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Photo by Tim Brown

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

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.

How Tommy Met His Wife, Nina

Another neighbor up the mountain in Virginia, Charlie Barnett Lowe, was a friend of Tommy's family: Charlie and Tommy's Uncle Dave Turney used to foxhunt together. (This is not the same Charlie Lowe as in the earlier story about Tommy playing for his dance.)

I went up there [Charlie Barnett Lowe's] to make some whiskey an' stayed there an' boarded there. Glen Hawks an' Charlie, my wife's daddy, they wanted some whiskey made, an' Troy Rippey, my brother-in-law, that married Nina's oldest sister, they all went in together an' wanted some whiskey made. An' Fred Lowe was gonna make it for `em, an' Fred backed out. I don't know whether he got scared or what. Well, me an' Fred[Jerrell] was on the dodge, we was up there in Virginia, dodgin' the law, an' Fred Lowe told Glen Hawks, says, "Why don't you get Tommy an' Fred to make you some whiskey?" See, I'd done made some for Fred Lowe. He knowed I knowed How to make it. So that's how it come around.

Well, we went up there, an' we boarded there at Charlie's. First time ever I seen my wife. Went up there one Sunday, went to work next day. Stayed there an' made the whiskey, an' when we got done, why, we left.

Wasn't long til Charlie sent after us to come back up there. I had my fiddle along, you know. By gosh, every time we'd come home, he'd send after us, or come after us. I know that was a year before me an' Nina got married. We helped him make a crop up there. Why, when we'd be up there, we'd work just like the rest of `em. We'd go up there an' stay a week at two, an' come back home. Wouldn't be long, he'd send us word or come after us, one, to come on back up there. We'd go back.

I'd known Nina about two years "fore we ever got married. It was about two years after I first went up there til we got married. Fred talked to her more than I did. I was all the time havin' to play the fiddle, you know. Fred was a'dancin' with her an' a-talkin' to her, course he wasn't a-courtin' her or nothin'. An', we just, you know, got to liking each other.

I never will forget-we was a-hoein' corn, by god, when I asked her about getting' married. I told her, I said, "Nina, we'll get married, if you want to. But, "I says, "I'll tell 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 or not. 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'd get along all right." Now that's the way it happened.

Tommy and Nina's Wedding

Tommy and Nina were married December 27, 1923, at the courthouse in Hillsville, Virginia. (Eleven years earlier, in 1912, this same courthouse had been the scene of a controversial shoot-out at the Allen brothers' trial.)

Got married in the courthouse, up there at Hillsville, the one that the Allens shot up, y'know. We got Sandy Combs to carry us in a T-model, had a ol' brass radiator on it. Muddiest time ever you've seen. Wasn't no such a thing as a sand clay road then, it was all just ol' red mud, y'know. An' it had rained all day the day before.

[NDN: Did you have a big party afterward, though?] No. Troy Rippey an' his wife was there, an' Nina's sister, when we got back from getting' married, they was there. [NDN: Well, wasn't that kind of unusual, didn't people usually have a big party when they got married?] No, not up there they didn't. We didn't have no honeymoon nor nothin' like that. We went an' stayed all night with Uncle Dave Turney an' went by Uncle Charlie's, but I don't think we stayed all night with him. [NDN: So you wouldn't have a wedding dance or anything special like that?] Once in a while they would, y'know. But we didn't. We just got married an' come on back home. There wasn't nobody but the preacher an' I think the clerk of the court was there, the one we got our license from.

[B.F. Jarrell: What about when you got up there to Uncle Charlie's, didn't he like a kind of a serenade or somethin'?] Uh-uh. [BFJ: Well, what was it they used to call that up there around Low Gap?] Well, they'd serenade folks, but they never did me. They get up an' sometimes they'd ride the man on a rail, put him on a rail an' tote him around the house. They'd shoot an' cut up an' carry on, an' wouldn't let him sleep, y'know. But they didn't do me thataway. Well, I believe they did sort of ring some bells a little bit or somethin' another that night we got married, but it wasn't no big serenade nor nothin'.

How Tommy Lost Part of His Thumb

Tommy and Nina lived with her parents during 1924, the first year of their marriage. In September of that year Tommy had an accident that resulted in the loss of part of his left thumb.

They caught a fellow with sixteen gallons of whiskey, an' then he told the law that it was my whiskey an' I was in the an' everythin' an' I had a case over here in Dobson court. I went over there to trial an' my father-in-law, Charlie Barnett Lowe, an' my wife's uncle, he had a Ford Roadster. An' he come by up there at Charlie's an' got me.

I didn't want to bring no whiskey down here, but nothin'd do them but we had to bring some. So Charlie, or Fate, one, had a ol' Army canteen, that held a quart, y'know, what they had in World War I? So he filled that up. An' brought it with us. Just before we got to Dobson Courthouse over yonder, right close to the Allison tree over there [where someone was once hanged in a lynching], we hid that there quart canteen out there in the woods, in the leaves.

Went on out to the courthouse, an' the lawyer told me, he says, "Tommy, you can go on back home." They'd made a calendar of the court-they hadn't been a-doin' that, y'know. Anybody had a case in court, you had to an' stay there til the thing was over. But they improved that, they had everbody's cases docketed for a certain day.

So we come on back home, we stopped up here at daddy's, an' eat supper, an' had to have a tune,y'know. Well, I had a banjo there, or somebody did, an' daddy an' Charlie, they got to playin', y'know, makin' music. An' we left there, I guess it was around nine or ten o'clock.

An' we got up yonder, do you know where that there water wheel is, a-goin' up old 52, a-goin' up the mountain? Where that Blue Ridge Tavern is, there's a water wheel there. Well, there used to be double branches [streams] there that run across the road, that was before the road was ever paved, it was just an old dirt an' mountain road. An' I'd been a-ridin' in the middle. An' so, we got out there an' got us a drink of water-the ol' water run right out of the mountain there, y'know-an' drink the rest of the liquor we had in that canteen.

Charlie said to me, he says, "Tommy, let me ride on the outside," says, "I want to chew me some tobaccer." So I got in the middle. In that roadster, now. An' they had a top on `em, I don't know whether you recollect seein' a Ford Roadster or not. They had a top on `em kind of like an old buggy. It had a little ol' short brace up there about that long. I was sittin' in the middle an' we got on up to the top of the mountain, I got tired of sittin' kinda cooped up like this, y'know. So I reached out an' I got ahold of each one of them. [braces]

An' just before we got down to Fancy Gap Church, after we turned to the left an' we got to top of the mountain, we was a-singin' "Amazing Grace," or "Let Me Fall," one, I don't know which it was now. Got to a little ol' hill, it was just a little down grade. All the lights they had was magneto lights, y'know, didn't have battery lights like you got now on your cars. If you wasn't a-racin' your motor, you didn't have no light at all. Well, when we topped that little ol' hill, started down the [grade], he pushed his gas lever up an' just about cut his motor off, an' the lights just about went out.

An' there was an ol' root just like my ol' leg right ther, stickin' out [of the bank] on the left hand side of the road. An' the road machine had ditched in under it. An' it was the driest, dustiest time you ever saw, it was in September. He got over to the left-hand side of the road, an' the road was crowned up, y'know, like that, an' that made the top lean over a little more. That root stickin' out [of the bank] there, it caught my [left] thumb right again' that brace, y'know.

They had double glasses up there for windshields, didn't have a solid glass like them cars now, they had two, a top one an' a bottom one. Well, {that root} pulled back hard enough again' the top glass til it broke it out. An' never knocked the paint off of the {brace} piece I had a hold of. My thumb kept it from it, I reckon.

It ws a little piece of skin, just about half as wide as my thumbnail there, an' just about as thick as my thumbnail, hangin' right in under there. I held it up `tween me an' the starlight, an' it went around an' around like that. I said to my daddy-in-law, I said, "Charlie, I knocked my thumb off." He said, "Surely not!" I says, "Yeah, looky there." An' he jerked out his handkerchief an' he wropped it around there, y'know.

We turned around an' went to Hillsville. An' Fate like to wrecked that car, three or four times a-goin' from there to Hillsville. It wa'n't but eight miles to Hillsville, an' it was about fifteen to Mt. Airy, y'know. So we went to Hillsville. Charlie knowed ol' Doctor Nuckolls. An' we stopped there in front of his office. Charlie says, "You all wait right here, an'," says, "I'll go down an' wake him up."

By that time, that thing went to hurtin' an' I went to havin' chills, kindly, y'know. It bled a-right smart. I said to Charlie, I said, "I wish we hadn't a-drinked all that whiskey down yonder a while ago," I says, "I need a drink right now." He run his hand in his inside coat pocket right quick, an' he jerked out a little ol' red half-pint bottle full. Nobody knowed he had it-He'd had it all day in his pocket there, y'know. So I turned that up an' I drinked about half of it. Well, by the time the doctor got up there, I'd got all right, y'know. I wasn't havin' no chills.

That ol' dust an' everythin' had ground all in there, amongst them leaders an' everything, y'know. An' the damn rascal, he went to scrubbin' on that with a rag, y'know. Never numbed it nor nothin'. An' I said to him, "Listen here, doc," I says, "I can stand a whole lot. An'" I says, "that's a-hurtin'." He says, "You mean that's hurtin'?" I says, "You know damn well it's a-hurtin'!" I says, "Can't you do somethin' about that?" He sorta laughed, "Yeah," he says, "I'll fix that up." So he got his ol' needle, y'know, an' he shot two or three shots around on it, smoked him a cigarette, He says, "Has it quit hurtin' now?" I says, "Yeah." An' then he washed it an' cleaned it up. It didn't hurt, 'cause it was numb, y'know.

Well, I told him, I said, "Now I'll have to have me some whiskey in the mornin', I been a-drinkin' pretty heavy." Well now ," he says, "if I was you I wouldn't drink no whiskey til That thing heals up right there." He didn't tell me not to, he says, "If I was you I wouldn't."

Well, I went on home, y'know, an' I got me a little doze of sleep. I waked up---Ot m-boom, m-boom, m-boom. Well, I think to myself, I can't stand that. I got up an' I poured me a snuff glass just about full of whiskey. An' I downed `er. An' then, just as soon as the whiskey had time to act, why it just eased off, y'know. Well, I was tickled to death,' I was sayin', "Well, I found the remedy for that, now."

Well, just as soon as that there whiskey' died in there, it went to hurtin' again, y'know. An' I went in there, an' I poured me out about the same amount again. An' my god, that was the drinked, by god, for over a year. I t sure did hurt then. I reckon that there first [drink] revived that numbin' medicine up a little bit, y'know. An' it was all gone, that last one I took. An' my god, you talk about hurtin', I never slept a dang wink that night. Ever' time my heart would beat it was right in the end of that, y'know. If I'd listened to him, hadn't a-drinked none, it wouldn't a-hurt me so bad, but…I thought about it afterward, I think, "He oughta told me not to drink one," which I guess I'd a-drinked it anyhow.

I'll tell you though, that happened in September an' it was a year `fore that ever healed up right there. My wife made me a little stall an' I'd pack it full of cotton. I had a string tied around my wrist, to hold it there. An' I'd have to clean that thumb ever' night an' mornin'. The first year I worked for the highway commission, I wore that stall that whole year. Well, I don't know how long I wore it now, I might've wore that thing for two years. I t was awful tender, I couldn't [stand?] for nobody to, even somebody want to point to you, it just run all over me, just like a chill, y'know…

That [accident] happened after I was married. Will, let's see, I got married in `23, an' this happened in`24. That fall, that's when that thing got knocked off. An' also, in September, sometime in September, I don't know if it was after I got my thumb knocked off, ot whether it was before. My sife's mother died. An' then, on Christmas mornin', {her father] died. That's all the difference there was in their deaths. From September til December [1924]

After Nina's parents died, Tommy and Nina moved to Mt. Airy and lived with Tommy's Parents for about a year. Their daughter Ardena was born there on February 27,1925, and on April 1st, Tommy went to work for North Carolina State Highway Commission, the beginning of a 41-year career maintaining local roadways.


Many of the stories of Tommy's middle and later years are told by people who knew him, rather than by Tommy himself. Tommy an Nina had two more children, Clarence Wayne (Wayne), (1927-), and Benjamin Franklin (B.F.or Benny), (1933-1987). B.F. was a Bluegrass fiddler and local radio personality [see article about B.F. in spring `88 OTH].

Tommy retired in 1966 and began playing more music again, around home and with his friends. His wife Nina died in February, 1967. In 1968, after a period of mourning, Tommy was playing again, and his fame began to spread to the old-time music community outside his local area. He recorded, with Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins, for county Records. This led to many appearances at festivals and concerts all over the U.S., and further recordings for county and other labels. Although Tommy never entered fiddle contests, he received numerous awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for The Arts, which he received a few years before his death in 1985. Tommy's fiddle is now part of the Smithsonian collection in Washington, D.C.

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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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