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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Old-Time TOTW #220: Rye Straw (9/11/22)

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FiddlerPaul71 - Posted - 09/11/2022:  08:15:30

Old-Time TOTW #220 is Rye Straw from the playing of Thomas Jefferson "Tommy" Jarrell (1 March 1901--28 January 1985) of Surry Co., NC. He was the son of Benjamin "Ben" Franklin Jarrell (1880-1946) and Susan "Susie" Letitia Amburn (1882-1961). His ancestor John Jarrell (born c. 1630 in Northumberland, England) arrived in Virginia in 1654. Tommy Jarrell married Nina Frances Lowe (1904-1967) in 1923. (source: Ancestry, Find-a-Grave, and public documents)

There has been so much written about Tommy Jarrell that it would be very redundant (and impossible) for me to capture it all. I will give some highlights and include links to some further reading.

Jarrell's father was the fiddler for the string band Da Costa Woltz and His Southern Broadcasters. The band was put together by the mayor of Galax, VA, Da Costa Woltz, and they recorded nine double-sided 78 rpm records in a three-day long recording session in Richmond, IN, for Gennett in 1927. Member of that group were Frank Jenkins on banjo (and sometimes fiddle), Woltz on second banjo, Ben Jarrell on fiddle, and Price Goodson (who was 12 years old) on ukulele and harmonica.

At the age of eight, Tommy learned banjo from Baugie Cockerham, a hired hand who stayed at the Jarrell house for a year. In 1911 he began imitating others, including his father, on the fiddle. He purchased a fiddle in 1915 from money he won gambling. His father didn't push him to play fiddle, and he ended up surpassing his many siblings in musical ability.

The Jarrells played primarily in AEAE and ADAE (high bass) tuning. "Italian" tuning (standard GDAE) was less common for them.

By the time Tommy was 15, he excelled enough at fiddle to play for local dances. He often played with Charlie Lowe, who was around Ben Jarrell's age. Lowe was highly regarded as a banjo player, and he and Tommy often played duets sitting closely together. Rather than simply play each section of a tune twice, they would play each part as long as they desired, and signaled to each other with a push from their leg. Tommy would also raise his fiddle to indicate that he was moving on to the next section.

There is an anecdote related by Tommy about his proposal to his wife:

"Nina, we'll get married if you want to, but...I'll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, an' I go to dances, I make music...I don't know whether I'll ever quit that..." Nina's answer was, "Well, I believe we can get along all right."

In the 1960s, Alan Jabbour (who was a director of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Division) visited and recorded Tommy. He then began going to national folk music festivals and more people became aware of him and his playing. Brad Leftwich also documented Tommy's life and music in his book, Old-Time Fiddle, Round Peak Style: History, Tips & Techniques (published 2011).

Jarrell received many awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 1982.

Jarrell's intricate bowing style has been come to be referred to as the "Round Peak" style. Though many of the bowing patterns were not exclusive to Jarrell, they have become synonymous with him and his playing.

Rye Straw has many variants and many different titles including Lady's Fancy, Preacher's Favorite, The Unfortunate Pup, Dog in the Rye Straw, Joke on the Puppy, etc. Then there are the titles which indicate the tune's scatological lyrics and meaning, including Dog **** a Rye Straw. The lyrics will make the story of the unfortunate pup clear:

Dog **** a rye straw, dog **** a needle,

Dog **** a little boy playing on a fiddle.

Dog **** a rye straw, dog **** a minnow,

Dog **** a catfish big enough for dinner.

Dog **** a rye straw, dog **** a fiddle bow,

Dog **** a little boy working with a grubbing hoe.

Ernie Carpenter said that the version of Rye Straw played by Lewis Johnson "Uncle" Jack McElwain (1856-1938) of Webster County, VA, was so good that “When Jack ‘Wain played it, you had to open the door and let the stink out.” (Milnes, Play of a Fiddle, 1999).

Link to more information on the tune from Traditional Tune Archive:

The tune makes a good companion to medley with Old Piss.

Joining me for this remote collaboration is friend Paul Draper on banjo from Voorheesville, NY.

Paul posts a lot of obscure and interesting banjo tunes on his YouTube channel. Check him out and subscribe:

My Patreon:

Old-Time TOTW group on Facebook:

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