Tommy Jarrell: The North Carolina Fiddle King

tommy jarrell

To begin my research on Tommy Jarrell I thought it would be appropriate to see his most popular song on iTunes. I was shocked to find that his most sold song is “Cotton Eyed Joe,” however his version has much more instrumental works along with expanded lyrics from what is heard today. Lucky for me, Les Blank created a short documentary in 1983 about the life of Tommy Jarrell. While this is not a typical documentary that has a deep voice over, begins at the start of a person’s life and concludes with the death, Blank creates a more personal feeling for the viewer. During this documentary, Blank and Jarrell talk one-on-one, it is at these points that Jarrell reminisces and the viewer learns of his past. Also the film shows Jarrell playing his fiddle. He gained much fame for how quick he could play the fiddle and was notorious for singing and playing at the same time. This unique style is shown below:

While he is remembered mostly for his fiddle playing, Jarrell also played the banjo. Jarrell talks of how he was a farmer until it got too expensive. A recurring theme throughout the documentary is alcohol. It is mentioned that Jarrell would make moonshine during his young adult years, as it was more profitable than farming. Jarrell also talks how he and his family would go to other family’s houses and jam around a bottle of whiskey until the wee hours of the night. These jams may start as a corn shucking or some other type of farming game but would eventually end in a jam. It is also noticeable throughout the film how much family meant to Jarrell. Interestingly, Blank brings in Jarrell’s sisters to speak about him, but also speak about their lives during the in the early 20th century. While alcohol is prevalent throughout the film, Blank also shows that Jarrell was religious. To conclude the film, Blank follows Jarrell to a festival where he is a celebrity.

While Les Blank’s film was entertaining and put a voice and sound to a face, afterward I desired more factual information about Tommy Jarrell’s life. My search then led me to the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame website to an article written by Thomas Reavis Lyons. The author was very interested in Jarrell so he traveled to his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina to interview surviving family members about Jarrell’s life and legacy. He found that Jarrell was born in 1901 and passed away in 1985. During his childhood Jarrell would often work in the fields with his parents where they would sing songs and tell stories. Jarrell bought his first fiddle when he was 14 for $10, that fiddle now resides in the Smithsonian Museum. Pertinent to Blacksburg, Jarrell married his wife Nina in Hillsville, Virginia. Jarrell recorded seven albums and was even selected for the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship. It is also noteworthy that he was an amateur fiddle player; he worked 41 years for the Department of Transportation. Today, Tommy Jarrell is buried beside his late wife in Mount Airy. To keep his tradition alive, there is a Tommy Jarrell Festival each year in Mount Airy that last a couple of days and has events ranging from a youth competition to workshops and has numerous concerts. The website for this festival is shown below:


1 thought on “Tommy Jarrell: The North Carolina Fiddle King

  1. There are so many interesting topics and issues that you bring up in this biography. Cece Conway, Alice Gerrard, Maureen Gosling, and Les Blank do a wonderful job capturing so much in such a brief film– I am glad you had the opportunity to watch it. The pilgrimages pickers would make to see Jarrell, his fan base, religion, family, and poverty are all issues that you have noted and I hope we continue to explore. Well done!

    Here is another great resource for learning more about Thomas Jefferson Jarrell:

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