28 January 2016

Commemorating Tommy Jarrell

The BIB editor reports:

A year ago today was the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Thomas Jefferson 'Tommy' Jarrell (b. 1 Mar. 1901) of Surry County, NC. I missed that opportunity of commemorating one of the best-known figures in the history of old-time music, and this post is a small attempt to make up for the neglect.

A good biographical account is on the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame website. The 'Round Peak' sound, created by the musicians of that area of Surry County, is now practically the default setting of old-time music as it is played today, and this is largely due to the influence of Tommy Jarrell - felt both through his music and through the warmth and openness of his character.

The first record by him that I owned was the solo fiddle LP Sail away ladies (County 756), released in 1976, and I was (and still am) knocked out by its vitality. The phrase 'Round Peak' is so familiar these days that it is a surprise now to see that the sleeve notes use it only for his home area; he was seen then as a 'Galax style' musician. Alice Gerrard, friend both to Tommy Jarrell and to Bill Monroe, and musical partner of Hazel Dickens, will be among the instructors at the Old-Time Workshop Week in Andalusia in April/May this year.

Since 2002 Tommy has been commemorated with an annual festival in Mount Airy, NC, on the last weekend in February. On Friday 26 Feb. 2016 the Surry Arts Council will hold in his memory a Youth Competition at 5.30 p.m. and a Tommy Jarrell Birthday Concert and Dance at 7.00 p.m., both in the Earle Theatre on Main St., Mount Airy, which also holds the Old Time Music Heritage Hall.

Plenty of footage of Tommy Jarrell is on YouTube; here, from the Alan Lomax archive, is the first of two videos of him playing 'John Brown's dream' with friends. A question to be answered by scholars - how much of the klezmer revival is due to Tommy's asking Hank Sapoznik: 'Don't your people have music?'

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