Photo courtesy of Bill Boyarsky.
Types of Artistry
Old-time banjo player and fiddler
Surry County, NC
Fred Cockerham was one of the most highly regarded musicians to come out of the Round Peak musical tradition for which the Mount Airy region is so well known. He was born in 1905 in Round Peak, in Surry County. As a child, Cockerham would sneak his older brother Pate's fiddle, and he secretly taught himself how to play. When the secret was revealed, his family encouraged his music, and would play along with him. There were also local musicians who helped Fred fine-tune his music abilities, like Mal Smith and his uncle Troy Cockerham. His main inspiration came from the banjo playing of local legend Charlie Lowe, and the fiddling of Arthur Smith, which took Southern string band music by storm in the years just before World War II.
Cockerham was one of the few Round Peak artists to become a professional musician, and in doing so he helped popularize Round Peak-style banjo and fiddle playing with a wider audience. Cockerham traveled across the mountains with the Ruby Tonic Entertainers. He won first place at the Galax Fiddler's Convention in 1935, and played on WFMR in High Point in the 1940s.
Following an injury sustained during a 1959 snowstorm, Cockerham had severe damage to his vocal abilities, and soon thereafter lost much of his already compromised eyesight during an operation for cataracts. These changes in his life were deeply jarring, but his friends worked together to lift him out of his difficulties, and in time Cockerham made an active return to the world of music. Together with Kyle Creed, Earnest East, Paul Sutphin, and Verlen Clifton, Cockerham formed the Camp Creek Boys. This band made an enormous impact on the region's musical history, winning countless contests, recording an influential self-titled album in 1967 (since reissued), and popularizing a fiercely driving variant of the Round Peak tradition.
Young people sought Cockerham out to learn his style of music, and he was tremendously giving to those who came. Fred Cockerham died at the age of 75, in 1980.
Note: "Historic Artist" designates one who is deceased but whose legacy continues to influence and inspire new generations.