Fred Cockerham

Fred Cockerham (FRC101)

by Ray Alden

Fred Cockerham, one of the seven children of Elias and Betty Jane Cockerham, was born on November 3, 1905.  He was the only one from the Round Peak community to attempt the difficult life of a professional rural musician.  The way that Fred began playing the fiddle is similar to the way many country musicians began.  Basically, this story can be heard on FRC101, but here the story is amplified somewhat so as to compliment the spoken word.  Fred remembered this story from the time he was 8 years old:

My older brother Pate fiddled, but not too well.  Just about every time he’d set down to play he’d get disgusted before long and throw the fiddle on the bed and walk out.  Well, I thought to myself, I’m going to learn to play that, but he was high tempered and didn’t want me messin’ with it.  So I’d sneak his fiddle over into the hog range and go over the bank into the hollow and saw the hell out of it.  I didn’t worry cause I knew he couldn’t catch me when I was barefoot like I was when I was caring for the hogs, back then I could outrun a haint.  Before very long I got so I could play a few tunes pretty well, and I just couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.  So I asked my mother if she’d like to hear a tune and played “Sally Ann” for her.  Now that tickled her the best of anything you ever saw, and that evening when Pate threw the fiddle down as usual, she said to him, “Sit down and let your brother play a tune.”  He never touched the fiddle again and I just kept right on playing it.

Fred’s family was interested in and encouraged music, as Fred recalled:

My Daddy, he weighed about 150 I guess, and wore a size six shoe, and he could dance, just like lightning.  He would take two straws out of a broom and sit down right in front of me.  I’d be on the fiddle or banjo, he’d play every note I’d play with those straws on the strings between where I’d pick and note.  He had music in him.  One of my brothers took a French harp and would blow it through a lamp globe, it was really sweet.  Changed the sound of that harp altogether.  I can just see them doing that.

Just as with Tommy Jarrell, there were local musicians who helped to develop and fine tune Fred’s musical talents.  Mal Smith, a banjo player who lived close by, played with Fred for several years after returning from World War I.  Mal taught Fred a banjo tune that later became his solo showpiece, “Roustabout.”  Fred’s uncle Troy Cockerham, even though he had “stiff” fingers and could only note the fiddle with two of them, was a big influence on his fiddling.

However, there were two people whose playing so impressed Fred that he felt, “If I couldn’t learn to mock them, why I’d just as soon quit.”  Charlie Lowe’s banjo playing was so impressive to Fred that he worked hard to change his “framming” style to be more like the complex double note technique which Charlie used.  The other main influence came from the airwaves, from far outside the community.  This was the fiddling of Arthur Smith, who was heard over WSM’s “Grand Old Opry” show, broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee.  Smith, born in Tennessee in 1898, began to play on the Opry in 1927.  He used a smooth low bow style that was quite different from the older style of “rocking the bow” in which Tommy played.  He took fiddlers around the country, Fred included, by storm.  In the late 1930’s, Smith participated in fiddler’s contests, usually staged for his benefit, around the South.

Fred encountered Arthur Smith in a contest that resulted in the classic battle that he recounted to me:

I used to listen to him every Saturday night on the Grand Old Opry and tried to play my best just like him.  Every bunch of musicians had a room to practice in.  Curly, my guitar player, came in and told me, “Fred, you’ve got some competition tonight, Fiddling Arthur Smith!”  I said, “Uh, oh honey, my cake’s all dough now.”  I went out, I was in good practice then, and me and him tied against those thirty-two fiddlers.  That made me feel big you know, I mean, tie Arthur Smith!  I knowed if he’d play that “Mocking Bird,” the thing’s all over.  There’s balls of sweat on my forehead that big.  They made us play four times.  Arthur Smith told me, “The judges want to hear some good fiddle playing and they’re just using us for ducks.”  When he played that “Mocking Bird” he really cut up on it.  I said, “I know now,” sure enough he got first and I got second.

Fred married Eva Gaylean when they were still teenagers.  Her grandfather was Houston Gaylean, the fiddler whose “Drunken Hiccups” was passed down to Tommy Jarrell.  Fred was just starting to become recognized as a powerful musician during this period.  However, Tommy moved to Lambsburg when Fred was 16 and so two of Round Peak’s most powerful musicians rarely played together.  The primary musical experience for Fred during this period was time spent with Charlie Lowe and the Round Peak Band he played with in his youth.  The band consisted of his friends Kyle Creed, Paul Sutphin, Laurence Lowe (Charlie’s son) and Earnest East and his two older brothers.  Fred visited Charlie Lowe weekends throughout the years whenever he could.  However, on the road as a professional musician, he only came to the Round Peak area on occasion.

Fred remembered his travels back and across the mountains with the Ruby Tonic Entertainers, a group that promoted a rhubarb salve made by the South Atlantic Chemical Company:

We’d leave Galax in the morning and we’d play in Charlotte, North Carolina over WBT.  We had an hour program over there.  We’d get in the car and leave there to go to Edmund Henry, Virginia and had to do an hour that night.  And then we had to be in Roanoke at 6:30 A.M. for an hour.  Drive all night long, and then back in Galax and right back all around again.  We did that for six months, rawhiding it all the way.  At Charlotte, the first broadcast studios were air-tight, doors went together like a money safe, and when that door went together, buddy, that is it!  No ventilation, we’d come outta there many a time in summertime and roll foam off our britches with our hands.

At the end of six months, Da Costa Woltz, then mayor of Galax and one of the two sponsors of the band, claimed bankruptcy and never paid them the $1500 owed the band.  Over the years, Fred played with many bands, includin musicians such as brothers Fields and Sampson Ward (sons of Crockett Ward, founder of Galax’s old time band the Bogtrotters), and Herbert Higgins, nephew of Charlie Higgins.  Fred was at the height of his powers in the 1930’s.  He took second place at the 1934 Galax Fiddler’s convention, while Frank Jenkins, who played with Ben Jarrell in the Southern Broadcasters, took first.  The next year Fred took first.  Fred’s youngest daughter, Juanita, remembers that it seemed completely normal for the family to pick up and move every few months.  Juanita remembers that musicians were constantly at their home and that Fred, not enjoying playing alone, rather liked the continual musical hustle and bustle.  She remembers it was not unusual for her father to be away for several weeks at a time, leaving it for her mother, Eva, to provide the supportive backbone for the family.

In the early 1940’s, Fred played the 6:30-7:00 A.M. show over WFMR in High Point, North Carolina.  However, as World War II began and radio work more became scarce, Fred took jobs building quonset huts for the Navy with Kyle Creed and Paul Sutphin. near Norfolk, Virginia.  Kyle remembers that Fred was one of the bests hands he ever had in his contracting work. After living many years in and around Galax, in 1959 Fred and Eva moved to Lowgap, North Carolina, close to the Round Peak community.  This was the beginning of a period of bad luck for Fred.  A major snowstorm hit in March of 1959, Fred recalled:

Got stuck in a snowdrift, my left hand glass was out and next morning the snow was over the headlights.  I had stayed in the car all night.  I had almost half a gallon of liquor setting on the floorboard in the back seat, and I dozed off and woke up kinda scared, thinking, “If I ain’t gone now, I will be in a couple of minutes.”  I couldn’t hardly move – stiff, you know.  Well, I figured that liquor was my only chance; warm me up, I figured.  Reached over there and got me a handful of that snow; took a good swaller and bit that snowball.  Jumped out of the car, pure blood flew on that white snow, it liked scared me to death.

Fred managed to walk back to Lowgap in a tractor’s footprints.  Nearly paralyzed for two days, he lost his high tenor singing voice.  In 1960 a doctor operated on both of Fred’s cataracts simultaneously, instead of the normal technique of one at a time, leaving Fred only able to see vague forms.  People from the community rallied around Fred, who was in a depression after these two devastating events.  Charlie Lowe came over to encourage him, and Kyle Creed build him the Formica-covered fretless banjo that now resides in the Smithsonian Institution along with Tommy’s fiddle.  Mac Snow visited and, along with Gilmer Woodruff, Ambrose Lowe, Clyde Issacs and “Knuckles” Nestor, formed the Virginia-Carolina Ramblers that kept Fred playing.  Soon after, Kyle reformed the band of their youth and named it the Camp Creek Boys, after the stream that flowed near their old home place.  This old time band, which included Fred, Kyle, Earnest East, Paul Sutphin and Verlin Clifton, was so powerful that they often won against the more popular bluegrass bands at a time when there was no separate division between bluegrass and old-time at fiddler’s contests.  It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that record producers Richard Nevins and Charlie Faurot, in an attempt to recreate Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, put Fred (taking Da Costa Woltz’s part) together with Tommy (taking his father Ben’s part) and Oscar Jenkins (taking his father Frank’s part) for three albums on County.  Although fewer young people visited Fred than Tommy, in order time to learn their style of music, Fred was tremendously giving to those who came.  Most tried to give something back, as did Barry and Sharon Poss in 1973 when they arranged with a doctor, father of a friend, for an operation that restored much of Fred’s lost vision.

Fred died four months short of his 75th birthday, on July 8, 1980.  Eva died just over a year later.  They left four surviving children, 20 grandchildren and 29 great grandchildren.  With visits to Fred beginning in 1969, I am left, over 35 years later, with a big smile from the memory of wonderful stories, the lingering taste of Eva’s good home style Southern cooking, and the sound of exquisite music ringing in my ears.  In issuing FRC 101, my hopes are to share some of the best of these musical years with you.