“A Kindly Visitation: A Musical Tribute to Tommy Jarrell” by James Leva
“A Kindly Visitation: A Musical Tribute to Tommy Jarrell”, directed by J.D. Martinez, premiered February 13, 2011 at Washington and Lee University’s Lenfest center to a crowd of over 350 enthusiasts of Appalachian arts and culture. “A Kindly Visitation” is a distillation of musician/playwright James Leva’s memories of times spent with Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and other musicians around Mount Airy, North Carolina in the 1970’s and early 80’s.
This is Leva’s first work as a playwright and it covered familiar ground for him as he and a fine cast of musicians told stories, played tunes, and sang songs that they learned while spending time with Tommy Jarrell in and around his home in the Round Peak area of North Carolina. “Round Peak music”, as it is known, has many devoted fans, including the many musicians who participate in annual old time music festivals such as the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention.
The cast for the premiere of “A Kindly Visitation” included Leva, Riley Baugus, Stephen Wade, and Danny Knicely – all accomplished musicians with a close connection to the music of Tommy Jarrell. For those not familiar with this type of music it can seem raw at times but it is always powerful. In the Playwright’s Notes, Leva calls it “rough, gritty music”. One of the many musical highlights is the old hymn, “When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round”, sung by Baugus with Leva underscoring the lyrics with his soulful fiddling.
Music was the reason that Leva and his friends, who were still in their teens and early twenties, visited Jarrell, but what they took away was much more. The young pilgrims who traveled to Tommy’s house took away a valuable collection of lessons about making your way through the tough times of life in the rural South during the early part of the 20th Century. Tommy and his contemporaries routinely experienced physical, emotional, and psychological hardships that few of us can imagine.
Like the time Old Man Fount Jarrell, Tommy’s great-grandfather, had a bad toe that was causing such pain that he chopped it off with a wood chisel and the butt end of an axe, then fed the toe to his dog. Leva’s telling of this story was masterful – audience members gasped and cringed as the story unfolded. Another story, this time with Baugus as the narrator, recounted the death of Tommy’s young cousin, Julie, whose last request to Tommy was to play “Little Maggie”. There were many moist eyes and no one is likely to hear that song again without thinking of Tommy and Julie.
Leva has a gift for writing and storytelling and he has created a wonderful tribute to one of America’s most loved traditional musicians. Tommy Jarrell went to his great reward in 1985 but the stories told in “A Kindly Visitation” seem as clearly focused as if they occurred last year, or even last week. Perhaps they are richer and their lessons are sharper after more than twenty-five years of careful aging.