Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection


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Henry Reed: His Life, Influence, and Art

Tradition and Individual Talent in Henry Reed's Art

Henry Reed's tunes are the product of an aural tradition, but he also had some interaction with the world of printed music. He visited a music store in Red Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, as a boy, learned to read music, and played alto horn in a local band. His musical experiences include acquiring a small handful of tunes from sheet music. One is imbedded in "Hop Light Ladies," for which he plays four parts. The third and fourth parts are actually another tune, "Speed the Plow," which is well known in the traditions of Britain and the northern United States and is widely reproduced in printed collections of fiddle tunes. He thought of it as adding two extra strains to "Hop Light Ladies," but it is noticeable that he plays the usual strains of "Hop Light Ladies" (the strains he would have learned by ear from his peers) in his usual complex bowing style, while he plays the two additional strains in a quite different bowing style characterized by separate bowstrokes for each sixteenth note. Like his incorporation of popular songs and tunes into his repertory, his learning of a few tunes from print reflects his wide-ranging and omnivorous taste for music of all kinds from all sources.

The overwhelming majority of the tunes in Henry Reed's repertory were nevertheless learned by ear and retained by memory. His music is predominantly a tradition that preserves individual melodies in careful detail and calls them up from musical memory to play again and again. In such a tradition, one thinks of oneself as reproducing tunes largely as one heard them, and the effort to preserve tunes intact is in many cases quite successful. It is possible to trace a number of tunes in Henry Reed's repertory to the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century in the British Isles or the United States. The Upper South has been as a region less attached to printed music than the northern United States, where tunebooks and manuscripts have flourished since the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, some Henry Reed tunes can be documented in Virginia in the 1830s, thanks to the existence of George P. Knauff's important collection Virginia Reels (1839), compiled while Knauff was a music master in Farmville, Virginia, which includes many of the tunes in Henry Reed's repertory.

Memory is central to the fiddling tradition of the Upper South, yet memory alone cannot account for either what is retained or what is changed in Henry Reed's repertory. Creative musical design is a central element in the performance of his music. The bowing patterns are an intricate grammar of syncopated groupings, chosen according to established rules and predictable choices that require a constant element of improvisation. A review of the transcriptions included in this presentation will reveal that the bowing patterns are generally similar, but never identical, in each repetition of a tune. The melody likewise is subject to an array of small modifications in each rendition, drawn from a repertory of melodic formulas or improvised on the spot to vary the tune or solve a melodic problem dictated by the immediately preceding choice.

In general, we can say that Henry Reed as a fiddler varies the sensuous surface of the tune both rhythmically and melodically in each rendition. The variation is the result of both unconscious and conscious improvisation, and it has as its motive both the need for instantaneous solutions to the problems caused by preceding variations, and the desire to create a pleasing musical texture that sparkles from subtle change while glowing from the shapely constancy of remembered grace. Thus to praise Henry Reed's art is to pay tribute both to the strength and character of the tradition from which he drew and to his more personal creative accomplishments within the matrix of that tradition. His music is a testimony to his own artistic sensibility and simultaneously to the fertile ferment created by the coming together of the musical imagination of three continents to fashion the fiddle tunes of the old frontier.


Henry Reed and Bobbie Thompson seated in a tent
enlarge image icon  Henry Reed with Bobbie Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band playing guitar, Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. Photograph by Kit Olson, from the collection of Jessica Thompson Eustice. Reproduced with permission.

Landscape view of a river
enlarge image icon The New River at Narrows, Virginia, November 28, 1975. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer, reproduced with permission.