Archive for the ‘Tommy Jarrell’ Category

John Engle

February 5, 2015

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Emulating Tommy Jarrell’s fiddling style had  become a single-minded

for John Engle. He had spent the past few years breaking it down to its smallest units

and rebuilding it into a comprehensive sound.
He clicked on a folder. Inside were scores of files, each titled according to the individual
numbers in Jarrell’s repertoire. Engle moved the pointer to one labeled “June Apple” and
clicked. It opened to reveal a string of triangles arranged across the screen, pointing either up
or down. The scheme didn’t look like much, but Engle explained all that had gone into it:
With the help of a piece of computer software, he had slowed each of the tunes down to
a more accessible speed.
At night, with head-hones on, he had listened to every note of every tune, alert to subtle cues
of bow-direction, turning each note over and examining it from every side with an almost
curatorial attention to detail.
“I have what I would describe as ‘fast’ hearing,” he explained. “It’s analogous to a sampling rate
in the recording process. You take five seconds of music, and a typical person’s brain hears it and
builds an image with that.  Me, I take 1,500 or 2,000 samples of that same five seconds and build
an image with that. But even at half-speed, with Tommy’s fiddling you still have a tremendous
amount of information going by you.”

Brad Leftwich Meets Tommy Jarrell

April 28, 2014



by Brad Leftwich (excerpt from “Reflections on Southern Appalachian Fiddling”at

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“My Old Fiddle”

April 25, 2013


My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (DVD, 1994)

The sequel to Sprout Wings and Fly (Les Blank’s first film about this homegrown Appalachian fiddler and raconteur) is a gentle celebration of mountain living, a once-thriving American way of life. This portrait showcases Tommy’s unpretentious folk wisdom and reminiscences. The soundtrack features his singing and fiddling, spiced with a visit to the Smithsonian to test-drive an authentic Stradivarius violin.

Les Blank

April 15, 2013

by Josh Baum:

Les Blank, a renowned documentary filmmaker of American traditional music, food, and culture, passed away last week at the age of 77. Blank’s films include The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sprout Wings and Fly with Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, and the films Dry Wood and Hot Pepper on Creole and Cajun music in Louisiana.

From the New York Times:

“You could call him an ethnographer; you could call him an ethnomusicologist or an anthropologist,” Mr. Hackford said. “He was interested in certain cultures that Americans are unaware of. He shot what he wanted, captured it beautifully, and those subjects are now gone. The homogenization of American culture has obliterated it.”

A shy, quiet man, Mr. Blank achieved a kind of intimacy in his work — his subjects often seem almost impossibly at ease — that suggested the camera had been unobtrusive, or perhaps a welcome guest. Mr. Blank sometimes lived among the people he was filming for weeks at a time.

“I try not to make a big deal about the camera, to let it get between me and them,” Mr. Blank said in 1979. “I’ve seen a lot of cameramen go in and treat the subjects like so many guinea pigs. I think the people pick up on my very protective feelings toward them, and they aren’t self-conscious about what they do or say, and they try to show the inner light about themselves that I find so attractive.”

Excerpt from Sprout Wings and Fly:

Tommy and Fred

November 4, 2012

Photo courtesy Ray Alden

by Ray Alden (from

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…)

Hank Sapoznik and Tommy Jarrell

June 28, 2012

Hank Sapoznik

Hank Sapoznik shares a memory of  North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell in this excerpt from an interview at

Tommy (Jarrell) couldn’t understand how these northern city boys would want to play their music. He was actually pretty sophisticated for a guy from around there, I mean he had been up north and met other kinds of people, he was no Aborigine, and he knew that we were, you know, Jews and all. We had this long relationship of trying to puzzle each other out.

At one point he had been making breakfast, and I was a vegetarian at the time and he was making you know, bacon, eggs fried in bacon fat and probably the coffee had a bacon base. I wasn’t eating any of this stuff and Tommy is pushing it on me, “Come on Hank! Eat up,’ more like a Jewish mother than a southern fiddler. And I wasn’t eating this stuff and at one point he goes “Come on Hank, what are you? A damn Jew?!!”

I was so totally taken a back, I couldn’t tell if I was more taken aback at the statement or the fact that he was understood with the laws of Kashrush (kosher food) enough to know what Jews eat. Well, that got us started. “Well yes, Tommy I AM a damn Jew.” We started talking about it and it opened up this line of communication for which there was no context.

And he asked me “Don’t your people got none of your own music?”


Hank Sapoznik went on to become a pioneering scholar and performer of klezmer music. He played a significant role in  the late 20th century revival of klezmer.

Tommy Jarrell

June 9, 2012

by Ray Alden (excerpt from

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.