel still better. Suddenly, in this place, Kyle becomes the voice of the voiceless, and Tad's violin speaks for ghosts far beyond the American experience.
The power of the place must be seeping up through the floorboards because Tad's wife, former Register editor Tonnie Katz, and the Washington Post photographer are both misty eyed.
The photographer, who recently covered the war in Iraq, says he could picture the soldiers he'd just been with. The lyrics, h - The Orange County Register


Kyle Thompson, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, visited Old Salem Church last night to record Civil War music. Proceeds will go to Civil War Preservation Trust. Thompson is from California, has ancestors who fought in the Civil War and is here for a week
By BILL FREEHLING

Date published: 10/13/2004
As darkness fell on Old Salem Church last night, crickets chirped, sirens blared and a man inflicted with a fatal disease sang to preserve a slice of history dear to his heart.
Accompanied by friends playing guitar and violin, Kyle Thompson sang through the pain in his throat--one of the many symptoms of the Lou Gehrig's disease that is taking over his body.
"Them boys of the Union will never march home," Thompson sang in a deep, slow rhythm. "'Cause Robert E. Lee has his cannons placed well. And when the Yankees come marchin'. He'll blow them right back to hell."
That was a verse from "Glory Road," one of 17 tracks that Thompson wrote about the Civil War and hopes to compile on a self-produced CD by Memorial Day.
All proceeds from the album--to be titled "From the Fields"--will go to the nonprofit Civil War Preservation Trust. The organization estimates that 20 percent of the country's Civil War battlefields have been destroyed by urban sprawl and development.
Thompson wants to help, and music is his way. But he knows that time is of the essence.
Five years ago, Thompson was studying to be a chef in Orange County, Calif., and preparing to start a family with his wife, Traci.
He started having what he now recognizes as early symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis--a fatal disease without cure that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and leaves victims paralyzed.
There was pain in his back. He lost coordination. His triceps started twitching. It got hard to swallow.
In January 2001, at the age of 37, he was diagnosed with ALS--commonly named for the New York Yankees' first baseman who died of it.
The Thompsons no longer wanted to have children. His atrophying muscles kept him from wielding a knife or holding hot water, ruining his career as a chef. They moved to Arizona, where cheaper housing prices allowed more money for medical care.
The average length of survival after diagnosis is just three to five years, according to the ALS Association.
But instead of dwelling on his cramping muscles, gagging throat and inflamed joints, Thompson decided to travel. One of his early stops was the land of Dixie.
The great-great-grandson of three Confederate veterans, Thompson has long been interested in the Civil War. And development encroaching on historic battlefields bugged him.
He began reading Civil War history voraciously, and he wrote songs based on the diaries and books he took in.
He decided to record his songs where the history happened. He got in touch with the superintendents of National Park Service sites, and the journey began to take form.
His band began a weeklong tour of four historic sites turned concert halls on Saturday at the McLean House--the site at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park where Robert E. Lee officially surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.
Tomorrow, they'll be at the Dunker Church at Antietam National Battlefield, with their final stop Friday at a Gettysburg National Military Park church.
The group also includes guitarists Tom Berg and Scott Johnson, violinist Tad Korn and "groupies" Tonnie Katz, all of California, and Ray Berg of Maine. They chose Old Salem Church, part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, for its historic and symbolic value.
During the Civil War, the 1844 church served as a hospital and refugee center for Fredericksburg residents escaping the December 1862 battle. It also played a role six months later during the Battle of Chancellorsville, with Confederate sharpshooters firing at Union soldiers from the church's upper gallery.
Now, the once-extensive site has been reduced to a brick church, two monuments to New Jersey regiments and an acre of ground just south of busy State Route 3 and west of Interstate 95. Last night, emergency sirens interrupted the group's audio recordings several times.
Thompson hopes to sell the CD at national-park bookstores to raise money for the preservation trust so other historic sites can remain undisturbed.
Another long-term goal is to sing a song in Yankee Stadium that he wrote about Lou Gehrig. Negotiations are still in the works.
Thompson knows the fate that awaits him. But he'll do everything he can with his talent in the time he has left.
"You know that your time is coming up quick," he said. "But you gotta believe that you can persevere through it a little bit longer."
- Freelance Star


Civil War swan songs
As a legacy, terminally ill singer records his ballads at battleground sites
Kenneth LaFave
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 7, 2004 12:00 AM



Kyle Thompson has never looked across a grassy field to see bayoneted death marching toward him. War was never his ambition. Tall and athletically built, yet soft-spoken, Thompson's lifelong desires have centered on creativity: writing poetry, singing songs, cooking fine cuisine.

But for a few days last month, Thompson felt the cannon fire descend upon him, knew the shock of sudden death and tasted the loneliness of leaving loved ones behind.

He sang those feelings in songs he wrote. He felt them as part of his own mortality.


Thompson, 41, spent a week in October recording 17 of his songs about the Civil War at some of the war's most famous battle sites: Gettysburg, Fredericksburg/Chancellorsville, Antietam and Appomattox.

It was a unique idea. Nobody had ever recorded Civil War songs at the site of battles.

Thompson plans to release the resulting compact disc, From the Fields, on his own label, offering it for sale at National Park Service gift shops. All proceeds will go to the Civil War Preservation Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that buys battlefield land to keep it from being developed.

"These songs are part of the legacy I want to leave," says Thompson, who recently moved to Chandler from Fountain Valley in Orange County, Calif., with his wife, Traci. "They are my way of giving back to my country."

He didn't always think in such terms. A labor superintendent for an environmental-remediation company who later trained to be a chef, Thompson wrote songs off and on through the years but never recorded them professionally. He studied the Civil War, primarily because three great-great-grandfathers fought in that conflict.

Those two interests became passions 3 1/2 years ago, when Thompson was diagnosed with ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig's Disease.

ALS slowly saps the brain's ability to control voluntary muscles throughout the body. Most patients die within five years of diagnosis.

ALS has already made it difficult for Thompson to swallow - he sucks on hard candies to keep from gagging - and muscles can twitch without warning. Joints are loose. When he reaches for a glass high on a shelf, his shoulder can pop out, causing excruciating pain.

Still, Thompson can sing. He decided, before the disease robs him of his voice, to recount the stories of battles waged for the country's identity in songs he has penned, including Glory Road, A Letter From Shiloh, Angel of the Battlefield, Ballad of a Rebel and A Soldier's Diary.

"I've seen people in the advanced stages of this disease," Thompson says. "They can't control their facial muscles. They can't talk. To me, as a songwriter, well, when the songbird don't sing . . . "

Thompson's realistic look at his disease is mirrored in songs that don't paint pretty pictures. From Glory Road comes this image:

Well the river's run high in the early spring,

But for the Potomac army that don't mean a thing.

And ol' Johnny Reb, he don't give a damn

If they cross the Rappahannock or the Rapidan.

Take one hundred.

Take one thousand.

And turn them to bone.

The line blurs between the soldiers' fate and Thompson's own battle with ALS.

"Kyle has displaced his own emotions right into these songs," says Scott Johnson, Thompson's friend since third grade and a guitarist for the recording project.

"He's gone for the raw feelings, not a polished sound. The Civil War being what it was, it was a matter of daily facing your mortality, oft-times brutally. That's exactly what he's having to deal with."

Thompson and Johnson were joined by Tom Berg, guitar, and Tad Korn, violin, for last month's on-the-road recording sessions. In a van loaded with recording equipment, they journeyed to four important Civil War sites: the McLean House in Appomattox, Va., where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant; the Old Salem Church in Fredericksburg, Va., an important site for the battles of both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; the Little Dunker Church in Antietam, Md.; and the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. Thompson and Korn had previously recorded some tracks at the Illinois Monument in Vicksburg, Miss.

"It took months of letter writing to get permission to record at these places," Thompson says. "Nobody has ever recorded inside these monuments. Nobody's ever made music inside the Appomattox courthouse."

Except for the Illinois Monument and the McLean House, all the sites were used as hospitals. Gettysburg's Lutheran Seminary was used by both sides at different times in the battle. The Little Dunker Church is infamous for photographs of it containing piles of amputated arms and legs.

"Outside the Dunker Church, there's a sign," Thompson says. "It reads: 'I am the bloodiest church in American history.' "

The experience - The Arizona Republic


Securing His Legacy: Musician with ALS Sings to Save Battlefields


If one spends any amount of time studying the Civil War or visiting battlefields, a significant, universal question will inevitably arise: How did those young men find the courage to march directly into what can only be described as certain death?

There are, of course, many reasons for their almost superhuman acts of valor – the oft-cited “for cause and comrades,” patriotism and the desire to stand and fight beside a trusted friend. However, every man who shouldered a musket though a storm a flying lead or charged grapeshot-spewing cannons across an open field must have believed, at some basic, instinctual level, that his actions would make a measurable difference, that he would “matter.” Even if he was called upon to sacrifice his life, his efforts would not be in vain, but would contribute to the overall legacy of an improving world.

Today, there aren’t many people outside of our professional military who know what it means to stare their own immediate mortality in the face, while shaping how the world will remember them. But one modern-day hero named Kyle Thompson is doing exactly that, deciding, even as he courageously faces his own premature end, that his personal legacy will be to help save the Civil War battlefields that mean so much to him.

Thompson, 41, a California chef, was diagnosed three years ago with ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – a debilitating and fatal nervous system affliction with no known cause or cure that slowly paralyzes its victims to the point of suffocation. Told by his doctors that most sufferers succumb within five years of diagnosis, he knew he had to get his affairs in order and make the most of his remaining time. Rather than dwelling on his physical discomfort and brooding on his fate, he decided to hit the road and visit the battlefields he had always wanted to see.

In the summer of 2002, he visited Chancellorsville and the Wilderness as well as Fredericksburg. “I was appalled by the urban sprawl encroaching upon the battlefields there,” he recalls. “Where those men gave their lives, those souls and sacred grounds are being memorialized by us with pavement and strip malls, housing developments and golf courses.”

“One measure of the living,” Thompson says, “is how they remember the dead.”

Thus inspired and motivated by his rapidly narrowing timeframe, Thompson launched a project that would honor the memory of the American soldiers who fought during that war as well as serve his own determination to take personal action to save hallowed ground. The result is “From the Fields,” a CD of original compositions and traditional songs evoking that tumultuous era.

Several key elements differentiate this CD from others in this genre. Thompson wanted to record his songs directly on the battlefields “surrounded by the spirits of those who fought and died there. That is something you just can’t get when recording in a studio,” he notes. Working closely with National Park Service officials, he and a few musician friends hit the road in 2004 on a cross-country marathon, laying down tracks in such places as inside Wilbur McLean’s parlor at Appomattox, the Dunker Church at Antietam, and the Lutheran Seminary Chapel at Gettysburg, usually in the evenings after all of the visitors had gone home. The result is a haunting, remarkable, highly emotional and heartfelt work by a man fully focused on his individual legacy.

Listeners will be struck time and again at how the gentleness and simplicity of Thompson’s musical arrangements – often using no more than acoustic guitar accompanied by violin or harmonica – belie the utter horror of the soldiers’ experience expressed in his lyrics and husky baritone voice.

In “Glory Road,” recorded at Old Salem Church, in a waltzing, lullaby-like folk melody, Thompson’s sings:

Take a hundred / Take a thousand / Turn ‘em to bone.
Them boys of the Union will never march home.
Some cried as they died ‘Don’t leave me alone.’
Some say if you listen, you can still hear them moan.

In “Gettysburg,” Thompson assumes the persona of a typical soldier, singing:

In 1861, I enlisted on the run ,/ In 1862, I marched right through my shoes…
Come 1863, I seen all I want to see / Of Lincoln’s liberty, and of killin’.

So tell my mama, and all of my kin / That I won’t be comin’ home again.
‘Cause I hear the good Lord callin’ / Out my name from the Devil’s Den.

The work’s final original cut is “From the Fields,” a Bob Dylan-esque ballad that could serve as CWPT’s theme song. Interspersed between Thompson’s new songs are five settings of traditional melodies such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and “Lorena.” The mournful violin of “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” recorded in the live, reverberating acoustics inside the marble Illinois Monument at Vicksburg, is truly spine chilling, and the rendition of “Amazing Grace” which ends the CD - Hallowed Ground Magazine


Discography

LP _ From The Fields 2005

1) Battle Cry Of Freedom
2) A Letter From Shiloh
3) Glory Road
4) Angel Of The Battlefield
5) Johnny Has Gone For Soldier
6) Vicksburg Lament
7) Gettysburg
8) Lorena
9) Andersonville
10) Shiloh Reprise
11) A Soldier's Diary
12) From The Fields
13) Amazing Grace

Available through I-tunes and CD Baby. Sample music available at www.kylethompsonmusic.com

Photos

Bio

Influences...Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Hank Williams. Simple singersongwriter styled tunes that pack a lyrical punch would best describe my songs. Story teller stuff...

In 2005 I released "From The Fields" a CD dedicated to the preservation of America's Civil War Battlefields.
What made the CD unique was I recorded the songs on location (actually on the battlefields) instead of in a studio, where I was surrounded by the spirits of those who fought and died there.

My story...good lord.

I was diagnosed with ALS 8 years ago and I am still kickin'...music and writing are an outlet for me. I would love to get the good tunes out there for others to play!