Tommy Jarrell (1901–1985)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Traditional fiddler, banjo player, and singer.

Born March 1, 1901, Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” Jarrell was a popular traditional fiddler and banjo player and a leading practitioner of the influential local instrumental styles from the Round Peak, North Carolina, area. Reared in Surry County, he was the oldest of the eleven children of fiddler Benjamin Franklin Jarrell and Susan Letisha Amburn. He completed six grades at the one-room Ivy Green school- house, then worked on farms and at a sawmill, made liquor, and played music. Jarrell married Nina Barnett Lowe, the daughter of banjo player Charlie Barnett Lowe and Ardena Leftwich from nearby Lambsburg, Virginia. The couple moved to Mount Airy, North Carolina, and reared three children. For decades, Jarrell drove a road grader for the North Carolina State Highway Department, which left him little time to play music.

Learning banjo when he was seven years old from Bauga (pronounced “Boggy”) Cockerham, Jarrell started playing on a homemade banjo with a pokeberry-stained neck and a calfskin hide. At thirteen, he learned fiddle from his father and his uncle, Charlie Jarrell, and was soon playing dances with them and with neighbors. Benjamin Jarrell recorded for Gennett Records in 1927, but Tommy acquired most of his repertoire and style before the influence of commercial recordings and radio, and thus he pre- served the older instrumental styles and repertoires of the Blue Ridge. From Civil War veterans, Jarrell learned several unaccompanied fiddle pieces—including “Sail Away Ladies,” “Flatwoods,” “Devil in the Strawstack,” and “The Drunken Hiccups”—that predated the local merging of the fiddle and banjo repertoires and styles. His intense fiddling style combined energetic short bow strokes with expressive double stops on open string drones.                                                                                                             

A powerful and haunting vocalist, Jarrell also performed instrumental versions of ballads and Primitive Baptist hymns. His large repertoire of unusual fiddle and improvisational banjo songs included many pieces assembled from “floating” verses—some borrowed from African American singers—that other musicians performed only as tunes without texts. Playing music more frequently after his retirement, especially with Fred Cockerham and Kyle Creed, Jarrell inspired younger local musicians such as Earnest East, Benton Flippen, Verlin Clifton, and Paul Sutphin. Renowned for his friendliness, generosity, humor, and storytelling, Jarrell became a favorite in parking lot music-making sessions at nearby fiddlers’ conventions. During these years, he performed in concerts and festivals as far away as Canada and received international visitors at family dances and music get-togethers. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him one of its first fifteen National Heritage Fellowships. He died January 28, 1985.

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