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Tommy Jarrell

Tommy Jarrell

Tommy Jarrell (March 1, 1901 – January 28, 1985)

Photo credit: David Holt

 

Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” Jarrell was born on March 1, 1901, in the Round Peak section of Surry County. When Tommy was seven years old, he began learning the banjo from Baugie Cockerham, and when he was thirteen, he began playing his father’s fiddle. Like his father, Ben Jarrell, who was a member of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, Tommy played the fiddle in a short-bow style, and used different tunings to play in different keys. Tommy also learned several unaccompanied fiddle tunes such as “Sail Away Ladies,” “Flatwoods,” and “The Drunken Hiccups” from Civil War veter­ans in the community. Tommy established his fiddle style prior to the influence of commercial recordings and radio, thus he preserved a much older style of fiddling. His main influence on the banjo was Charlie Lowe, and Tommy picked up many stylistic techniques from him.

Tommy was also an accomplished singer and sang many of the old-time Primitive Baptist hymns. One that he performed often was entitled “When Sorrows Encompass Me Round.”

In the early 1920s, Tommy went to work for the North Carolina Department of Transportation driving a motor grader, which left little time for his music. After his retirement he became very active in playing, recording, and performing music again.

Tommy recorded many albums for the County Records label and traveled outside of Surry County to perform at folk festivals and colleges. He often played with Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, Bobby Patterson and Chester McMillian. He was a wonder­ful storyteller and was known for his generosity and good sense of humor. Young people from all over the world made visits to his home and sometimes stayed for several days at a time to learn whatever they could from him. In 1981, he received the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society, and in 1982, he received a National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endow­ment for the Arts. Tommy passed away on January 28, 1985. In 1988, his fiddle was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

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