1901-1985 - Toast, North Carolina
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.
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.
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:
"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 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.
--Thomas Reavis Lyons
Photo Credits: Top portrait: David Holt. Photo of Tommy Jarrell and Charlie Lowe courtesy of the collection of Reavis Lyons. All other photos: Dave Murray.
Here'a a few of the
CDs in print featuring Tommy Jarrell. I'll be adding more in the near
future. June Apple is available from County
A partial list of all videos available featuring Tommy Jarrell.
Sprout Wings and Fly One of 3 documentary films produced by Les Blank/Flower Films featuring Tommy Jarrell. This is the longest of the 3, and the most entralling. If you like this one, you'll also like the other two short films: "My Old Fiddle" and "Julie", which you can order directly from Flower Films.
"A Visit with Tommy Jarrell: Solo Fiddle and Stories," a 3-video series produced by Heath Curdts. The footage has been professionally edited (very sparsely) and is taken from rare home recordings made by Steve Barasch in 1984 with a color VHS camcorder. The series features Tommy playing solo fiddle on over 50 pieces with occasional singing and some instruction on a few tunes. For those of you who never had the opportunity to visit Tommy, this is as close as you're likely to get. Each video runsabout 60 min., and any profits will go to Tommy's children, Ardena and Wayne. Cost is $30 ea. For more info, please email Heath Curdts at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following subject: JARRELL VIDEO