Our History is a regular column by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history on display at the museum.
The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History has four floors of exhibits showcasing the stories of the people who built lives and communities here. Each floor has a focus on different people and eras but there is a common thread, from fire fighters to school bands, from the old cabin to Donna Fargo on tour with the USO: Music.
Folks in these parts love their music and they always have. Early settlers had to make tough decisions about what to bring on the long trip down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. Every item carefully packed into their Conestoga wagons had to be essential to the family’s new life and survival in a strange and difficult region. Food, clothing, tools, seeds, a Bible, every ounce mattered. So it might surprise some to know that musical instruments were often part of the load.
Surry County is famous with old time music fans across the country and around the world, many of whom have traveled here to learn from the likes of Tommy Jarrell, Fred “Slim” Cockerham, Dix Freeman, or Chester McMillian. The regional music style developed across the fields, on the ridges and in the valleys of Surry and southern Carroll counties, generally called Round Peak, features intense, driving fiddle playing with pronounced rhythm and uniquely melodic fretless banjo picked in the clawhammer style.
“Old timey” music is a distinct combination of three major cultures: African slaves who recreated familiar instruments from gourds and animal skins keeping their complex and rhythmic musical traditions alive here; the Scots who began arriving in large numbers in the early 1700s populated the Appalachians and filled the hills with jigs and reels; and the Irish forced from their lands by English Clearances or fleeing famine 130 years later who added their own dance music and shanties.
The resulting blend became the sound of the rural South. The Round Peak area — Low Gap, Flower Gap, Lambsburg, Fancy Gap, Wards Gap — was fairly isolated well into the 20th century allowing the songs and playing style of the many musicians there to avoid outside influences. Families such as the Creeds, Sutphins, Cockerhams, Gwyns, Lundys, and Hawks, lived and played together, building this musical tradition.
The museum holds some stunningly gorgeous instruments crafted by local luthiers. Others are beautiful in their simplicity with a patina of age and use such as the two banjos from members of the musically prolific Lowe family. On both the upper frets are replaced by a smooth sheet of metal installed to allow the players to make the fiddle-like catcalling sound intrinsic to Round Peak style.
Joe Lowe (1862-1927) and his nephew Charlie Lowe (1878-1964) were just two of dozens from that family who passed on the old songs, wrote new songs, and taught their style to many players including Tommy Jarrell whose wife, Nina, was a Lowe.
Jarrell played with Joe for years at square dances. He played “Little Maggie” on this banjo in the documentary, “My Old Fiddle.” Charlie, who Tommy called, “the best banjo picker I ever played with” was a good friend of his father. Charlie taught Tommy many of the old songs that became his memorized repertoire.
“That’s a master’s banjo,” said Chester McMillian recently of Charlie’s banjo which he helped the family restore after Lowe’s death. His father-in-law, Dix Freeman, learned from Charlie and Chester learned to play from Dix. “Everybody who learned to play from him learned from a master.”
McMillian continues the tradition of teaching anyone who wants to learn. He’s shared his knowledge about old time music and banjo playing with many others but he has a special passion for the JAM (Junior Appalachian Musician) students he works with across the region. The way musical lineage works, that makes every one of his students the musical descendent of the masters he learned from, too.
And so the legacy of music in this region continues.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228