Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection


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Henry Reed: His Life, Influence, and Art

Understanding Henry Reed's Art

When I began recording Henry Reed, I was immediately struck by both the size and the unusual qualities of his repertory of traditional tunes. Most fiddlers know dozens of tunes, and some know a hundred or more. But when one examines the repertories of enough fiddlers, one realizes that many tunes are common, and most recur in the playing of at least a few fiddlers. Yet Henry Reed not only knew hundreds of tunes, he knew dozens that I had never heard anyone else play. The 185 performances I recorded in 1966-67 comprise over 140 different tunes, as well as multiple performances of a number of tunes on different occasions. Some are common, some are unusual, and some are utterly unique. In the aggregate, they are an amazing repertory, and all the more amazing considering that his death prevented my recording even more. Since the last visit yielded a number of tunes I had not recorded from him previously, it was clear that we had by no means plumbed the depth of his repertory.

Yet the tunes were not strange or aberrant. A comparison with both the print record and documentary recordings of other Appalachian fiddlers shows that his repertory included an unusually high number of classic tunes from the era of the early American frontier. Even many of his unique tunes seem to be of a classic vintage in their style and character. At the same time, he played waltzes, schottisches, clogs, and other dance genres that carry with them the flavor of the ballroom as much as the back porch; turn-of-the-century popular tunes; a clutch of rag-like pieces from both grassroots and popular sources; several marches from the nineteenth-century fifing tradition; and an array of tunes of every description that had caught his fancy from childhood right up into his seniority in the mid-twentieth century. He was a kind of musical encyclopedia of his region and era, and virtually every musical influence that lingered from yore or wafted by from the world about him seems to have been imprinted in his imagination. To scan his repertory is to abandon forever both the notion that the Appalachian region was culturally isolated a hundred years ago, and the notion that ancient traditions are best preserved when there is no contact with the new. His tunes reveal splendidly both the depth and grandeur of the older fiddling tradition of the nineteenth-century frontier, and the richly textured fabric of continuing musical creativity in the region throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Henry Reed probably could have given me even more twentieth-century tunes, but I think he both was fond of the older repertory and saw that I responded enthusiastically to the old tunes. As I continued to return for additional visits, I began to realize that he was not simply accommodating me, as the documentarian and apprentice, but had become an active collaborator in the project. He would keep returning to tunes, like "Money Musk," for which he believed he could give me better or fuller sets. Often the first few tunes he played on a new visit were tunes he had never played for me before, suggesting to me that he kept track of what he had and had not played for me. I even came to suspect that he made conscious note of tunes when they crossed his mind in my absence, and introduced them when I returned. The project, I came to realize, was not just my project; it was our project.

One aspect of the performances in this online collection is explained in part by this sense on Henry Reed's part of the goals of our recording sessions. He did not think of these as finished performances, such as might appear on a record. Rather, each was a working session to identify repertory items and show how to play them. Other fiddlers I recorded fell into similar patterns. This approach led to a series of performances that often included no more than three repetitions of the tune before ending. Sometimes they were even shorter. He would stop abruptly after making a mistake, then say, "Well, you've got enough there to get it," meaning that I had recorded enough to get the entire tune and did not need further repetitions. A typical fiddle tune lasts about thirty seconds, and the listener will discover that many of the tune performances here last a minute or a minute and a half--the length of time required for two or three repetitions of the tune.

The photographs included in this online collection show Henry Reed's fiddle and bow positions. He held the fiddle under his chin, in the fashion of many old-time fiddlers. Some hold the fiddle against the chest or armpit instead of under the chin, but Henry Reed was not unusual in preferring to secure the fiddle with his chin, as contemporary concert violinists do, freeing the left hand to move around without having to help prop up the instrument. This posture is particularly helpful when the tune shifts the hand up to third position, as Henry Reed did in a few tunes in the key of D that incorporate the high D on the E-string, such as "Turkey in the Straw," and in several tunes in the key of C that require a stretch to reach the high C on the E-string. He held his bow at the frog instead of choking up higher on the bow stick as some fiddlers do. The most striking feature of his bow grip, which is visible in one of the photographs, was his placement of his fifth finger under the nut instead of on top of it. This bow position was unusual, but not unknown, among older Appalachian fiddlers.


Alan Jabbour and Neal Reed seated in a living room
enlarge image icon  Alan Jabbour interviewing Henry Reed's son Neal at his home in Glen Lyn, Virginia, November 29, 1975. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer, reproduced with permission.

Aerial view of Glen Lyn
enlarge image icon  Glen Lyn, Virginia, November 29, 1975. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer, reproduced with permission.

Henry Reed in an armchair, playing the fiddle
enlarge image icon Henry Reed playing the fiddle in his living room, Glyn Lyn, Virginia, ca. 1967. Photograph by Karen Singer Jabbour, reproduced with permission.