I’m one of the many oldtime musicians out there who got truly infected with a love for clawhammer banjo and oldtime fiddle as a result of the classic recordings of Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham.
Now I truly believe that, when it comes to oldtime fiddle, there is no “best” – all regional styles have their own merit and unique beauty. Still, there’s nothing wrong with saying “favorite” and, by God, Tommy has rightly earned his position as being the favorite fiddler of countless oldtime musicians.
Tommy Jarrell was well known for opening up his home to young musicians and teaching them his tunes, and the people who learned from him are still some of the best (oops, um, favoritest?) oldtime musicians out there: Brad Leftwich, Kirk Sutphin, Riley Baugus, Paul Brown, Mike Seeger, Lisa Ornstein, David Winston, Ray Chatfield, Stefen Senders, Alice Gerrard, Blanton Owens, Ray Alden, Bruce Molsky, Nancy Neithammer, Rusty Neithammer, Rena Rubin, Dave Reiner, Andy Cahan, Heath Curdts, Terri McMurray, Steve Roberts…. Need I go on?
When Thomas Jefferson Jarrell was born in 1901, his family was already full of musicians. It’s no surprise he started picking the banjo at about seven years of age to accompany his father, Ben Jarrell, who had been the main fiddler of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters and cut a few classic recordings towards the end of the 1920s.
Tommy started playing fiddle at age 13 and paid close attention to the fiddling of his father and uncle Charlie Jarrell. He also learned a number of his signature tunes from fiddlers in West Virginia such as Zach Payne or Houston Gayleon.
Tommy didn’t play out as much after marrying his wife Nina in 1923, but he frequently played with the Ur-godfather of “Round Peak” banjo, Charlie Lowe. He worked for the North Carolina highway department from 1925 until his retirement in 1966. And that’s when his fiddling fame really took off. He played across the country from New England to California and up to Washington state. It’s also about the time when young musicians really started flocking to his home, often staying the night and enjoying his signature bean recipe. In 1982, he was named a National Heritage Fellow.
The rest of this article (apart from the discography and further information at the end) reproduces the content from the Old-Time Fiddler’s Hall of Fame on David Lynch’s now-defunct oldtimemusic.com. That content is still viewable using the waybackmachine, but it’s hard to find. Be sure to also check out our article on John Morgan Salyer.
Two photographs taken by Don Mussell, who met with Jarrell in the 1980s, have also been included with his kind permission.
Thoughts on Tommy Jarrell by David Lynch
Topping my list of most influential fiddlers was Thomas Jefferson Jarrell, 1901 – 1985. I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I’ve been chasing his ghost through films, recordings, but mostly through visits to relatives and friends who knew him, spent time with him and played music with him. To me, Tommy is the glue between past and present. He lived without an automobile or a telephone. He was never a professional musician, never competed in any contest, played for the pure joy of it.
By all accounts, Tommy was a package deal, his generous personality, his stories, his music and his hospitality wove seamlessly together, essential and pure, giving a glimpse of a lost lifestyle to those who were fortunate enough to visit him at his home in the Round Peak region of North Carolina.
Tommy was generous with the musicians who made pilgrimages to see him. All the people I know how visited Tommy describe him as a gracious host. One of my most prized possessions is a tape made by a fellow fiddler who had the opportunity to visit with Tommy during those times. Just as important as the tunes it holds are the snippets of conversation between them.
On “Sprout Wings & Fly”, a documentary made about Tommy by Les Blank, Alice Gerard and Cece Conway, Tommy tells a little story that will always stick with me.
TJ: Sometimes I ask him [his deceased Uncle Charley], “Charley, where you been gone so long?” And Charley says “Well, I been around.” No most folks don’t talk to the dead, but I do Charley.
INTERVIEWER (ALICE GERRARD): How does that make you feel?
TJ: Good in a way…and bad in a way, and good in a way. It’s hard to explain, maybe you’ll understand it when most of your friends are dead and gone, I can’t explain it.
It’s that essence, the link with a past that’s dead and gone that Tommy forged at the end of his life. Sometimes, I am sitting home playing my fi ddle, and imagine I can hear Tommy’s voice saying, “How `bout that Back Step Cindy?” I oblige him and play it, and dream of the day when I might be able to give the tune half the justice he did.
In the summer of 1997, I took what became a magical journey to Toast, North Carolina, to find out more about Tommy Jarrell. I was lucky to be accompanied by fiddler Brad Leftwich, who is related to the Jarrell family. Along with San Francisco old time musician Dave Murray, we visited a good many surviving relatives and a good many graves, including Tommy’s. I am still most grateful for the hospitality provided by Philip and Juanita De Loach (Juanita bakes up one heck of a Sonker!), Tommy’s nephew Reavis Lyons, daughter Ardena and musical colleague Chester McMillan (that was a good jam!).
Reavis and Philip gave us the grand tour, after which Reavis gifted us with many precious family photos and out-of-print copies of Tommy’s records. Reavis also gave me a biography he wrote of Tommy. It’s only fitting that I use his words to describe his Uncle Tommy:
Remembrances of Thomas Reavis Lyons
Thomas “Tommy” Jefferson Jarrell was born March 1, 1901 in Surry County, N.C. to Benjamin “Ben” Franklin Jarrell and Susan “Susie” Letisha (Amburn) Jarrell. He was born in his parents’ home at the foot of Fisher Peak and was raised in the Round Peak area of Surry County, N.C. He had one foster sister (a first cousin) that was older than Tommy and ten younger brothers and sisters. The family raised corn, buckwheat, rye, beans, cabbage,sugar cane, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and apples to feed this large family. They also raised tobacco and owned cattle.
Tommy would tell of how hard he had to work. He began plowing at the age of eight or nine and would work from sunup to sundown. He said his grandfather Rufus Jarrell never knew when to quit working, that he’d try his best to find something for you to do on a rainy day. The family had hired Bauga Cockerham to help on the farm and he was the one who taught Tommy his first tune on the banjo. Tommy was probably around seven years old when Bauga taught him to play Ol’ Reuben. About a year later, Tommy’s father bought him his first banjo. At age thirteen, he began to fiddle on his dad’s fiddle. His dad had bought the fiddle from Tony Lowe’s widow for five dollars. When Tommy was 14, in 1915, he bought his own fiddle for ten dollars from Huston Moore, having borrowed the money from Ed Ward. Tommy said he like to never got the fiddle paid for. Tommy still had this fiddle in the 1980s. Tommy’s fiddle is now part of the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington, D.C.
Tommy grew up playing dances or “workings” all over Round Peak. Back then, neighbors had “workings” such as wood choppings, barn raisings, apple peelings, bean stringings and corn shuckings. There was always a dance at the end of these gatherings. Tommy could sing to most of the tunes he played, but he would admit that he was a better fiddler than a singer.
Tommy attended Ivy Green School and quit in the seventh grade. He took his first car ride around 1916 in a T-model Ford. He said his daddy drove him and a couple of his sisters to the fair in Mt. Airy. He said he would never forget how that thing looked coming up the road. He said if he hadn’t known what it was, it would have scared him to death. Tommy’s uncle, Charlie Jarrell, taught him how to make sugar whiskey back around 1918. He said they made a pretty good turnout. In 1920, Tommy made a six-month trip to South Dakota to make whiskey for an ex-North Carolinian there who was dissatisfied with the local supply.
On December 27, 1923 at the courthouse in Hillsville, Carroll County, VA, he married Nina Frances Lowe, daughter of Charles and Ardena Leftwich Lowe. Tommy had known Nina about two years before he married her. He proposed while they were hoeing corn one day. He said “Nina, we’ll get married if you want to. But I’ll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, and I go to dances, make music, and I don’t know whether I’ll ever quit that or not. But, if you think we can get along now, we’ll get married – and if you don’t think we can, right now’s the time to say something.”
“Well,” Nina said, “I believe we’d get along all right.” And that was the way it happened.
Tommy and Nina lived with her parents during 1924. Both of her parents had died by the end of that year, and Tommy and Nina moved to Mt. Airy, NC and lived for a year with his parents. Children born to Tommy and Nina were Ardena “Dena” born February 25-27 [long labor?!]1925, Clarence “Wayne” born February 8, 1927, and Benjamin Frankin “B.F.” born September 19, 1933. Tommy and his family later lived on the South Franklin road in the Toast community near Mt. Airy, N.C. He was an employee with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for 41 years, beginning work in April of 1925 and retiring in 1966.
By 1975, Tommy had recorded seven albums. He had traveled to many colleges and universities around the country to play. He had played at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. And many festivals around the country have played host to Tommy and his music. In 1982, he was selected as one of the fifteen master folk artists in the first National Heritage Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a certificate and monetary award at a ceremony at the annual American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. A film titled “Sprout Wings and Fly” was made about Tommy and can be purchased on video.
The Round Peak area is well-known for its history of Old-Time Music and the Jarrell family contributed to that tradition. Tommy was the community’s most famous old-time musician. His legendary fiddle playing brought him worldwide recognition. His father Ben had also recorded numerous songs [with DaCosta Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters] and was considered one of the best musicians in his generation. Tommy was always eager to share his music with anyone. He enjoyed people and could entertain his visitors for hours with his music and storytelling. His favorite stories were about relatives, neighbors and friends who grew up new Fisher’s Peak and in the Round Peak community.
After Tommy became popular, people came from everywhere in the United States and from overseas, especially Europe, to see him and get him to teach them his style of fiddling. People ended up staying such a good length of time that a friend of his named Steve made a sign for him to put over his door that read “First Two Nights Free and After That $20 Per Night”.
Nina died February 13, 1967 and Tommy died January 8, 1985 at age 83. Both are buried at Skyline Memory Gardens in Surry County.
– North Carolina String Music Masters: Old-Time and Bluegrass Legends Paperback – February 8, 2016
by Elizabeth A. Carlson
– Strings of Life – by Kevin Donleavy
– “Making Round Peak Music: History, Revitalization, and Community,” James Randolph Ruchala, 2011. Dissertation.
If you can’t meet personally with someone who learned from Tommy directly (like Kirk Sutphin), these two books are very good for learning Tommy’s licks on fiddle and banjo. For Tommy’s endless variations on his tunes, you’ll just have to listen.
– Old-Time Fiddle Round Peak Style – by Brad Leftwich https://www.melbay.com/…/oldtime-fiddle-round-peak-style.as…
– Round Peak Style Clawhammer Banjo – by Brad Leftwich https://www.melbay.com/…/round-peak-style-clawhammer-banjo.…
Free field recording (Must listen):
Tommy Jarrell and Blanton Owen house concert in Seattle 1975, scroll down to find Tommy Jarrell: http://www.voyagerrecords.com/nwffrmp3.htm
– 1968 County 713 Down To The Cider Mill – Jenkins, Jarrell and Cockerham
– 1971 County 723 Back Home In The Blue Ridge – Jenkins, Jarrell and Cockerham
– 1973 County 741 Stay All Night And Don’t Go Home. Vol. 3 More Old Time Mountain Music With Oscar Jenkins, Fred Cockerham, Tommy Jarrell
– 1973 Mountain 302 June Apple – 73 (reissued in 1993 on Heritage HC CD 038 with bonus tracks
County 748 Tommy Jarrell’s Banjo Album
– 1976 Heritage 10 Music From Round Peak – Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Ray Alden
– 1976 Mountain MT 310/HRC 044 Joke On The Puppy
– 1976 County 756 Sail Away Ladies – (reissued in 1999 on CO-CD 2724 The Legacy Of Tommy Jarrell, vol. 1)
– 1980 County 778 Pickin’ On Tommy’s Porch
– 1986 County 791 Rainbow Sign (reissued in 1999 on CO-CD 2725 The Legacy Of Tommy Jarrell, vol. 2)
– 1986 Folkways FTS 31109 Been Riding With Old Mosby: Traditional Songs Of Surry County, North Carolina – Frank Bode, with Tommy Jarrell and Paul Brown
– 1992 County CO-CD-2702 Tommy And Fred: Best Fiddle And Banjo Duets
– 2004 County CO-CD-2734 Down To The Cider Mill – 04 Jenkins, Jarrell and Cockerham (sampler)
– County CO-CD-2735 Stay All Night And Don’t Go Home: More Old Time Mountain Music
Music on Bandcamp / Field Recorder’s Collective (stream in full before buying!):
FRC 211 – Tommy Jarrell Volume 1: Recordings from the collection of Jerry Epstein https://fieldrecorder.bandcamp.com/…/frc-211-tommy-jarrell-…
FRC 212 – Tommy Jarrell Volume 2: Recordings from the collection of Jerry Epstein https://fieldrecorder.bandcamp.com/…/frc-212-tommy-jarrell-…
FRC 109 – Round Peak Volume 1: Recordings from the collection of Ray Alden https://fieldrecorder.bandcamp.com/…/frc-109-round-peak-vol…
FRC 110 – Round Peak Volume 2: Recordings from the collection of Ray Alden https://fieldrecorder.bandcamp.com/…/frc-110-round-peak-vol…