By Ray Alden
Thomas Jefferson Jarrell was born in 1901, the son of Ben and Susan Jarrell. His father was the fiddler for Da Costa Woltz and his Southern Broadcasters, a string band that recorded nine 78 rpm records for Gennett in 1927. Just as his father eclipsed his brother Charlie as a well known fiddler, Tommy would surpass all of his ten siblings in music. Oddly enough, Ben did not push Tommy to play nor did he actively teach him the fiddle. “I watched him like a hawk,” Tommy said. It remained for Baugie Cockerham, ten years Tommy’s senior, to start him off on the banjo at age eight. Tommy told me about Baugie:
He stayed out at our house one year. Grandaddy hired him by the month to help us farm, and he’s the fellow learnt me the first tune ever I played on anything, old timey “Ruben.” He tuned the banjo down so there wouldn’t be but one string to note.
Soon after, Tommy’s father brought him a small banjo with a neck stained with pokeberry juice. Later, in 1915, Tommy purchased Huston Moore’s fiddle with money he won gambling, being able to pitch a penny closer to a floor crack than any of his other rivals. In 1911, during a typhoid epidemic, Tommy began to imitate both his father, Tony Lowe and his Uncle Charlie on the fiddle. Since they played primarily in the keys of A and D, they tuned their fiddles EAEA or EADA , instead of the standard fiddle tuning of EADG. To the end of his life, even though he knew other tunings, Tommy used mostly these tunings. Tommy’s bowing technique, like that of his father and uncle, was not the smooth long stroke that is used by many modern fiddlers. Rather, his bow stroke was made up of many complex swirls, pull backs and triplets, created by using both his wrist and his elbow.
At first, influences came from the immediate area. Houston Galyean, already an old fiddler when Tommy was born, taught his father the “Drunken Hiccups” or “Jack of Diamonds” in C#AEA tuning that became Tommy’s solo showpiece. In fact, when film maker Les Blank, along with Alice Gerrard and Cece Conway made a movie about Tommy, they called it “Sprout Wings and Fly.” This title came from One of the lyrics in “Drunken Hiccups,” which goes: “I eat when I’m hungry, I drink when I’m dry, If I get to feeling much better, I’m gonna sprout wings and fly.” Later, as Tommy began to venture away from home, he met musicians such as Civil War veteran Zack Paine, from nearby Lambsburg, Virginia, from whom he learned two beautiful tunes.
Tommy could absorb large numbers of songs and tunes with his amazing memory when he was younger. Once, when he went to a traveling show passing through Mt. Airy, North Carolina, he heard the mournful song “Boll Weevil.” It was sung by a “yellow gal,” which like his father’s favorite song “Yellow Rose Of Texas,” referred to a light skinned black woman. “All the music she had with her was a tambourine,” Tommy told me. He went back to the show and heard it a second time, then went home and figured out how to use one of his “graveyard” fiddle tunings in order to play music with the words. Sometimes, after nearly forty years of a song’s disappearance from Tommy’s repertoire, his amazing memory would be suddenly jolted into remembering it. “The Bravest Cowboy” and “Frankie Baker” were recalled on a trip to play a festival with Fred Cockerham. Words to “Casey Jones” suddenly came pouring out of Tommy’s mouth at a recording session where we had all given up any hope of them being remembered.
The central musician, certainly the one critical to forming the razor sharp duets between Tommy and Fred, was Charlie Lowe. Charlie was regarded as the standard by which all other area banjo players would be measured. He brought the drop thumb clawhammer style to a new level of excellence using a double note technique which incorporated an uncanny sense of timing, speed and deadly accuracy. Charlie was born in 1878 in the Round Peak area, two years Ben Jarrell’s senior. He was warmly regarded and, at the same time, noted for his idiosyncrasies. Tommy remembered Charlie:
You go to Charlie Lowe’s house when it come eating time and you had to eat. Oh, he’s a kind hearted kind of a feller. He’s like me; never did have much of anything, but he’s willing to divide whatever he had with anybody. Wasn’t no better feller than Charlie Lowe. But now when he got through playing, now he was through! Wasn’t no use asking him to play another. Fred Cockerham added: No sir. He’d put that music under his arm and say to his children, “Come on boys, girls, let’s go,” and God, they’s ready too.
For years Charlie had played with Ben Jarrell, but by the time Tommy was 15, he became good enough to be the fiddler with whom Charlie played at the local dances. Fred Cockerham, four years younger than Tommy, began to be influenced by Charlie’s banjo playing at this point. By 1916, Fred’s musical talent was beginning to be recognized, as he recalled:
Tommy and Uncle Charlie Lowe used’a play up at Uncle Charlie Jarrell’s. I guess I was about 15 then. I’d be there for a dance they were playing for. Uncle Charlie Lowe, he’s just as steady as a clock, every once in awhile he’d say, “I-gad Fred, rest me one.” He was an awful good fella.
Tommy and Charlie had a special form of communication when they played together. The common way of playing fiddle tunes is to play the high part twice, followed by the low part twice. Tommy and Charlie would sit close by, facing each other. When one got tired of whichever part they were on, he’d give the other a push with his leg. Tommy and Fred continued this tradition, however it was simplified to a raise of the fiddle when Tommy wanted to change parts. In 1918, Ben Jarrell left his large family in the hands of Tommy, his younger brother, Fred and their grandfather, Rufe Jarrell. Ben went to Oregon for three years to make whiskey after his store closed and ended up spending a year and a half in jail. Tommy knew how to raise crops, as he recalled:
Lord God, I done some hard work in my life. I started plowin’ on good land where there wasn’t no stumps nor rocks nor nothing, when I was about eight, nine years old. We would work from sunup till sundown. Come home an’ eat dinner, an’ maybe rest awhile. We’d go back an’ work till sundown. Grandaddy never did know when to quit. He’d try to pick out somethin’ for you to do on a rainy day!
Tommy began making liquor around 1920, despite the fact that North Carolina had enacted statewide Prohibition in 1909. He remembered:
Me and Fred grubbed a little field and raised a crop a’ tobacker. It lacked two dollars and a half of paying the fertilizer bill. I said to hell with raisin tobacker, that’s when I went to moonshining. I can sell that for twenty dollars a gallon. Got me some old washing tubs, tacked them together and I made whiskey. I could sell that pretty good. I made whiskey till I got married. My ol’ grandaddy learnt me how to proof liquor by hitting it. He said, “You hit it three times and if the bead flew off it, it wasn’t a hundred proof.” He’s right too. Now if it’s 80 proof you can just shake it off. I’d better hush, I’ve told too much already.
Tommy and his brother Fred learned to make “sugar” whiskey, mostly from his uncle Charlie and cousin Dave Jarrell. In 1921, just as Tommy’s father was returning from Oregon, whiskey was the cause of a near family tragedy. Tommy, Fred and Uncle Charlie had all been drinking, and as Tommy said: “Uncle Charlie, well, he was a good fellow when he was sober, but he’s as mean as the devil when he was a’ drinking.” Uncle Charlie smashed Fred in the head with his double-barreled shotgun, causing Tommy to go into the house after him. As Tommy recalled;
An’ hell, I was just mad, an’ drunk too. He stepped from behind the door when I pushed it open, an’ I reckon he had his knife in his hand an’ he hit me on the right up there on the top of head, an’ he come right down over my ear an’ across the side of my neck right there. An’ when I come to I had Uncle Charlie down with his head nearly in the fire hittin’ him with a damn 38 pistol. They all come in there an got aholt of me an’ got me off of him.
A doctor told Tommy that a fraction of an inch further and he would have bled to death from a severed jugular vein. Tommy and his brother Fred had to escape to nearby Lambsburg, Virginia to dodge warrants for their arrest issued by Uncle Charlie. This was a pivotal point in Tommy’s life, as he met his future wife Nina (pronounced Nine-er) while helping Charles Barnett Lowe raise crops in Lambsburg. During the time he spent with banjo player Charles Barnett Lowe (not the same as Round Peak’s Charlie Lowe) he learned the tune “Forked Deer,” as well as some of the special inflections he put into the song “Let Me Fall.” Many years later, Happy Smith and Larry Richardson would learn “Let Me Fall” from Tommy and record it as a banjo duet for the Blue Ridge label in the early 1950s. “Stole it from me they did,” Tommy once told me. Tommy’s proposal of marriage to Nina, a combination of humility and expert contracting, was made two years after meeting her, while they were hoeing corn, Tommy remembered telling her:
Nina, we’ll get married if you want to, but, I says, I’ll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, an’ I go to dances, I make music, an’ I says, I don’t know whether I’ll ever quit that. But, I says, if you think we can get along, now, we’ll get married, an’ if you don’t think we can, right now now’s the time to say somethin’. “Well,” she says, “I believe we can get along all right.
They were married in 1923 and two years later their daughter Ardena, the first of three children, was born. In 1925 Tommy quit making whiskey and playing poker and went to work, operating a road grader for the Highway Commission. He did not, however, quit making music. Ardena told me that after Tommy came home from work, he often picked up his fiddle and played a few tunes. On weekends he would often play music with Charlie Lowe. They would often play for the diminishing number of dances given in a community member’s home, less now because of strangers coming in by car on better roads, causing fights to break out. However, they would not play not at Fiddler’s contests, as Tommy told me:
Charlie, he begged me for years to go with him to fiddler’s conventions, he said “we could win every time.” I said “if we done that Charlie, we gonna get about three dollars first prize,” now that’s all they’d give. They’d have ’em just any time through the week back in them days. I said “I can’t stay up and lose sleep for no dollar and a half, I have to work hard,” and I did.
Tommy never did play in a contest even after he retired, out of respect for Charlie, who died in 1964. Tommy retired in 1966 after 41 years with the state, only to have Nina pass away the year after. About that time, Tommy’s son B.F. (Benjamin Franklin, born 1933), working as a radio D.J. near Durham, read that graduate student Alan Jabbour was interested in old time fiddlers. B.F., meeting Alan at a fiddlers contest told him: “You ought to hear my daddy play the fiddle.” Alan, who became director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Division, visited and recorded Tommy. Soon after that County records discovered him, and he began going to national folk festivals with Fred Cockerham. Soon many young musicians began making pilgrimages to see him, which kept him enjoying the music until his death at the end of January, 1985. He won many awards, including the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship Award, where he sat next to Bill Monroe at the ceremony. The award said: “The Folk Arts Program recognizes Thomas Jefferson Jarrell as a Master Traditional Musician.” Tommy told the story of a reporter who said:
“They tell me you’re the master of the old time fiddle,” I said, “Now mister, they ain’t nobody mastered the fiddle. Ther’s notes in that fiddle ain’t nobody found.” I said, “Ther’s music in that thing that’ll be there when Gabriel toots his horn.” That reporter never did ask me no more questions.