Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985) was born in rural Surry County, North Carolina, the eldest of eleven children. Tommy worked hard on his family’s farm as a child, but he and his family members still found time to play and enjoy the distinctive old-time music of the Round Peak community where they lived. Tommy learned his first banjo tune (“Ol’ Reuben”) from a hired farm hand at about seven years old and learned to play fiddle from his father as a teenager, eventually borrowing ten dollars to buy himself a Huston Moore fiddle that he kept for the rest of his life.
The National Endowment for the Arts website quotes Tommy on his early musical experiences:
As a boy, Jarrell learned to play music on a little banjo, “stained with a pokeberry stain on the neck,” he recalled. It was a handmade banjo, a gift from his father. “I don’t know what kind of skin it had on it — whether it was calf skin or groundhog hide or what it was. But the little ol’ thing played good.” As he got older, he watched his father’s fiddling “like a hawk,” he said. “Any time he’d take his fiddle out I’d take a strong interest in it,” he explained. “I’d pay close attention to how he’d use his bow arm and I’d watch just exactly how he’d note. I was young, about 13, and it would sink in back then.” When Tommy practiced the fiddle, he tried to imitate his father’s old style of playing, incorporating special bow movements he called “rocking the bow” and “catching up the slack.”
By sixteen, Tommy was teaming up with his Uncle Charlie to play for local square dances.
As an adult, Tommy married, raised three children, and worked as a road grader, playing music only in his free time. After his retirement in 1966, he returned to performing and gained international recognition as a fiddler. Visitors from all over the United States and Europe came to study his fiddling and enjoy his hospitality; his music influenced an entire generation of old-time musicians. Tommy found satisfaction in passing on his musical experience to younger players, saying, “They’ll carry it on after I’m gone… I’ve left a little something behind, I reckon.”
Tommy was one of the earliest folk artists to receive a National Heritage Fellowship (1982). His life and music are documented in the films Sprout Wings and Fly (1983) and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1986).