Born in 1901 in a remote section of Surry County, NC, Thomas Jefferson Jarrell, became an American fiddler, banjo player and singer from the Appalachian Mountains who became known throughout the world. Tommy grew up in a working farm family. The family hired Bauga Cockerham to help on the farm and when Tommy was about seven, Cockerham taught him to play the banjo. At the age of thirteen, Tommy began learning to play his dad’s fiddle and by the age of fourteen, Tommy borrowed ten dollars from Huston Moore to purchase his own fiddle from Tony Lowe’s widow. This fiddle is now a part of the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington D.C.
Tommy grew up playing at local dances all around the Round Peak area of North Carolina and Virginia held in conjunction with wood choppings, barn raisings, apple peelings, bean stringings, or corn shuckings. He attended Ivy Green School but quit in the seventh grade. In 1918 Tommy’s uncle, Charlie Jarrell, taught him to make sugar whiskey while Tommy’s grandfather was licensed by the government to make apple brandy which they continued to make until Prohibition brought that venture to an end. At one time, Tommy traveled to South Dakota to make whiskey for a North Carolina native unhappy with the local product.
After two years of courting Nina Frances Lowe, Tommy is reputed to have told her that “…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.” They were married in 1923, moved to Mount Airy and later settled in Toast, NC. They had three children and Tommy worked with the North Carolina Department of Transportation driving a motor grader for 41 years, retiring in 1966. During his years working for the NC DOT, Tommy played only in his free time.
Tommy’s legendary fiddle laying which incorporated special bow movements he called “racking the bow” and “catching up the stack” created “imaginative variations of traditional tunes.” After the death of his wife in 1960, Tommy began to play more often starting a recording career and by 1975, Tommy had recorded seven albums, traveled to many colleges and universities, appeared at many festivals around the country and played at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He received the Brown Hudson Folklore Award in 1981 from the North Carolina Folklore Society in recognition of his musical talents and his role as a collector and teacher of traditional music.
In 1982, Tommy was selected as one of fifteen master folk artists in the first National Fellowships of the national Endowment for the Arts. He received a certificate and monetary award at a ceremony at the annual Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. and a film entitles, “Sprout Wings and Fly” was produced and directed by Les Blank, CeCe Conway and Alice Gerrand and can still be purchased on video today. A second film, also produced by Blank, was done in 1994 entitles “My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge.”
As Tommy’s popularity grew, people came from all over the world to play and study him often staying long periods of time at his home. Many musicians today remember with great admiration studying with Tommy including Kirk Sutphin, Paul Brown and Phil Jamison. Tommy died in 1983 at the age of 83 but his legacy lives on today not only in his personal accomplishments but that of his influence on his students.