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Dec 5, 2021 - 6:19:29 AM
531 posts since 7/31/2018

Old-Time TOTW #180 is John Brown's Dream 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 for 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 elaborate and syncopated 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.

Information above has been gleaned from Wikipedia:
and an article by Ray Alden posted in Banjo, Fiddle, North Carolina, Old Time Music on March 24, 2015.

Here is a good article by my friend, Jim Peterson, which includes some photos and great videos of Mr. Jarrell playing:

Brad Leftwich states that Charlie Lowe and Ben Jarrell made the tune by revamping Pretty Little Girl. There is a lot of information at Traditional Tune Archive:

The recording of the audio of Jarrell at the end of this video is from Larry Warren's Slippery-Hill (

Joining me is friend Amanda Harrison on fiddle.

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