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Photo by Tim Brown

Tommy Jarrell's Family Stories 1830-1925: Part Two


by Nancy Dols Neithammer


The following article was orginally published by The Old Time Herald(Vol. 3 #1 Aug-Oct 1991) and is reprinted with permission.

[There are many stories like the ones below---each with its own characters and regional flavors. We feel certain that anyone who has spent time with old master musicians, in any part of the country, has heard similar stories----stories to be remembered, cherished, and passed on---ed.]

The Round Peak area of Surry County, North Carolina, is famous for its rich tradition of old-time music, and a number of members of the Jarrell family have contributed to that tradition. The best known of these are Ben Jarrell (1880-1946), who recorded with Da Costa Woltz and His Southern Broadcasters, and Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985), whose influence on many younger old-time musicians playing today is legendary. Tommy made a number of commercial recordings, performed at festivals all over the U.S., and shared his music with countless visitors who found their way to his door and enjoyed his generous hospitality. Tommy enjoyed life and he enjoyed people, and his music showed it.

Tommy also enjoyed telling stories---not folktales, but the kind of stories we all tell, about memorable events in our own and others' lives: things we experienced, or heard about, that we know will capture the listener's interest when retold. Tommy had a rich store of fascinating stories, many of them about family members. This article contains a selection of Tommy's stories about his ancestors and his early life, covering the period 1830 (approximately) to1925, when Tommy started working for the Highway Department and "settled down". The stories in this article are edited from tapes of Tommy made between 1980 and 1983.

First Automobiles, Telephones

[Things] started changing when the automobile began to come around, y'know.{1916} I know the first automobile I ever saw, by gosh, I rode to the fair down here in it, me an' Maggie an' my daddy. He brought us to the fair down here at Mt. Airy. We got in that car, he called a taxi, y'know, from Mt. Airy, it's a damn T-model Ford. {Laughs} We had that thing loaded down pretty good, too, 'cause my daddy was a big man. An' we come down here to the fair in that thing. I never will forget how that thing looked comin' up the road. I could see it, I could see it for about a quarter of a mile a-comin', y'know. An' if I hadn't a-knowed what it was it'd scared me to death. I wasn't but 'bout twelve, fourteen years old then, I guess, somewhere along there. Why I'd have run if I'd have been by myself, hadn't have never knowed nothin' about no automobile, seen that thing comin' up the road like that. I'd have took off to the woods.

We'd been readin' about it, y'know, an' hearin' about the automobile an' everything. Never had saw one. [NDN: Did you get a newspaper?] Yeah. An' then they had some telephones up there then, y'know. Ol' man Austin Snow down there where my daddy an' him run a store together, they had a telephone, y'know. [NDN: When did you first get telephones?] Well, that happened `long about nineteen-ten, twelve, somewhere along there, y'know. I don't believe we had no telephones all `round up there when that [shootout at the Allen Brothers' trial] happened over at Hillsville [in 1912]. Don't believe there was any telephones through that country then, they come later than that- - - -Yeah. A lotta water poured over the dam since then, ain't they?



Learning to Make Whiskey

Tommy learned to make whiskey by watching and helping his father's brother, Charlie Jarrell.

Daddy, when I was a-growin' up, didn't make no whiskey much, `til he went out to Oregon out yonder. [Ben Jarrell went to Oregon in 1918 to make whiskey, and spent three years there, including a year and a half in jail.] I was around, helped Uncle Charlie a whole lot, carryin' meal an' stuff t' the place, y'know, an' around with his boys. An' I just watched him, an' mean' Dave, one of his boys, made the first whiskey I ever made. We made a pretty good turnout, too. My daddy never taught me that. I taught him how to make sugar whiskey.

Fight With Uncle Charlie

In 1920 Tommy made a six-month trip to South Dakota to make whiskey for Wiley Ferris, an ex- North Carolinian there who was dissatisfied with the local supply. Soon after Tommy returned from this trip, he got into a serious fight with his Uncle Charlie.

We stayed all night with Uncle Charlie, me an' Fred [Jarrell, Tommy's younger brother], the night that my daddy an' all of `em moved to Mt. Airy down here. We'd had a little trouble once before, he was a' gonna jump on a third cousin of mine, Uncle Charlie was, him an' Aaron McKinney, an' I told him, I said, "By god now, if Aaron an' [Grover?] want to fight, all right, Uncle Charlie, but you can just stand back an' let `em alone." Well, he didn't like that, y'know. But, we was friendly an' all like that. I had a bunch of whiskey up there that mean' Claude [Golding] had made, y'know, an' I didn't want to go off an' leave it up there. So, we stayed all night with Uncle Charlie.

Well, next day we had us a big poker game out down the old house where my folks, where we'd moved from. An' had plenty of liquor, y'know. I don't know what the money I loaned Uncle Charlie, he didn't know a damn `thing about playin' poker an' he'd just throw it in there, y'know. I'd give him some more. Didn't keep no account of it. Didn't care.

Well, they's a-gonna have a dance down there at Frazier Golding's that night, Claude's uncle. So I told Dave [Jarrell, Uncle Charlie's son], I says, "Dave," I says, "you an' Claude come on down there." I says, "I'm goin' down here by Cliff Ste'wartt's store an' get me somethin' to eat." Fred went with Dave an' Uncle Charlie on back out there to the house. I said, "Claude, come on down there [to the dance]." "No," he says, "What the hell'd I want to go down there?" He says, "There won't be no girls down there but my first cousins-what'd I want to be a-dancin' with them for?" I said, "Well come on, we'll all have a good time." No, he didn't believe he'd come.

Claude was the cause of it-they didn't want Dave t'take the banjo down there, y'know. All of us drunk, that's what was the matter with the whole business. Claude an' Uncle Charlie didn't want to go, an' they didn't want Dave to take the banjo down there. I think that's what it started over, over the banjo.

Fred was after Dave to the banjo an' go down there, y'know, an' him an' Uncle Charlie got into it, Fred an' Uncle Charlie. An' Uncle Charlie hit Fred over the head with a double-barreled shotgun. The little Joyce boy come runnin' down to the store where I was a-eatin' me some sardines, pork an' beans, or somethin' another. He says, "Tommy, you better go up yonder." Say`s, "Uncle Charlie's done hit Fred over the head with a shotgun."

Well, I went on up there. Pretty drunk. Will, Claude Golding an' Dave Jarrell had Fred out there in the yard, a-holdin' him [back], when I got up there. I just went on, by gosh, to the damn door up there, y'know, an' turned the damn knob of the door an' was gonna go in an', hell, Uncle Charlie's didn't un-[latch], he had a thumb latch. I don't know whether he'd seen me a-comin' or what happened. But anyhow, he was in there. An' hell, I was just mad, an' drunk too. I just shoved the door like that an' busted the thumb latch off of it, y'know, an' went on in.


An' the next thing I knowed, I come to, I recollect somebody hit me over the head right there. An' when I come to myself I had Uncle Charlie down with his head nearly in the fire. Hittin' him with a damn 38 pistol. Tryin' to hit his head. Here come Dave, an'Claude, an' Fred, an' Aunt Susan, all come in there an' got ahold of me an' got me off of him, y'know. He stepped from behind the door there when I pushed the door open, he was standin' there an' I reckon he had his knife in hid hand an' he hit me right up there in the top of the head---you can feel a little sunk place right there now. An' he come right down over my ear right there an' then right across the side of my neck right there, I got a hell of a gash in there. Ain't no scar there now, but there used to be.

Well, I didn't know I was cut. Uncle Charlie hid. I set down in Charlie Joyce's lap, he was settin' in a chair. An' he said, "Good god almighty," said, "Tommy, your neck's cut." Well, I took my hand an' reached up there just like that, y'know, an' there was all blood, just full of blood when it come out. Boy, you talk about getting' mad, I'm that mad then, sure enough. I went to huntin' for him. I couldn't find him.

Well, got started an' got out away from the house about a hundred or a hundred an' fifty yards an' the further I got away from the house the madder I got. I said, "I'll just go back-I'll kill him." An' I went back an' I searched that house from one end to the other an" I never did find him. An' I never thought, they had a little bitty ol' room, it was just big enough to have a phone in, an' somebody standin' in there. An' I found out later on that's where he was at, an' I never thought to look in that, y'know. Now I'm glad I didn't, y'know.

Well, next day, he went an' took out a whole bunch of warrants for me an' Fred. Me for breakin' an' enterin' his house, an' I don't know what all. I think they had about three or four apiece for us. Well, ol' man Tom Golding, Claude's daddy, was the cause of it though, `cause Fate Scott told me he was there next mornin' when ol' man Tom come down there an' told Uncle Charlie, "See, if you don't take out a warrant for them damn boys," says, "I'm goin' t'take out one for you." That's what Fate Scott told me that Tom Golding told Uncle Charlie.

Well, that night I went on down there to Frazier Golding's an' played the fiddle, y'know. An' that gash opened, an' the blood run all down my back, back here on my clothes an' everythin'. Well, Frank Haynes an' Dave-Dave went t'the dance down there-they kept on at me, by gosh, to go over there an' get Miss Norman to sew that gash up in my neck there. "Why," I said, "Hell, it'll be all right." An' they just kept on, an' I finally went with `em on over there to Miss Norman's, widow woman. An' she didn't have no chimney on her lamp. Just had a lamp, didn't have no chimney on it, an' y'know, it didn't make much of a light, an' she took two stitches in my neck right there. Well, it was awful sore.

When we left next day, found out he'd gone take out them warrants, well, we made a dive for Virginia, y'know. Well, we went up there an' stayed all night with Julie or Maggie, one, that night. Next day, it got to hurtin' me so that I went to Dr. Fulk, lived there in Lambsburg. He said, "Who sewed that up?" I said, "Ol' Miss Norman." He said, "Well, she done a good job, but," said, "she sort of puckered it,"-two knots, y'know, had started on it-"but," he says, "I ain't gonna bust them stitches out." Says, "There'll be two knots on there for a while but they'll eventually go away." Well, they did. You don't see no sign of no knots there now. You might could, if you look right close you might see a little of the scar, but I don't think so. He said, "Now, let me tell you somethin'." He said, "If that there knife had a-went ju-u-st a fraction of a inch further," said, "then all the doctors in the world been standin' right there couldn't have done nothin' for you." Said, "It'd cut that jugular vein right there an' you'd a-bled to death." Says, "I'll tell you what you do now `til that gets well," says, "you be awful careful. Don't you jump no ditches an' don't you fall down." Said, "You be careful an' walk around right easy." He says, "Cause that thing's liable to bust loose just any time."

Well, we dodged around, I don't know, four, five, or six months, an' Wes McCraw an' John had part of the warrants, and Adkin Johnson had the other part. An' they was Republicans. Well, Bert Hutchins run a store up there an' Daddy traded with him, we all traded with him, an' Daddy got Bert to talk to Adkin Johnson to get the warrants took up. John an' Wes, by god, they left, `cause we was good friends, me an' them was. `Course, Daddy an' their daddy had that terrible fight that time, y'know, Bonus McCraw an' my daddy. That was John an' Wes' daddy. Well, John an' Wes, one of `em was a-working' in Ohio, an' the other'n was a-workin' in West Virginia, an' one of `em was constable an' the other'n was a deputy sheriff. Well, they took them damn warrants with `em an' left here, y'know. An' the ones that Adkin Johnson had, Daddy got Bert Hutchins, talked to him to get the warrants, an' they had to see ol' man [Newt Boyle?], an' the whole business cost fourteen dollars an' somethin', to get `em all took up, y'know, an' everythin'.

Daddy tried to get me to give up, me an' Fred give up an' stand a trial, says, "Go on, Tommy an' give up," said, "I'll get a damn good lawyer. Get you out." I said, "No, you won't get us out of that." I said, "I busted in his door." I couldn't turn it an' I busted in, I recollect that. When it wasn't open, I just give it a shove, like that, y'know. I was pretty stout then. I said, "We've all been a-makin' liquor up there an' everythin', an', I said, "he took out warrants for us an', by god, I'll take out some for him an' we'll all go to the damn penitentiary." I said, "Hell no, I ain't a-gonna give up." So we got it all settled for fourteen dollars an' somethin'.

[NDN: Did you ever get to be friends with Uncle Charlie again after that?] Oh yeah, yeah. He stayed overnight with me after that. When I lived down at the Bunker place. I think after me an" Nina married we went to see him.

[NDN: And did Uncle Charlie ever apologize or anything?] No, it never was mentioned. Uncle Charlie, well, he was a good fellow when he was sober, but he was mean as the devil when was a-drinkin'. What Daddy said was that Charlie always has been mean as hell when he was a-drinkin'. But if that hadn't happened, I never would have saw my wife, y'know, it all worked out. It all worked out for the best, I reckon, at last.

Visit to Zack Payne

Well, I was a-dodgin' the law up in Virginia an' I was stayin' with my sister up there, Julie. An' ol' man Zack lived about, oh, it wasn't a mile, I'd say it was a half a mile or three quarters. An I'd heard so mush talk about him playin' the fiddle. My closest neighbor up there, old Aunt Creesie Ward, was his sister. An' ol' man Frank an' her would talk about brother Zack bein' such a good fiddler. An' I'd heard other people say so, so I decided while I was up there that close to him I'd go up there an' hear him play some. I wanted to learn to play "Billy in the Lowground" an' "Leather Britches."

I asked my brother-in-law, Charlie Lyons, I said, "Charlie, you know where ol' man Zack Payne lives?" He says, "Ain't a bit of use in goin', "says, "He won't play." He said, "I been up there an' tried my best t'get `im to' play an'," said, "he won't play." "Well," he says, "there an't a bit of use, but Ill go with you up there."

So me an' him an' Fred went up there- Fred was with us, my brother Fred. Ol' Zack, he was out there grazin' his horse, he was sittin' in the shade of a apple tree, had him a rope long as from here across to the road over yonder. An' that horse was a-grazin' all around him, him a-settin' in the shade of that apple tree.

I walked up an' told `im-well, Charlie told `im who we was, I believe, my brother-in law. "Yeah," he said, he knowed Rufe Jarrell. Told `im he was my grandpa. I talked to `im a little bit, an' I says, "Mr. Payne, do you ever take a drink?" "Well," he says, "I've been known to." I says, "Well, I got a little drink right here in my pocket." I had a half-pint bottle full, some of that liquor that I'd made over there at Fred Lowe's. It was good whiskey, too-as good as ever been made, I reckon. I got him t'take a couple little shots of that, y'know. Then I waited `til it had time to take effect on him. We talked on a little bit. I gave him another drink.

"Now," I says, "I come up here, I want to learn`Leather Britches' an' `Billy in the Lowground.'" "Aw, honey," he says, "I can't play no fiddle," says, "I don't never fool with it no more." "Well," I says, "Let's go down to the house, I want to see your fiddle." "Well," "we'll go down t'the house." So we went on t'the house. He was settin' about twenty-five, thirty yards from the house, under that apple tree. Went on down there. He told his wife who we was, y'know. "Lordy mercy yes," says, "I know Rufe Jarrell." An' then I mentioned about him getting' his fiddle an' playin', what I come up there, t'hear `im play some. He didn't much want t' do it. He just put me off, y'know. She said, "Zack," says, "You go get that fiddle an' play them boys a tune." Says, "I've danced a-many a reel with their grandpa. You go get that fiddle an' play them boys a tune," My gosh, he went an' got it.

Well, when he brought it in there, it'd come unglued back here at the neck, y'know, an' the fingerboard was layin' right down on the fiddle, it would've been layin' on it, but he had `im a pine splinter, a pine stick, stuck under the fingerboard to hold it up off the fiddle. An' he had `im a piece of copper down on the neck about that far. Well, there where he'd been a-notin' on that copper, it looked just like a new penny, y'know. It told on him, y'know. "Aw," he says, "I don't never fool with that thing no more," says,"It's tore up." Well, it was in perfect tune. An' that was the way he had it tuned {GDAE] I said, "Yeah, I see you don't never play none," I says, "I can tell by lookin' on the neck of the fiddle you don't never play none." He sorta grinned a little bit, y'know---he knowed I'd caught up with him.

Well, he wanted me t' play a tune or two first. Well, I run the {G] string up {to A} an' I played "Sally Ann" or somethin', somethin' I love t'play. An' I gave it t'him, an' by gosh he tuned it an' he played.

Well, he played "Billy in the Low ground" and he played "Leather Britches." Then he played "Devil in the Strawstack." An' he changed his fiddle a little bit an' he played "Flatwoods" [GDAD tuning]. That was the last tune he played, an' I learned "Devil in the Strawstack' an' "Flatwoods." I never did learn "Billy in the Lowground" nor "Leather Britches," an' I don't know `em `til today.

Soon as he got them played, well, we didn't stay around long, we left. But I had them two tunes in my head. I got home, I got down there t' my sister's, I played `em. `Course I didn't play `em good to start with, but I had `em there, an' I got so I could play `em pretty good. He was a big man, Zack Payne was. I guess he'd weighed over 200 pounds when I saw `im. He was six foot tall or better I guess.

[NDN: Did you ever get to hear him play again?] Un-uh.

He was the best fiddler I ever heard---on his tunes, now. "Course, now, he couldn't play my tunes because he was a old fiddler, you know. I never heared him try "Sally Ann" not nothin' like that.

Part III of this article next issue.




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About the Author

Nancy Dols Neithammer

While studying ethnomusicology at UCLA , I became interested in Tommy Jarrell's fiddling.

In 1980 I visited Tommy. A couple hour visit ended up with living in North Carolina for two years, visiting Tommy frequently. I currently play with my husband Rusty in Pennsylvania with the Bow Rockers, an old-time band that plays for dances in the area.




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