Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame

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  Thomas Jefferson JarrellThomas Jefferson Jarrell
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.

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.

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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:


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.

--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.

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DISCOGRAPHY


VIDEOGRAPHY

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 Sales.
Those not pictured here:
The Legacy of Tommy Jarrell Volume 2
Rainbow Sign

The Legacy of Tommy Jarrell, Volume 3
Come and Go With Me (Banjo Solos)


 

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 palmermedia@sonic.net with the following subject: JARRELL VIDEO

Legends of Old-Time Music features some television footage of Tommy, as well as a jam in Tommy's kitchen. Lots of other musicians, including Roscoe Holcomb, Doc Watson, Sam McGee and Clarence Ashley.
 
Tommy Jarrell Bow Lights Video (Tommy plays in the dark with a light attached to his wrist, which leaves "trails" that help illustrate his amazing bowing technique.) The video is available from the Southern Folklife Collection, and copies cost $25 per tape plus $3.50 shipping and handling. They supply the tape, and turnaround is typically 1 or 2 weeks. To get a copy made, call (919) 962-1345 and ask for Amy Davis or email her at andavis@email.unc.edu
 
Jam at Low Gap School Tommy plays with Andy Cahan, Paul Brown and others. Also available from the Southern Folklife Collection, and copies cost $25 per tape plus $3.50 shipping and handling. They supply the tape, and turnaround is typically 1 or 2 weeks. To get a copy made, call (919) 962-1345 and ask for Amy Davis or email her at andavis@email.unc.edu

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