Thomas "Tommy" Jefferson Jarrell was born March 1, 1901 in Surry County, N.C. to Benjamin "Ben" Franklin Jarrell and Susan "Susie"Letisha (Amburn) Jarrell. He was born in his parents' home at the foot of Fisher Peak and was raised in the Round Peak area of Surry County, N.C. He had one foster sister (a first cousin) that was older than Tommy and ten younger brothers and sisters. The family raised corn, buckwheat, rye, beans, cabbage,sugar cane, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and apples to feed this large family. They also raised tobacco and owned cattle.
Tommy would tell of how hard he had to work. He began plowing at the age of eight or nine and would work from sunup to sundown. He said his grandfather Rufus Jarrell never knew when to quit working, that he'd try his best to find something for you to do on a rainy day. The family had hired Bauga Cockerham to help on the farm and he was the one who taught Tommy his first tune on the banjo. Tommy was probably around seven years old when Bauga taught him to play Ol' Reuben. About a year later, Tommy's father bought him his first banjo. At age thirteen, he began to fiddle on his dad's fiddle. His dad had bought the fiddle from Tony Lowe's widow for five dollars. When Tommy was 14, in 1915, he bought his own fiddle for ten dollars from Huston Moore, having borrowed the money from Ed Ward. Tommy said he like to never got the fiddle paid for. Tommy still had this fiddle in the 1980s. Tommy's fiddle is now part of the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington, D.C.
Tommy grew up playing dances or "workings" all over Round Peak. Back then, neighbors had "workings" such as wood choppings, barn raisings, apple peelings, bean stringings and corn shuckings. There was always a dance at the end of these gatherings. Tommy could sing to most of the tunes he played, but he would admit that he was a better fiddler than a singer.
Tommy attended Ivy Green School and quit in the seventh grade. He took his first car ride around 1916 in a T-model Ford. He said his daddy drove him and a couple of his sisters to the fair in Mt. Airy. He said he would never forget how that thing looked coming up the road. He said if he hadn't known what it was, it would have scared him to death. Tommy's uncle, Charlie Jarrell, taught him how to make sugar whiskey back around 1918. He said they made a pretty good turnout. In 1920, Tommy made a six-month trip to South Dakota to make whiskey for an ex-North Carolinian there who was dissatisfied with the local supply.
On December 27, 1923 at the courthouse in Hillsville, Carroll County, VA, he married Nina Frances Lowe, daughter of Charles and Ardena Leftwich Lowe. Tommy had known Nina about two years before he married her. He proposed while they were hoeing corn one day. He said "Nina, we'll get married if you want to. But I'll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, and I go to dances, make music, and I don't know whether I'll ever quit that or not. But, if you think we can get along now, we'll get married - and if you don't think we can, right now's the time to say something."
"Well," Nina said, "I believe we'd get along all right." And that was the way it happened.
Tommy and Nina lived with her parents during 1924. Both of her parents had died by the end of that year, and Tommy and Nina moved to Mt. Airy, NC and lived for a year with his parents. Children born to Tommy and Nina were Ardena "Dena" born February 25-27 [long labor?!]1925, Clarence "Wayne" born February 8, 1927, and Benjamin Frankin "B.F." born September 19, 1933. Tommy and his family later lived on the South Franklin road in the Toast community near Mt. Airy, N.C. He was an employee with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for 41 years, beginning work in April of 1925 and retiring in 1966.
By 1975, Tommy had recorded seven albums. He had traveled to many colleges and universities around the country to play. He had played at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. And many festivals around the country have played host to Tommy and his music. In 1982, he was selected as one of the fifteen master folk artists in the first National Heritage Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a certificate and monetary award at a ceremony at the annual American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. A film titled "Sprout Wings and Fly" was made about Tommy and can be purchased on video.
The Round Peak area is well-known for its history of Old-Time Music and the Jarrell family contributed to that tradition. Tommy was the community's most famous old-time musician. His legendary fiddle playing brought him worldwide recognition. His father Ben had also recorded numerous songs [with DaCosta Woltz's Southern Broadcasters] and was considered one of the best musicians in his generation. Tommy was always eager to share his music with anyone. He enjoyed people and could entertain his visitors for hours with his music and storytelling. His favorite stories were about relatives, neighbors and friends who grew up new Fisher's Peak and in the Round Peak community.
After Tommy became popular, people came from everywhere in the United States and from overseas, especially Europe, to see him and get him to teach them his style of fiddling. People ended up staying such a good length of time that a friend of his named Steve made a sign for him to put over his door that read "First Two Nights Free and After That $20 Per Night".
Nina died February 13, 1967 and Tommy died January 8, 1985 at age 83. Both are buried at Skyline Memory Gardens in Surry County.
Written by Thomas Reavis Lyons for the Old-Time Music Home Page (www.oldtimemusic.com). Used with permission from webhost David Lynch. In 1982, Tommy Jarrell was presented with the National Heritage Fellowship of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts.http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/fellow.php?id=1982_03
Full Name: Tommy Jarrell
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