There is a timelessness to the music of Appalachia that is undeniable. For many, this music served as the bedrock of blooming careers in the world of early recorded country music. For others, the fiddle tunes, gospel chants, blues themes and hymns of old were merely the jumping off point from which to tell a more topical version of the region’s story. It is in this specificity that we find the cannon of Blind Alfred Reed, a songwriter and performer whose convictions, or perhaps more aptly, his vision for society helped shape one of the most resonant voices to find roots within the soils of Southwest Virginia.
Alfred Lee Reed was born blind in Floyd County, Virginia on January 20, 1879 and spent his formative years in the Floyd, Virginia area. Born visually impaired, Reed found joy making music from an early age, drawn to the fiddle and quite possibly the informal tutelage of Franklin County fiddler, Fountaine Kingrea. These formative years helped to craft the fiddle sound that some scholars see as endemic to Reed’s home in the mountains of Indian Valley. Corbin Hayslett compares the sound of Reed to that of Elder Golden P. Harris:
“[Golden P. Harris’] style was very much like Reed’s except that his music was strictly religious…it was a classic southern mountain style, kind of forward in the face, nasally powerful singing supported in the exact same way with just the voice and the fiddle, the fiddle mimicking and supporting the voice’s melody.”
He goes on to speak of the recordings of both Harris and Reed as “… the [only] two recordings that we have of the decades of the 20’s and the 30’s of that style… that style is fairly endemic to Floyd County, at least in terms of a recorded lineage.”
In 1903 (at the age of 24), Reed wed Nettie Sheard and the two moved to Sheard’s home county in Mercer County, West Virginia where the two began raising a family of six children, including Arville Reed who would later serve as a key accompanist for Alfred as well as a performer in his own right. Reed’s recording career came by way of Ernest Stoneman who had heard Reed performing “The Wreck Of The Virginian” and subsequently recommended him to Ralph Peer. Peer’s quest for original, non-copyrighted material made Reed a shoe-in for the upcoming Bristol Sessions. With the aid of friend and neighbor Arthur Wyrick, Blind Alfred Reed made his way to Bristol to launch what would become a modest but incredibly impactful recording career.
The music of Blind Alfred Reed has been able to endure the test of time; his recorded lineage has been faithfully recorded or adapted by artists that span both generations and genres, ranging from Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen to The Del-Lords UB-40 to The New Lost City Ramblers and Old Crow Medicine Show. Perhaps one of the reasons for Reed’s longevity within the public cannon is his innate social progressivism that shows through in his lyrics.
Scholar and musician John Lilly aptly writes of Reed’s “There’ll Be No Distinction There” in his article The Blind Man’s Song – Recalling Alfred Reed, expressing that the song: “expresses a universal wish for racial and ethnic harmony in a religious setting”. The original liner notes for the Rounder Collective’s re-release of Reed’s music mirror this assessment of his progressivism, pointing to “Money Cravin’ Folks” and “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” as attacks on the exploitation of the poor in the early-industrialization of America, leading to frequent calls to contribute music for protest gatherings despite his declaration to abstain from participation in political actions.
This wide-reaching sense of cultural acceptance is in stark contrast to ideologies painted upon the Appalachian Culture, particularly that of the ‘isolated’ mountaineers from which Reed and his contemporaries were cast. It is for this reason, as well as his profound rippling impact on popular culture throughout the 20th Century that Reed and his Southwest Virginian roots have served as an essential pillar of the region’s lineage of recorded music that led to the region’s international impact. Ted Olson sum’s up Reed’s contributions beautifully, saying that Reed’s music:
“live on in the repertoires of musicians who value songs with a conscience—songs that seek to venture beyond the shadowy world of injustices, hypocrisies, and lies in an effort to identify and characterize timeless and empowering truths, however hard those truths may be to see.“
For more information, see “The Life of Blind Alfred Reed”, written by Ted Olson