Thursday, April 08, 2010

Guitar Workshop: Tommy Jarrell

This piece isn't really about playing guitar so much, as showing where playing guitar can lead.

Gary was my best friend from college. He was like the big brother I never had. He first heard me play the guitar when we were sophomores. Back then, I could have been best described as "hyperactive," and that was in polite company, which rarely happens in college. But to hear Gary tell it, when I played the guitar, I became a completely different guy -- a mellow, easy-going kind of guy. Pretty amazing.

He also introduced me to the Appalachian fiddle playing of Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985). I'd sit for hours and listen to a cassette tape of his music. Now, I met a lot of these old fiddle players before they passed on, most of which were past their prime by the time I did, even as they were being feted. But this guy never lost it, as Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard can attest, in this excerpt from Yasha Aginsky's film "Homemade American Music," a segment of "Four American Roots Music Films" on DVD.

It was Jarrell who inspired me to take up the banjo. My great-uncle Otto Alexander had a 1916 Stewart, most likely bought through a Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog. He played in a band for dances throughout Darke and Shelby Counties in western Ohio. Uncle Otto gave the banjo to his brother Leonard, my grandpa, and it laid in the spare room upstairs for years, without a pigskin head or tuning pegs. Sometime in the mid-1970s, my sister Mary got it. When she bought a new Gibson designed for playing bluegrass in 1978, it was passed on to me. I don't play bluegrass at all, which is a relatively modern genre, but the old-time mountain style, which Jarrell demonstrates at 1:35 into the first clip.

In the second clip, David Holt interviews fiddler Tommy Jarrell at Bill's Barber Shop in Toast, North Carolina, in 1984. This was from the "Fire on the Mountain" TV series on the now-defunct Nashville Network. Together they play "John Brown's Dream" with Holt on banjo. I actually met Jarrell before he died, about the time of this interview, when I was on the staff of the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife. "I'm gettin' too old for this, not like you young fellas."

We have lost an entire generation of musicians like Jarrell, people of the mountains, who learned to play before the days of radio, who stood behind a plow or churned their own butter, and who grew up to live very ordinary lives. Then one day they were "discovered" by avid young bohemian prepsters from the East Coast, who led others to hang on their every utterance. And now they are parted from this world.

Many a guitar player can work his way into a jam session, and be inspired by those who have been schooled by the great early masters. But first, they need to know how to follow along. That will be the subject of our next installment of Guitar Workshop.

Meanwhile, there are times when I wonder whatever happened to Gary.

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