by Ray Alden (from http://www.fieldrecorder.com)
The fiddle and fretless banjo duets played by Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham distill the music down to its very essence. For those hearing these two great rural country musicians for the first time, this stark approach to music may be a revelation and yet, at the same time, you may find that it has an unrelenting intensity that takes time to become accustomed to.
As you listen more and more, you will find that layers will unravel revealing the richness of their music and the cunning way in which it was devised.
Much of this old time way of playing music originated from growing up in the South in the early 1900s, when entertainment had to come from within the community . There was time to savour life’ s great joys and to be keenly aware of its immense difficulties. Uppermost Surry County, the area of North Carolina where Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham grew up, is located at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the beginning of the Piedmont, a plain which extends far into North Carolina. On one side you would see Fisher’s Peak looming far above you and, as you turn your head, you would see the land flatten out except for an occasional hill like Round Peak, after which the immediate area is named. Growing up in the Round Peak area just after the turn of the century, only 36 years after the end of the Civil War, meant isolation from all but the most nearby communities. During rainy periods, the roads, made mostly of red clay with no gravel, became so muddy that wagon wheels would sink in up to their axles. This made travel during parts of the year either difficult or impossible. New tunes only slowly made their way into the area, often by visitors or because a community member made a trip outside of his locality.
Music was used in the community in many ways. It would be played at house ‘frolics’ where young people would go to someone s s house, roll up the rug, and have a dance. Or it might be used to conclude a ‘working’, an event in which people came over to help a neighbour with a major chore such as land clearing, with a rousing dance after supper. During the holidays, people would go from house to house playing music and dancing for days, ‘breaking up Christmas’ as they went along. Sometimes the music was a distraction at a time when all else was futile. Tommy remembered such a time when he was 15, recalling this story about his cousin Julie Jarrell in 1916:
She was fourteen years old and just as pretty and nice as she could be. she was helping her mother cook dinner and the fire in the wood stove went down pretty low. So she picked up a gallon can of kerosene and began to pour it on the wood and just as soon as she did the fire run right up to the can and exploded it and covered her with burning kerosene. I was coming from the mill on horseback carrying a sack of cornmeal when I saw the smoke and heard the young-uns crying. When I reached the door I saw Aunt Susan kneeling above Julie, weeping, her hands all blistered from beating out the fire on her with a quilt. They put Julie to bed right away, her whole body was burned up to her chin, and at first she cried in pain but after a while she didn’t feel anything at all. As she was a-laying there she asked me to get my banjo and sing Little Maggie for her. I expect I played it the best I ever have in my life, with the most feeling anyway. It seemed to comfort her and pick up her spirits a little, but by the following morning she was dead. (more…)