Article MT112 - from Musical Traditions No 11, Late 1993

Tommy Jarrell & Fred Cockerham

North Carolina fiddle & fretless banjo



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.  Photo courtesy Ray AldenAs 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.
As tunes became assimilated into the Round Peak area, they sometimes took on a life of their own.  A tune like Holly-Ding would come back over the mountains from Virginia, and perhaps take on a new name such as Step Back Cindy.  Then local musicians might speed it up, add a new twist, and come up with a 'souped-up' version.  Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham would often play the new version and then say, 'And now let's play the old time Step Back Cindy the way it was when it first came around here'.

Even lyrics were added or changed to suit events which happened in the community.  In the song Sally Ann, you can hear Tommy singing, 'Who in the nation, the doggone nation, throwing them rocks at me?'  This was a reference to a phenomenon known as "rockings".  A man could have rocks thrown at him because he was courting a woman from their community, since anyone from even a few miles away was considered an outsider.

Both Tommy and Fred have passed away, as has much of this way of life.  Photo courtesy Ray AldenThere was a curative quality to hearing their music in person, as if the power it generated could directly heal a listener's downtrodden spirits.  It was as if our troubled souls, like that of Julie Jarrell, were being put at ease.

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 to 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 at our house one year.  Grandaddy hired him by the month to help us with the farm, and he's the fellow learnt me the first tune I ever 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 gave 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 his father, his Uncle Charlie and Tony Lowe 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.  Photo courtesy Ray AldenRather, 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 the CAEA 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 travelling show passing through Mt Airy, North Carolina, he heard the mournful song Boll Weevils.  It was sung by a 'yellow gal', which, like his father's favourite 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.

The central musician, certainly the one critical to forming the razor-sharp duets between Tommy and Fred, was Charlie Lowe.  Charlie was regarded as the standard by which all other area banjo players would be measured.  Photo courtesy Ray AldenHe brought the drop-thumb clawhammer style to a new level of excellence using a double note technique which incorporated an uncanny sense of timing, speed and deadly accuracy.  Charlie was born in 1878 in the Round Peak area and was two years Ben Jarrell's senior.  He was warmly regarded and, at the same time, noted for his idiosyncrasies.  Tommy remembered Charlie:

You go to Charlie Lowe's house when it come eating time and you had to eat.  Oh, he's a kind hearted kind of a feller.  He's like me; never did have much of anything but he's willing to divide whatever he had with anybody.  Wasn't no better feller than Charlie Lowe.  But now when he got through playing, now he was through!  Wasn't no use asking him to play another.
Fred Cockerham added: No sir.  He'd put that music under his arm and say no to his children, 'Come on boys, girls, let's go,' and God, they's ready too.

For years Charlie had played with Ben Jarrell but by the time Tommy was 15, he became good enough to be the fiddler with whom Charlie played at the local dances.  Fred Cockerham, four years younger than Tommy, began to be influenced by Charlie's banjo playing at this point.  By 1916, Fred's musical talent was beginning to be recognised, as he recalled:

Tommy and Uncle Charlie Lowe used'a play up at Uncle Charlie Jarrell's.  I guess I was about 15 then.  I'd be there for a dance they were playing for.  Uncle Charlie Lowe, he's just as steady as a clock, every once in awhile he'd say, 'I-gad Fred, rest me one'.  He was an awful good feller.
Tommy and Charlie had a special form of communication when they played together.  The common way of playing fiddle tunes is to play the high part twice, followed by the low part twice.  Tommy and Charlie would sit close, facing each other.  When one got tired of whichever part they were on, he'd give the other a push with his leg.  Tommy and Fred continued this tradition, however it was simplified to a raise of the fiddle when Tommy wanted to change parts.

In 1918, Ben Jarrell left his large family in the hands of Tommy, his younger brother Fred, and their grandfather, Rufe Jarrell.  Ben went to Oregon for three years to make whiskey after his store closed and ended up spending a year and a half in jail.  Tommy knew how to raise crops, as he recalled:

Lord God, I had done some hard work in my life.  I started plowin' on good land where there wasn't no stumps nor rocks nor nothing, when I was about eight, nine years old.  We would work from sun-up till sundown.  Come home an' eat dinner, an' maybe rest awhile.  We'd go back an' work till sundown.  Grandaddy never did know when to quit.  He'd try to pick out somethin' for you to do on a rainy day!
Tommy began making liquor around 1920, despite the fact that North Carolina had enacted statewide Prohibition in 1909.  He remembered:
Me and Fred grubbed a little field and raised a crop a' tobacker.  It lacked two dollars and a half paying the fertiliser bill.  I said to hell with raisin tobacker, that' when I went to moonshining.  I can sell that for twenty dollars a gallon.  Got me some old washing tubs, tacked them together and I made whiskey.  I could sell that pretty good.  I made whiskey till I got married.  My ol' grandaddy learnt me how to proof liquor by hitting it.  He said, 'You hit it three times and if the bead flew off it, it wasn't a hundred proof' .  He' s right too.  Now if it's 80 proof you can just shake it off.  I'd better hush, I've told too much already.
Tommy and his brother Fred learned to make 'sugar' whiskey, mostly from his uncle Charlie and cousin Dave Jarrell.  In 1921, just as Tommy's father was returning from Oregon, whiskey was the cause of a family near-tragedy.  Tommy, Fred and Uncle Charlie had all been drinking and as Tommy said, 'Uncle Charlie, well, he was a good fellow when he was sober, but he's as mean as the devil when he was a-drinking'.  Uncle Charlie smashed Fred in the head with his double-barrelled shotgun causing Tommy to go into the house after him.  As Tommy recalled:
An' hell I was just mad, an' drunk too.  He stepped from behind the door when I pushed it open, an' I reckon he had his knife in his hand an' he hit me right up there on the top of head, an' he come right down over my ear an' across the side of my neck right there.  An' when I come to I had Uncle Charlie down with his head nearly in the fire hittin' him with a damn 38 pistol.  They all come in there an got a-holt of me an' got me off him.
A doctor told Tommy that a fraction of an inch further and he would have bled to death from a severed jugular vein.  Tommy and his brother Fred had to escape to nearby Lambsburg, Virginia to dodge warrants for their arrest issued by Uncle Charlie.  This was a pivotal point in Tommy's life as he met his future wife Nina (pronounced Nine-er) while helping Charles Bennett Lowe raise crops in Lambsburg.  During the time he spent with banjo player Charles Bennett Lowe (not the same as Round Peak's Charlie Lowe) he learned the tune Forked Deer as well as some of the special inflections he put into the song Let Me Fall.  Many years later, Happy Smith and Larry Richardson would learn Let Me Fall from Tommy and record it as a banjo duet for the Blue Ridge label in the early 1950s.  'Stole it from me they did,' Tommy once told me.

Tommy's proposal of marriage to Nina, a combination of humility and expert contracting, was made two years after meeting her while they were hoeing corn.  Tommy remembered telling her:

'Nina, we'll get married if you want to, but,' I says, 'I'll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, an' I go to dances, I make music,' an' I says, 'I don't know whether I'll ever quit that.  But,' I says 'if you think we can get along, now, we'll get married, an' if you don't think we can, right now's the time to say somethin' '.  'Well,' she says, 'I believe we can get along all right'.
They were married in 1923 and two years later their daughter Ardena, the first of three children, was born.  In 1925 Tommy quit making whiskey and playing poker and went to work operating a road grader for the North Carolina Commission.  He did not, however, quit making music.  Ardena told me that after Tommy came home from work, he often picked up his fiddle and played a few tunes.  On weekends he would often play music with Charlie Lowe.  Photo by Mike YatesThey would play for the diminishing number of dances given in a community member's home, less now because of strangers coming in by car on better roads, causing fights to break out.  However, they would not play at fiddlers' contests, as Tommy told me:
Charlie, he begged me for years to go with him to fiddlers' conventions, he said, 'we could win every time'.  I said, 'if we done that Charlie, we gonna get about three dollars first prize,' now that's all they'd give.  They'd have 'em just about any time through the week back in them days.  I said, 'I can't stay up and lose sleep for no dollar and a half, I have to work hard,' and I did.
They never did play in a contest even after he retired, out of respect for Charlie, who died in 1964.

Tommy retired in 1966 after 41 years with the state, only to have Nina pass away the year after.  About that time, Tommy's son BF (Benjamin Franklin, born 1933), working as a radio DJ near Durham, read that graduate student Alan Jabbour was interested in old time fiddlers.  BF, meeting Alan at a fiddlers' contest, told him 'You ought to hear my daddy play the fiddle'.  Alan, who became director of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Division, visited and recorded Tommy.  Soon after that County records discovered him and he began going to national folk festivals with Fred Cockerham.  Soon many young musicians began making pilgrimages to see him, which kept him enjoying the music until his death at the end of January 1985.  He won many awards, including the NEA's National Heritage Fellowship Award, where he sat next to Bill Monroe at the ceremony.  The award said: 'The Folk Arts Program recognises Thomas Jefferson Jarrell as a Master Traditional Musician.' Tommy told the story of a reporter who said:

'They tell me you're master of the old time fiddle'.  I said, 'Now, mister, they ain't nobody mastered the fiddle.  Ther's notes in that fiddle ain't nobody found.' I said, 'Ther's music in that thing that'll be there when Gabriel toots his horn.' That reporter never did ask me no more questions.
Fred Cockerham was one of the seven children of Elias and Betty Jane Cockerham and was born on 3 November 1905.  He was the only one from the Round Peak community to attempt the difficult life of a professional rural musician.  Photo by Julie SnowThe way that Fred began playing the fiddle is similar to the way many country musicians began.  Fred remembered this story from the time he was eight years old:
My older brother Pate fiddled, but not too well.  Just about every time he'd set down to play he'd get disgusted before long and throw the fiddle on the bed and walk out.  Well, I thought to myself, 'I'm going to learn to play that,' but he was high tempered and didn't want me messin' with it.  So I'd sneak his fiddle over into the hog range and go over the bank into the hollow and saw the hell out of it.  I didn't worry cause I knew he couldn't catch me when I was barefoot like I was when I was caring for the hogs.  Back then I could outrun a haint.  Before very long I got so I could play a few tunes pretty well and I just couldn't keep it to myself any longer.  So I asked my mother if she'd like to hear a tune and played Sally Ann for her.  Now that tickled her the best of anything you ever saw and that evening when Pate threw the fiddle down as usual, she said to him, 'Sit down and let your brother play a tune.' He never touched the fiddle again and I just kept right on playing it.
Fred's family was interested in and encouraged music, as Fred recalled:
My Daddy, he weighed about 150, I guess and wore a size six shoe, and he could dance, like lightning.  He would take two straws out of a broom an sit right down in front of me.  I'd be on the fiddle or banjo, he'd play every I'd play with those straws on the strings between where I'd pick and note.  He had music in him.  One of my brothers took a French harp and would blow it through a lamp globe, it was really sweet.  Changed the sound of the harp altogether.  I can just see them doing that.
Just as with Tommy, there were local musicians who helped to develop and fine tune Fred's musical talents.  Mal Smith, a banjo player who lived close by, played with Fred for several years after returning from World War I.  Mal taught Fred a banjo tune that later became his solo showpiece, RoustaboutPhoto courtesy Ray AldenFred's uncle, Troy Cockerham, even though he had 'stiff' fingers and could only note the fiddle with two of them, was a big influence on his fiddling.  However, there were two people whose playing so impresses Fred that he felt, 'if I couldn't learn to mock them why, I'd just as soon quit'.  Charlie Lowe's banjo playing was so impressive to Fred that he worked hard to change his 'framming' style to be more like the complex double-note technique which Charlie used.  The other main influence came from the airwaves, from far outside their community.  This was the fiddling of Arthur Smith, who was heard over WSM's Grand Ole Opry show, broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee.  Smith, born in 1898, began to play on the 'Opry' in 1927.  He used a smooth low bow style that was quite the opposite from the older way in which Tommy played.  He took fiddlers around the country, Fred included, by storm.  In the late 1930s, Smith participated in fiddlers' contests, usually staged for his benefit, around the South.  Fred encountered him in a contest which resulted in the classic battle that he recounted to me:
I used to listen to him every Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry and tried to play my best just like him.  Every bunch of musicians had a room to practice in.  Curly, my guitar player, came in and told me, 'Fred, you've got some competition tonight, Fiddling Arthur Smith!'  I said, 'Uh, oh honey, my cake's all dough now.' I went out, I was in good practice then, and me and him tied against those thirty-two fiddlers.  That made me feel big you know, I mean, tie Arthur Smith!  I knowed if he'd play that Mocking Bird, the thing's all over.  There's balls of sweat on my forehead that big.  They made us play four times.  Arthur Smith told me, 'The judges want to hear some good fiddle playing and they're just using us for ducks'.  When he played that Mocking Bird he really cut up on it.  I said, 'I know now,' sure enough he got first and I got second.
Fred married Eva Gaylean when they were still teenagers.  Her grandfather was Houston Gaylean, the fiddler whose Drunken Hiccups was passed down to Tommy Jarrell.  Fred was just starting to become recognised as a powerful musician during this period.  However, Tommy moved to Lambsburg when Fred was 16 and so two of Round Peak' s most powerful musicians rarely played together.  The primary musical experience for Fred during this period was time spent with Charlie Lowe and the Round Peak Band he played with in his youth.  The band consisted of his friends Kyle Creed, Paul Sutphin, Laurence Lowe (Charlie's son) and Ernest East and his two older brothers.  Fred visited Charlie Lowe weekends throughout the years whenever he could.  However, on the road as a professional musician, he only came to the Round Peak area on occasion.

Fred remembered his travels back and across the mountains with the Ruby Tonic Entertainers, a group that promoted a rhubarb salve made by the South Atlantic Chemical Company:

We'd leave Galax in the morning and we'd play in Charlotte, North Carolina over WBT.  We had an hour program over there.  We'd get in the car and leave there to go to Edmund Henry, Virginia, and had to do an hour that night.  And then we had to be in Roanoke at 6:30 a.m. for an hour.  Drive all night long, and then back in Galax and right back all around again.  We did that for six months, rawhiding it all the way.  At Charlotte, the first broadcast studios were air-tight, doors went together like a money safe, and when that door went together, buddy, that is it!  No ventilation, we'd come outta there many a time in summertime and roll foam off our britches with our hands.
At the end of six months, Da Costa Woltz, then mayor of Galax and one of the two sponsors of the band, claimed bankruptcy and never paid them the $1500 owed the band.

Fred played with many bands over the years, which included musicians such as brothers Fields and Sampson Ward, sons of Crockett Ward (founder of the Bogtrotters), and Herbert Higgins, nephew of Charlie Higgins.  Photo courtesy Ray AldenFred was at the height of his powers in the 1930s.  He took second place at the 1934 Galax Fiddler's convention, while Frank Jenkins, who played with Ben Jarrell in the Southern Broadcasters, took first.  The next year Fred took first.  Fred's youngest daughter, Juanita, remembers that it seemed completely normal for the family to pick up and move every few months.  Juanita remembers that musicians were constantly at their home and that Fred, not enjoying playing alone, rather liked the continual musical hustle and bustle.  She remembers it was not unusual for her father to be away for several weeks at a time, leaving it for her mother, Eva, to provide the supportive backbone for the family.

In the early 1940s, Fred played the 6:30-7:00 a.m. show over WFMR in High Point, North Carolina.  However, as World War II began and radio work became more scarce, Fred took jobs building Quonset huts for the Navy with Kyle Creed and Paul Sutphin near Norfolk, Virginia.  Kyle remembers that Fred was one of the best hands he ever had in his contracting work.  In 1959, after living many years in and around Galax, Fred and Eva moved to Lowgap, North Carolina, close to the Round Peak community.  This was the beginning of a period of bad luck for Fred.  A major snowstorm hit in March of 1959.  Fred recalled:

Got stuck in a snowdrift, my left hand glass was out and next morning the snow was over the headlights.  I had stayed in the car all night.  I had almost half a gallon of liquor setting on the floorboard in the back seat, and I dozed off and woke up kinda scared, thinking, 'If I ain't gone now, I will be in a couple of minutes.' I couldn't hardly move - stiff, you know.  Well, I figured that liquor was my only chance, warm me up, I figured.  Reached over there and got a handful of that snow; took a good swatter and bit that snowball.  Jumped out of the car, pure blood flew on that white snow, it liked scared me to death.
Fred managed to walk back to Lowgap in a tractor's 'footprints'.  Nearly paralysed for two days, he lost his high tenor singing voice.

In 1960 a doctor operated on both of Fred's cataracts simultaneously, instead of the normal technique of one at a time, leaving Fred only able to see vague forms.  People from the community rallied around Fred, who was in a depression after these two devastating events.  Charlie Lowe came over to encourage him and Kyle Creed built him the Formica covered fretless banjo that now resides in the Smithsonian Institution along with Tommy's fiddle.  Mac Snow visited along with Gilmer Woodruff, Ambrose Lowe, Clyde Isaacs and 'Knuckles' Nestor, formed the Virginia-Carolina Ramblers that kept Fred playing.  Photo courtesy Ray AldenSoon after, Kyle reformed the band of their youth and named it the Camp Creek boys, after the stream which flowed near their old home place.

This old-time band, which included Fred, Kyle, Ernest East, Paul Sutphin and Verlin Clifton, was so powerful that they often won against the more popular bluegrass bands at a time when there was no separate division between them at fiddlers' contests.  It wasn't until the mid 1960s that record producers Richard Nevins and Charlie Faurot, in an attempt to recreate Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, put Fred (taking Da Costa Woltz's part) together with Tommy (taking his fathers Ben's part) and Oscar Jenkins (taking his father Frank's part) for three albums on County.

Although fewer young people visited Fred than Tommy in order to learn their style of music, Fred was tremendously giving to those who came.  Most tried to give something back, as did Barry and Sharon Poss in 1973 when they arranged with a doctor, father of a friend, for an operation that restored much of Fred's lost vision.

Fred died four months short of his 75th birthday, on 8 July 1980.  Eva died just over a year later.  They left four surviving children, 20 grandchildren and 29 great grandchildren.  With visits to both men beginning in 1969, I am left 22 years later, with a big smile from the memory of wonderful stories, the lingering taste of good Southern cooking, and the sound of exquisite music ringing in my ears.

Special thanks to Nancy Dols Neithammer for the use of quotes from her article Tommy Jarrell's Family Stories 1830-1925, and to David Gates for two quotes from the research for his article Pickin' on Tommy's Porch.

Ray Alden

Article MT112

This article is taken from the notes to Tommy and Fred (County CD 2702) and is reproduced by permission of the author.

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