Sprout Wings and Fly, a short documentary film about the life of old-time fiddler and banjo player, Tommy Jarrell, turns 35 this fall. To celebrate this coral milestone, we’ve gathered related materials found across the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006) to share with you all.
In August 1977, Alice Gerrard approached Tommy Jarrell about her, Cece Conway, and Les Blank making a film about him. In a letter to Tommy, Alice wrote:
“We would like to make a short film about you and your music…we would like to make the movie with a man named Les Blank who has made 6 or 8 other films about musicians. He would do all the camera work and Cece and you and I would decide what goes in the movie.”
Tommy Jarrell’s response to Alice a month later:
“I have decided I will help you all make the movie if there is no commercial TV. You know how I feel about commercial TV. They will have to set the money bags down to me if they want a commercial TV…I am looking forward to seeing you all soon. Come on down as soon as you can and we will talk a lot, fiddle some, drink a little, have a hell of a good time.”
After securing funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, North Carolina Arts Council, and the English and Folklore Departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Sprout Wings and Fly production team traveled to Tommy Jarrell’s home in the small unincorporated community of Toast, North Carolina, located just west of Mt. Airy in Surry County.
Like most documentary film projects, the film was a collaborative effort – directed and photographed by Les Blank, produced and co-directed by Alice Gerrard and Cece Conway, edited by Maureen Gosling, and sound by Mike Seeger. And let’s not forget about the contributions of those who appeared in the film: Tommy Jarrell (this one goes without saying); Tommy’s sisters, Julie Lyons, Togie McGee, Edith Hicks; Tommy’s brother, Earlie Jarrell; Tommy children, Wayne Jarrell, Ardena Moncus, and Benny Jarrell; Tommy’s friends and neighbors, including fiddlers, Robert Sykes and Art Wooten; and visiting admirers and musicians, including a brief appearance by Blanton Owen.
The film, which was originally shot and distributed on 16mm motion picture film, premiered in the fall of 1983 at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Tommy Jarrell became well known for his music late in life. Before Alice, Cece, Les, and company showed up in 1981 to begin filming (pictured above), musicians and admirers had already been taking advantage of Tommy’s open door policy to observe and learn from Tommy, who was known for his old-time clawhammer style and participating in the Round Peak music tradition of Surry County (more on Tommy and Round Peak music over on NCpedia).
One of the many admirers who reached out to Tommy for lessons included Alice Gerrard, who received this handwritten note from Tommy.
As mentioned and exhibited above, the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006) contains a wide range of materials relating to the pre-production, production, and screening of Sprout Wings and Fly, including photographs, scrapbook clippings and ephemera, and two audio recordings.
Much of the scrapbook materials and both of the audio recordings relate to the film’s November 1984 screening at the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mt. Airy. As the poster and ticket stub below announce, this was not just your typical film screening. It was also a stage show!
The two audio cassette recordings (FS-8685 and FS-8686, pictured below) document the stage show portion of the event, which included musical performances by Tommy himself, as well as The Pine Ridge Boys, Art Wooten, Robert Sykes, Bert Dickens (aka Bertie Dickens), Steve Haga (only 9 years old!), Mike Seeger, and Tommy’s sister, Julie Lyons, among others.
Both recordings are streaming in full on the Alice Gerrard Collection #20006 finding aid, thanks to an ongoing grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Below is a sampling of some of our favorites performances…enjoy!
Julie Lyons, “Wildwood Flower” (FS-8685, side 1, 23:35-24:44)
Mike Seeger: A woman that a lot of you know and that we worked with in the film, Tommy's sister, Julie Lyons, I believe is going to sing a song for you. Julie. Excuse me folks she's going to play the harp [harmonica] for you. Why don't you give her a nice, warm welcome.
♪"Wildwood Flower" [instrumental]
Steve Haga, “Shuckin‘ the Corn” (FS-8685, side 2, 22:58-24:55)
Steve Haga: I'm going to play a little [?], "Shuckin' the Corn"
♪"Shuckin' the Corn" [instrumental]
Steve Haga: Thank you!
Robert Sykes and the Surry County Boys, “Black-eyed Susie” (FS-8685, side 2, 25:25–28:53)
Alice Gerrard: I'd like to introduce the next band. Robert Sykes has been a member of this community for a real long time. He used to be a fiddle player. I have an old picture of Robert when he played with his brother, playing fiddle and guitar. He quit for a long time and nobody ever thought he played the fiddle, or at least we didn't know. He was in the movie, just briefly at the dance, as a dancer. We didn't know he ever played the fiddle, although Tommy said he used to play the fiddle. Well a little bit later, he started picking it up again, and I believe it a lot of the reason he took the fiddle back up was due to Tommy's encouragement to go ahead and try to get back into playing again. And he certainly has. He's been going like a house of fire ever since. And I'd like you to make welcome to Robert Sykes and the Surry County Boys.
Robert Sykes: We're going to try one called "Black-eyed Susie"
♪"Blackeyed Susie" [instrumental]
Robert Sykes: Our next tune is a tune that I made up. I was mowing the yard one day and a tune kept coming over my mind and I killed the motor on the lawn mower and went into the house and played it. I live about a quarter of a mile from Tommy Jarrell and I went up there and "Tommy, I got a need a tune. I'll play it. If you don't like it, tell me. And if you do, name it." And I played it for him and he said, "I'll call that 'Robert Surly[?].'" He didn't say he didn't like it.
Tommy Jarrell, “June Apple” (FS-8686, side 1, 00:00-04:40)
Tommy Jarrell: Does that sound right? I'm going to try and sing a little a "June Apple", I don't guess I'll get the job done, but I'll try it.
Wish I was a june apple
Hanging on a tree
Every time my true love pass
Take a big bite of me.
Can't you hear that banjo sing
I wish that gal was mine
Don't you hear that banjo sing
I wish that gal was mine.
I'm going 'cross the mountain
I'm going in my swing
It's when I get on the other side
I'm going to get my woman sing.
Charlie he's a nice young man
Charlie he's a dandy
Charlie is a nice young man
Feeds the girls on candy.
Goin down to the river to feed my sheep
Going down to the river Charlie
Going down to the river to feed my sheep
Feed them on Barley.
I wish I had a [?]
'Cuz every time it rains and snows
It's sun down on my fire.
Tommy Jarrell: Thank you
Tommy Jarrell, “Big Eyed Rabbit” (FS-8686, side 1, 09:50-12:57)
Andy Cahan: we got a request for "Big Eyed Rabbit"
Tommy Jarrell: "Big Eyed Rabbit". Alright, here we go...I don't believe I can think of it.
♪ "Big Eyed Rabbit" Yonder comes a rabbit, Down skipping through the sand Shoot that rabbit, He don't mind Fry him in my pan Lord I fry him in my pan. Yonder comes a rabbit, Just as hard as he can run It's yonder comes another one Gonna shoot him with a double barrel gun, Shoot him with a double barrel gun. Rocking in a weary land, I'm rocking in a weary land. Yonder comes my darling, It's how do you know? I know her by her pretty blue eyes Shining bright like gold, Shining bright like gold.
Tommy Jarrell: I'm sorry about that singing. I just couldn't get up there. One more?
We invite you to continue exploring materials found in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006) related to the production. And if you’re interested in viewing Sprout Wings and Fly over the long holiday weekend (highly recommended, of course!), it is available on DVD via Criterion Collection and as of November 2018, the film is streaming on Kanopy, a streaming service that is available for free to all UNC staff and students.