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Thomas Jefferson Jarrell

One of the finest old-time musicians, Thomas Jefferson (Tommy) Jarrell began playing the fiddle and the banjo when he was very young, having been exposed to so many traditional tunes, Baptist hymns, and ballads. His musician father, Ben Jarrell, was the primary influence on Tommy's distinct fiddling style. The two of them provided traditional music for local social gatherings in and around Mount Airy, NC, such as corn shuckings, barn raisings, and square dances.

In 1925, Jarrell began working for the North Carolina State Highway Department, where he was employed until 1966. By the 1970s his music had become so well known that aspiring students from across the country--and from as far away as Australia--would travel to his home in North Carolina to learn how to play his hard-driving fiddle tunes. Jarrell shared his music through community performances, numerous recordings, and appearances at folk festivals. Like many country artists, Jarrell never cleaned or repaired his violin, believing that elements of wear and the build up of rosin on the varnish enhanced the musical quality of the instrument.

Jarrell received the Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society in 1981, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982. Called a "master teacher," Jarrell was accompanied by his longtime friend and fellow musician Fred Cockerham in cultivating this musical tradition.

 


American Violins

Several 19th-century American inventors sought to improve the power and tone of the violin. Genre painter William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) invented and received a patent in 1852 for a violin with a concave shape and a short soundpost, which, he believed, resulted in a fuller, richer, more powerful tone. Other inventors tried to incorporate new materials available from the new technology of the day rather than redesigning the shape of the instrument. Sewall Short of New London, CT, fit a metallic horn or trumpet to the hollow wooden neck of a normal violin to increase the vibrations and thereby the instrument's tone and power. He received his patent in 1854.

 


Tempy

"Tempy" from the recording entitled Been Riding with Old Mosby, Folkways FTS 31109, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1986, Used by permission.

This version comes form Tommy Jarrell. Many verses, if not the whole song, are purely American. Bascom Lamar Lunsford reportedly learned one version in 1901, from Fred Moody of Haywood County, N.C.

Partial Lyrics:
"…(after violin) Now Tempy wants a nine dollar shawl
Now Tempy wants a nine dollar shawl.
When I come over that hill with a twenty-dollar bill
Says, Baby where you been so long?… "

 


Sugar Hill

"Sugar Hill" from the recording entitled Been Riding with Old Mosby, Folkways FTS 31109, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1986, Used by permission.

Traditionally, "sugar hill" referred to the wild part of town. The source of this brief and comical version of "Sugar Hill" is Tommy Jarrell, a famous old-time fiddle player from Mount Airy, N.C., who learned it from his father and his uncle. Tommy was about 83 at the time that this music was recorded, but tragically passed away four months later.

Partial Lyrics:
"…(after violin) Five cents in my pocket change,
Two dollars in my bill,
If I had ten dollars more
I’d climb Sugar Hill…(more violin)"

 

Related Images

Mittenwald violin with banjo and guitar
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Mittenwald violin with banjo and guitar


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