Final Notes, H. O. “Sleepy” Jenkins

Surry County, North Carolina, musician H. O. “Sleepy” Jenkins died on May 2. “H. O. is the heir to the great legacy of the Jenkins Family string band, and he maintains the legacy with care, affection, and respect,” wrote Kinney Rorrer in the October-November 2006 issue of the Old-Time Herald.

A fourth-generation musician, H. O. traveled with his family’s band when he was just five years old, entertaining audiences with his dancing while his grandfather, father, and aunt played fiddle, guitar, and banjo. H. O.’s grandfather, banjo player Frank Jenkins, made several recordings in the 1920s that are prized by many modern old-time musicians and record collectors. H. O.’s father, Oscar, made a couple of recordings with Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. Oscar, Tommy, and Fred all played fiddle and banjo, and the recordings feature the three of them swapping instruments and performing with fiddle and two banjos.
H. O.’s father encouraged him to learn to play both fiddle and banjo. “H. O. recalls vividly the days when he was too small to hold the banjo on his lap,” Rorrer wrote. “He would sit on the bed and hold the banjo beside him as his dad showed him how to play ‘Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.’” By the time he was six years old, he was learning to play fiddle, and by age 14, he was performing with Cactus Murray and the San Antonio Cowboys at regional theaters. As a teenager he went on tours with the group and performed at tent shows and theaters.

In the 1940s, H. O. performed on radio programs with Virgil William “Smokey” Graves and the Blue Star Boys, playing traditional fiddle tunes and modern country songs. The group also played house dances, tobacco warehouses, and hotels. While raising his family, H. O. played with musicians close to home, including Gurney Thomas, Clyde Moody, Joe Johnson, and the Easter Brothers. He was a regular fiddler on WPAQ radio in Mount Airy. In the 1950s, he became an ordained Pentecostal Holiness minister, and he started performing gospel and bluegrass gospel music.

In later years H. O. continued to perform with regional musicians, including Kirk Sutphin and Paul Brown. He was alwayshappy to talk about his family’s music and his own musical career, and to play a tune on his grandfather’s instrument.

Mark Freed


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