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Round Peak: The Influence of Surry County to the World of Old-Time Music

Tommy Jarrell of Round PeakThe importance of Surry County and the community of Round Peak is extremely important to bluegrass and old-time music throughout the world.

The term old-time music refers to a musical style with its origins in the Appalachian Mountains, including hymns, ballads and songs, blues, and string band music. Surry County, located in the Appalachian Mountains (also known as the Blue Ridge Mountains) of North Carolina, is a notable place of origin of a specific style of banjo and fiddle music known as “Round Peak style.”

This style of banjo and fiddle music started in the Round Peak community and surrounding communities of Surry County and would eventually make Surry County famous for a style of old-time music called “Round Peak style.” This style is still alive and highly placed in the hearts of bluegrass and old-time musicians throughout the world.

Music formed an essential part of Surry County and the entire South during the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. At this time, communities did not have current forms of entertainment including the Internet, radio, phonograph, or television to entertain themselves. As such, music was a highly valued form of entertainment, which helped the communities to relax after a long and tiring day of work in the mills and factories, or on the farm.

The musicians in the Round Peak community who sprang up during these times acquired most of their musical skills from family members and close neighbors. Hence, musicians in particular regions of the mountains and foothills were able to learn specific sets of songs, as well as how to play them, based on the conventional mannerisms that were unique to the place where their community lived and worked.

One particular style that quickly rose to international recognition was developed by those people living around the Round Peak and Low Gap communities, close to Mount Airy located in northwest North Carolina near the Virginia border. This homemade music was part of a string band tradition that comprised a variety of rhythms with a close, syncopated bluesy interplay between the frequently fretless fiddle and banjo, which was played using the clawhammer style of the banjo.

What really boosted the “Round Peak style” to an international stage was the performance by the DaCosta Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters using the Round Peak style. In the 1920s, this band produced several records under the Gennett label.

One of the finest old-time musicians in not only Surry County, but also the whole of America, was Tommy Jarrell, the son of one of the members of the DaCosta Woltz’s band, Ben Jarrell. Like his father, Tommy learned to play the fiddle using the short-bow style, as well a variety of unaccompanied fiddle tunes including  “The Drunken Hiccups,” “Flatwoods,” and “Sail Away Ladies.” Tommy’s generosity and incredible sense of humor made him a great storyteller. Tommy Jarrell became particular popular among the revivalist banjo and fiddle players of the 1960s.

In the 1960s, musicians of the Round Peak community—like Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Paul Sutphin, and Earnest East—attracted many young, urban musicians who visited the region to learn what they heard on the radio. Thanks to the recrodings of many of these urban musicians, Round Peak tunes like “Sally Ann,” “Breaking Up Christmas,” and “Old Bunch of Keys” can be still be found being played at modern-day jam sessions around America.

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Source: Fussell, F (2003). Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina. The University of North Carolina Press, NC.

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