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Photo by Dave Gahr more poetically perfect than a legendary old time musician living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in a community named Mt. Airy? That he was the embodiment of a tradition (some would say its last great one), son of a fiddler in a legendary 1920s stringband (Ben Jarrell of DaCosta Wo l t z ’ s Southern Broadcasters), and a onetime moonshiner besides, surely heightened the romance.
Little wonder so many young city musicians fascinated by old time music and the world it represented made a pilgrimage to Mt. Airy, North Carolina to bask in the earthy music and aura of Tommy Jarrell. “Everyone who visited found their admiration of his artistry augmented by gratitude for his devotion as a teacher and his warmth as a host,” wrote Alan Jabbour in Sing Out!
Born in the Round Peak area of Surry County, North Carolina in 1901, Jarrell grew up in a close-knit community where apple peelings, bean stringings, and corn shuckings were still occasions for communal work punctuated by drinking and music making. Tommy watched his fiddling father “like a hawk” as well as a reprobate uncle, Charley Jarrell, who might show up “high as a buck” with a new tune retrieved from a neighboring county. Beyond the Jarrell family, there were such musical neighbors as a Civil War veteran named Zack Payne, the source of some of Jarrell’s oldest fiddle tunes, and legendary claw-hammer style banjoist Charlie Lowe. Music was a constant in Jarrell’s family and community life, but his livelihood (from 1925 to 1966) was earned as road grad-er for the North Carolina State Highway Department.
John Henry was a tune Jarrell recalled Uncle Charley bringing home (along with a new fiddle and homemade whiskey) from Allegheny County. “He’d go up on the high part,” Jarrell told Ray Alden, “and use a long bow, and then he’d come out on the end of his stick and kind of jiggle it.” Here Jarrell plays a variant of the tune on fretless banjo.
On the County album, Sail Away Ladies, Jarrell offered this detailed memory of Drunken Hiccups: “Right here’s a little tune that my Daddy learned from old man Houston Galyen up at Low Gap, North Carolina, I guess before I was born. And he called it the Drunken Hiccups. Well, they play a tune out yonder around Nashville, Tennessee, they call Rye Whiskey. And a lot of folks in this country calls it Jack o’ Diamonds. Daddy said that old man Houston said the right name for it was Drunken Hiccups, so here she comes.” John Brown’s Dream finds Jarrell in his role of mentor to two celebrated admirers, Alice Gerrard on fiddle and Mike Seeger on banjo. Though never a professional musician, his significance as transmitter of tradition was acknowledged and rewarded in his later years by the appearance of several recordings (most on the Virginia-based County label), a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a documentary film, Sprout Wings and Fly. Tommy Jarrell, who likened music to “a big wheel that goes round and round, just as even as can be,” died in 1985 in the county of his birth, Surry, North Carolina.
CORBETT GRIGSBYSeen earlier in comic costume and calling the square dances, Grigsby here appears as singer-banjoist with fiddler Sumner and guitarist Young to deliver a terse version of the murder ballad, Pretty Polly. George Pickow, who filmed Grigsby, remembers him as a high school principal from around Hazard, Kentucky. “He lived there all his life,” says Pickow, “played locally at parties and dances.”
Pretty Polly had been known in Kentucky a long while:
singer-banjoist B.F. Shelton recorded a striking version of it for Victor in 1927, 20 years after Katherine Pettit had collected it (“Ballads and Rhymes from Kentucky,” Journal of American Folklore). W.K. McNeil (Southern Folk Ballads, August House, Little Rock, 1987) calls Pretty Polly a “condensation of The Gosport Tragedy, or the Perjured Ship’s Carpenter, a British broadside that dates back at least to 1750.” 35 quatrains long, the parent ballad offered a courtship, seduction, pregnancy, murder, and the haunting of the murderer by the stabbed sweetheart. The Kentucky version, in Hollywood parlance, cuts to the chase. “The narrative focuses primarily on the murder itself,” writes McNeil, “which is treated almost casually...” Such grim ballads, of which Tom Dooley and Omie Wise are two kindred American songs inspired by actual murders, discretely censored pregnancies that may have been understood plot elements for audiences a century ago. These songs may have served as ‘cautionary tales’ for adolescent girls in a society where unwanted pregnancies in a relationship where the man had no ‘honorable intentions’ did on occasion provoke homicides.
The Ritchie family has been a singing clan for generations: Cecil Sharp collected from them in 1917, and they trace one song (Nottamun Town) to Crockett Ritchie, born around the time of the American Revolution. “Songs functioned for the Ritchies the way Polaroid snapshots do for a modern family,” wrote Charles K. Wolfe (Kentucky Country, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1982). “They were the keys to memories, capsules of family history.” Born in 1922, Jean Ritchie eagerly absorbed her family’s musical tradition at the knees of a ballad-singing mother and dulcimer-playing father. After receiving a degree in social work from the University of Kentucky, Jean worked on the lower east side of Manhattan, where she was surprised to find an interest in the music of her eastern Kentucky heritage. She was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1946 and in 1952 was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to explore the roots of her regional tradition in the British Isles. By the time the folk revival boomed in the late 1950s – early 1960s, Ritchie already had several albums to her credit and such books as her family self-portrait, Singing Family of the Cumberlands.
Inspired by her father, Balis Ritchie (“the finest dulcimer player I have ever known”), Ritchie was the single most influential person in reviving interest in the mountain dulcimer. Here she uses it to accompany the plaintive The Cuckoo, of which she says: “The Cuckoo is a song that’s been in my family ever since I can remember. My father, mother, and all the old-timers sang it. That particular tune I haven't heard outside our family.” Jean’s older sister Edna, a school teacher most of her adult life, joins in singing two songs. “My Pretty Little Miss I learned from my dad, Balis Ritchie,” Jean recalls. “He didn’t remember where he learned it. It was probably an old song in his family. His songs come from the little community of Clear Creek in Knott County.” The Four Marys, also known as Mary Hamilton, is among the ancient ballads collected by Francis James Child. Some versions tell of 16th century chicanery (including adultery, infanticide, and execution) at the court of Mary Queen of
Scots. The historic basis of the ballad, however, is murky:
Some collectors believe the 1719 execution of one Mary Hamilton at the court of Russia’s Peter the Great somehow got mixed into the Scots saga. “We’ve sung this song a long time,” says Ritchie. “I don’t know exactly where it came from, but we’ve know it at least 50 years. It wasn’t one that we inherited down our own lines. Probably some visitor from Scotland or England sang it for us in return for us singing for them.”
THE WALKER FAMILY
Photo by George Pickow The unpromisingly-named Nobob, Kentucky (since christened Summer Shade) in Barren County was where folklorist D.K. Wilgus found the Walker Family. George Pickow, who filmed them, recalls: “They had a band that played at all the dances in the area and on local radio stations for years.” Folklorist Ed Kahn visited the Walkers with Wilgus, and remembers “a huge family: many, many kids. They played a range of music from old to new, electric to unamplified.” The instrumental Bowling Green shows one regional approach to banjo, while Hangman is a version of the widespread ballad Child published as The Maid Freed From the Gallows. Nell Walker performs the winsome Rollie True Love, while the group gospel performance, I’ll Be Somewhere Listening, recalls the sacred stylings of the Carter Family.