Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection


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Henry Reed: His Life, Influence, and Art

Radiating Influence

Other bands developed in the Durham/Chapel Hill area after 1968, notably the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, the New Deal String Band, and the Red Clay Ramblers. Though each had its own style and focus, they all helped promulgate old-time music in general and Henry Reed tunes in particular to a wider circle of musicians and music lovers. In 1972 Tommy Thompson and I joined together with Jim Watson, a younger member of the Durham/Chapel Hill musical revival, to release another Hollow Rock String Band record (Rounder 0024, released in 1974), and there were occasional performances at the folk festivals that sprouted up around the country in the 1970s. But in essence the radiation of Henry Reed's influence, both in the tunes that he played and in the style in which he played them, was less a matter of wide public visibility than a musician-to-musician process.

The process of diffusion was of course fueled by live contact at shows, festivals, and sessions, but it was also aided and abetted by active sharing of tape copies of music sessions. Tape-sharing (at some point in the 1970s the medium of choice shifted from reel-to-reel tapes to cassettes) became a cultural phenomenon among the younger generation of musicians playing old-time music, and sets of tapes several generations removed from the originals were carefully pored over and imitated. The tapes of sessions by the Hollow Rock String Band and other groups in the Durham/Chapel Hill scene were eventually complemented by sets of tapes of Henry Reed himself, obtained either from me or from the archival copies in the Library of Congress.

A number of tunes from Henry Reed are now in wide circulation among younger American fiddlers. Perhaps the most widely circulated of them all is "Over the Waterfall." Though the tune has an interesting history and a number of musical cousins, all contemporary versions of "Over the Waterfall" come from Henry Reed by way of the Hollow Rock String Band and the ubiquitous circulating tapes. It is but one of many cases where Henry Reed was the narrow neck in the hourglass of tradition, through which tunes were guided back out into the wider currents of circulation.

An interesting example of the cultural diffusion of Henry Reed's impact is the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, which was first held in 1977 and has been an annual event ever since. It was created by Bertram Levy, the mandolin player in the Hollow Rock String Band, who carried his devotion to Henry Reed tunes and old-time music first to Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay area, then to Port Townsend. The title of the festival marks and signifies a shift in the folk revival movement from an emphasis on singing in the 1950s and 1960s to an emphasis on instrumental music and dance in the 1970s and 1980s. "Fiddle Tunes," as the festival is known among the insiders, has its public components, but essentially it is an artist-to-artist camp and retreat where learning and teaching is primary and public performance is secondary.

Along with the New Lost City Ramblers and a few other bands, the Hollow Rock String Band and the larger circle of string band enthusiasts in Durham and Chapel Hill were an influential element in the trend toward instrumental music within the folk revival movement, and among the musicians in the movement the name Henry Reed acquired an almost legendary quality.

That legendary aura surrounding Henry Reed has received a recent boost from the creation of the Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists within the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. I created the fund at the end of 1999 to mark my retirement from federal service, in order to provide support for initiatives benefitting folk artists and tapping the collections of the American Folklife Center. In doing so, it also commemorates the important cultural process through which the artistry of people like Henry Reed is shared with younger generations and provides continuing enrichment for our cultural life.


Henry Reed and Bobbie Thompson sitting in chairs outside, playing their instruments
enlarge image icon  Henry Reed playing the fiddle, accompanied by Bobbie Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band on guitar, at the Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. Photograph by Kit Olson, reproduced with permission.

Alan Jabbour playing the fiddle in a kitchen area, with Dean Reed holding a phone up to the fiddle
enlarge image icon Dean Reed sharing Alan Jabbour's renditions of Henry Reed's fiddle tune repertory via telephone. Rich Creek, Virginia, November 30, 1975. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer, reproduced with permission.