Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection


Browse Collection by:

View more collections from the American Folklife Center

Collection Connection
Classroom resources for teachers

Henry Reed: His Life, Influence, and Art

From Generation to Generation

Henry Reed had retired from his second career at Celanese and was living at home in Glen Lyn when I visited him with my wife, Karen, in 1966. We were then graduate students at Duke University, and I had undertaken a long-term project to record traditional fiddlers in the Upper South. During a fiddlers' convention, West Virginia musician Frank George introduced me to Oscar Wright, a fine older fiddler from Princeton, West Virginia, who played some beautiful old tunes I had never heard before. I subsequently visited Oscar and his son Eugene in Princeton, and when they said that the source of those old tunes, Henry Reed, was still living, I set out that day to track down the man who taught Oscar "Kitchen Girl," "Shady Grove," and "Ducks in the Pond."

In retrospect, it was a life-changing visit, and soon I was back again. When I first appeared in 1966 at Henry Reed's door, I may have thought of myself primarily as a documentarian, but by 1967 I was a pilgrim to Glen Lyn and an apprentice to Henry Reed. Our band in Durham and Chapel Hill, the Hollow Rock String Band, was proudly developing ensemble versions of the tunes I acquired during each new visit to Glen Lyn. In the summer of 1967 the Hollow Rock String Band played at a fiddlers' convention in Narrows, Virginia, and both Henry Reed and Oscar Wright came to enjoy the festival and hear us play. It was perhaps their last best glimpse of what was to come of Henry Reed's music.

In the fall of 1967 I visited Henry Reed again for what turned out to be our last recording session. In January 1968 he was hospitalized for an operation to amputate an injured and infected foot, and a few days later, on February 8, 1968, he died of a blood clot that had lodged in his lung. Nettie survived him by more than a year, passing away on October 20, 1969.

During most of his life, Henry Reed's influence was confined to his family and community. He made music with his children, several of whom learned to accompany his fiddle tunes. They remember him as a genial but exacting teacher who would stop and make them change any incorrect chord when they accompanied his fiddling. Some of them learned the rudiments of the fiddle, but they always deferred to their father on the instrument. Other musicians, like Oscar Wright or Glen Lyn resident Buddy Thompson, also played music with Henry Reed and learned tunes from his repertory. But although his children and friends admired his music and his musicianship, they also were drawn to the music more popular with their own generation. Thus, for example, Dean Reed played country-and-western music in a band that had a long-running show on WHIS-TV in Bluefield, West Virginia.

A new pattern of influence began with my visits in 1966-67. Our band, the Hollow Rock String Band, performed dozens of Henry Reed tunes as a core element in the band's repertory, and the tunes were regularly identified as coming from Henry Reed, making him suddenly a publicly known figure for a wider audience. The band was at the epicenter of a revival of old-time instrumental music that emerged in the Durham/Chapel Hill area in the late 1960s. We played regularly in Durham and Chapel Hill and frequently appeared at old-time fiddlers' conventions, festivals, and other public venues, until the band dissolved with the departure of Bertram Levy and me for California in 1968. In that same year, before our dissolving and not long after Henry Reed's death, a long-playing record of the band was released, The Hollow Rock String Band: Traditional Dance Tunes (Kanawha 311), which contained a number of tunes we had learned from Henry Reed.


A woman playing a guitar, with a small child and elderly man watching
enlarge image icon  Bobbie Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band playing on guitar and talking with her daughter, Jessica, with Henry Reed looking on. Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. Photograph by Kit Olson, reproduced with permission.

Dean and Gene Reed with a guitar
enlarge image icon  Dean and Gene Reed, twin youngest sons of Henry and Nettie Mullins Reed, performing in the home of Dean and Billie Sue Reed, Rich Creek, Virginia, November 30, 1975. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer, reproduced with permission.

Henry and Nettie Mullins Reed at a late age, posing in chairs in their living room
enlarge image icon  Henry and Nettie Mullins Reed in the living room of their home in Glen Lyn, Virginia, date unknown. Photograph from the collection of Dean Reed, reproduced with permission.

Two men seated under a tree, playing their instruments
enlarge image icon James Reed playing guitar, with Alan Jabbour playing fiddle, at a picnic along the New River, at Gentry Campground, off U.S. Highway 460, near Rich Creek, Virginia, September 1, 1996. Photograph by Karen Singer Jabbour, reproduced with permission.