Fred Cockerham

Fred Cockerham, Surry County, NC Photo:David Holt©1976

Fred Cockerham

Fred was certainly one of the best musicians in the Round Peak area. While Tommy Jarrell was outgoing and never met a stranger, Fred was more reserved and circumspect. But when he let loose on the fiddle or clawhammer banjo there was no one any better.

I first went to Fred’s house in 1973. He took out his Kyle Creed fretless banjo with the gold-flecked Formica fretboard and did “Roustabout” accompanied by his gravely baritone voice. It is still one of the most powerful pieces of music I ever heard.

Fred was born in 1905 and was one of the few “musicianers” in Surry County, NC that tried to make a living playing fiddle and banjo. It was a tough life but it honed Fred’s music to a razor sharp edge. While he patterned his banjo playing after Charlie Lowe, his fiddle style was patterned after Nashville’s Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith who used the long bow technique. Fred was able to adapt this more modern fiddle style to the regional Round Peak playing. His playing was driving and intense.

Fred often spoke about his days with a medicine show called the Ruby Tonic Entertainers. They sold a rhubarb salve made by the South Atlantic Chemical Company.

As Fred told Ray Alden, “We’d leave Galax in the morning and we’d play in Charlotte, North Carolina over WBT. We had an hour program over there. We’d get in the car and leave there to go to Edmund Henry, Virginia and had to do an hour that night. And then we had to be in Roanoke at 6:30 A.M. for an hour. Drive all night long, and then back in Galax and right back all around again. We did that for six months, rawhiding it all the way. At Charlotte, the first broadcast studios were air-tight, doors went together like a money safe, and when that door went together, buddy, that is it! No ventilation, we’d come outta there many a time in summertime and roll foam off our britches with our hands.”

In the 1960s he was part of the Camp Creek Boys, one of the finest old-time bands ever. Their playing influenced a couple of generations of younger old time musicians.