The art and influence of fiddler Henry Reed

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 28, 2017

James Henry Neel Reed, known as Henry Reed, was born on April 28, 1884, in Monroe County, WV,  a rural county lying along the Virginia border in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern West Virginia. Reed grew up in Monroe County as a member of a large extended family.

His father and at least one uncle were musical, and at least two older brothers played music as well. An early photograph reveals him playing banjo with his older brother Josh. But to judge by his stories about his early life and the sources of specific tunes, his early musical influences seem to have come not so much from his immediate family as from the surrounding community.

Josh and Henry Reed, ca. 1903. Henry Reed, age 19, plays banjo and his older brother Josh plays fiddle. Photograph from the collection of James Reed.

He spent virtually his entire life in the region where he was born, but he moved around a good deal within it. As a young man he lived for a time in the coal-mining counties of southern West Virginia, but he did not care for work in the mines and eventually came home. For shorter periods he worked as far away as Pittsburgh, PA.

On December 11, 1907, he married Nettie Ann Virginia Mullins, and they settled in Glen Lyn, VA, in Giles County, just across the state line from Monroe County. Glen Lyn is a town built around a coal-fired power plant operated by Appalachian Power Company. The plant lies on the New River, just before the river crosses from Virginia into West Virginia, and it is fueled by coal unloaded from trains that run eastward through the New River Valley from coal-producing areas of West Virginia.

Reed played from time to time for local dances and more often in home music sessions. He was known not only as a fiddler but as a banjoist who finger-picked the banjo with all his fingers and as a harmonica player who could play all the notes of complicated dance tunes on the harmonica.

He had a reputation for always welcoming visitors and providing food and a place to sleep as well as good music and good company, and the Reed home became something of a convening place within the Glen Lyn community.

Henry Reed’s influence had been primarily local, but Reed’s tunes 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; 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.

The overwhelming majority of the tunes in Henry Reed’s repertory were learned by ear and retained by memory. They are part of folk music tradition that preserves individual melodies in careful detail and calls them up from memory to play again and again. In practicing 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, VA. The book 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 was retained or what was changed in Henry Reed’s repertory. Creative musical design was a central element in the performance of his music. Henry Reed varied the sensuous surface of the tune both rhythmically and melodically in each rendition.

The variation was the result of both unconscious and conscious improvisation, and it had 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.

excerpt from ‘The Art and Influence of Henry Reed,’ by Alan Jabbour, FOLKLIFE CENTER NEWS, Summer 2000 – Volume XXII, Number 3
American Folklife Center – The Library of Congress

One Response

  • Gary Carden says:

    I’m sure you have done an article on the Edith Maxwell Trial in Wise County, Virginia, but just in case you haven’t, please go read the review of “Never Seen the Moon” on my blog. Also, have you ever done anything on the Kentucky folk drama, “Red Fox, the Second Hanging”???? It also took place in Wise County, but them Kentucky playwrights, Dudley Cocke and Ron Short did a hell of a job. Drop me a line.

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Hobo Nickels

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 27, 2017

Coin collectors today consider the hobo nickel a numismatic treasure, a tribute to long- forgotten folk artists who often literally carved for their supper. The Buffalo nickel debuted in 1913, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression struck that hobo nickel carving reached its peak. During this period, buffalo nickels were the most common nickels in circulation.

The sudden scarcity of jobs in the early 1930s forced a huge number of men to hit the road. Certainly some coins were carved to fill the idle hours. More importantly, a ‘knight of the road,’ with no regular source of income, could take one of these plentiful coins and turn it into a folk art piece, which could in turn be sold or traded for small favors such as a meal or shelter for a night.

The nickel was an ideal coin from which to fashion such a token. The large profile of the Indian on one side and the classic image of the very wide American bison that complemented it on the reverse side provided an adequately sized canvas for the wandering hobo artist to use. It was portable, and the nickel (a copper-nickel alloy) is the hardest U.S. coin in circulation, ideal for carving.

hobo nickelsIn a community of generally anonymous drifters, two carvers rose to prominence among hobo nickel creators. Bertram ‘Bert’ Wiegand was born in 1880 and carved from 1913 to 1949. He signed his coins by removing L I and Y from L I B E R T Y, leaving only B E R T. He tutored the man coin collectors consider the giant of hobo nickel carving: George Washington ‘Bo’ Hughes (born between 1895 and 1900 in Theo, Mississippi). Bert met the young teenager in a jungle, or hobo camp, along the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad line, and Bo’s first nickels appeared two years later, in 1915. Bo carved till about 1980, when he was last seen by his friend of 40 years, Williard Chisolm, in a Florida camp.

Life as a hobo took its toll: the rigorous manual labor Bo undertook to survive during the money-tight, poverty-ridden 30s rendered his hands stiff and permanently damaged. Frequent beatings by ruthless detectives prowling railroads (where many hobos resided) in search of freeloaders and thieves compounded his dexterity impairment.

Nevertheless, devoted to his craft, Bo worked through the pain and frustrating impediments throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, but in 1957, while he was working on a nickel, his chisel suddenly slipped and struck his hand. The injury forced the once-great hobo nickel engraver to resort to a haphazard punching method. Bo continued his work, but with less frequency and diminished quality, and as America moved into the post-war era genuine hobo nickels became a thing of the past.

The U.S. Mint ceased striking Buffalo nickels in 1938.

Related posts: Riding the Rails


appalachia appalachian+mountains appalachian+mountains+history Bert+and+Bo Bert+Wiegand Bo+Hughes Hobo+Nickels

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But the nights belonged to youth

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 26, 2017

“[After the end of the Spanish American War] Mt. Savage resumed its gay pleasures, which led to many courtships. There was nothing better to further this cause than a long bicycle ride.

Oh Dem Golden Slippers sheet music“The Sunday afternoon ride up to Allegany, pushing up Moss Cottage Hill; stopping at Paul’s Store to buy peppermints and licorice candy; resting in the shade of the big oak trees along the straight; sometimes watching the gypsies in their bright costumes camped there; sometimes having their fortunes told; speeding homeward before supper.

“The swift wind carrying a marriage proposal over his shoulder, but her keen ears caught it despite the noise.

“… But the nights belonged to youth. The day’s events were only to warm up for the square dance at night. How we helped big sister pull the corset strings tighter and tighter. One would die if one’s waist was over 18 inches. Mother helping to button up the blouse in the back and sister fluffing out the ruffled front and all the girl friends collecting at our house and admiring each others’ clothes.

“This evening of fun was only equaled by the Saturday night dance at Locust Grove. The fiddlers tuning up and the figure caller strutting around and announcing ‘the first dance is free Ladies and Gentlemen.’ How disgusted the young ladies and men were to see all those kids crowding on the floor taking advantage of the free dance.

Climbing up de Golden Stairs sheet music “The daring young man who swings his girl completely off her feet and she didn’t mind too much because she had on her new ruffled petticoat. The Saturday night fights over the best looking girl. The insects danced just as merrily around the torches stuck on poles and nailed to the locust trees. And the music! Has there ever been anything written to better dance to than Oh Dem Golden Slippers or Climbing Up De Golden Stairs?

From a speech written and presented to the Homemakers Club by Mary (Miller) Bowen, wife of William Anthony Bowen of Mt. Savage, Allegany County, Maryland. April 29, 1953


In 1994, square danc
ing was designated the Maryland State Folk Dance. This dance integrates the Morris and Maypole dances of
 England, ballroom dances of France, Church
 dances of Spain, and folk dances of Australia, Ire
land, Italy, Germany, Mexico, Poland, Russia. Square dancing has been a popular 
Maryland folk tradition since 1651.


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Lucy Furman lobbies against steel trap hunting in KY

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 25, 2017

Excerpt from “Ninety Pounds of Fight,’ by Tom Wallace, Nature Magazine, Feb. 1942

Because of politics Kentucky’s anti-steel-trap law, passed nearly four years ago, hangs in the balance. The Legislature meets in January. Between the law, which has not been fully enforced, and repeal, sought by conservatives who want to continue using steel traps, stands Lucy Furman. She weighs, maybe, ninety pounds, but is as full of fight—her kind of fight—as anybody in the Cumberland Mountains.

Miss Furman was educated at fashionable Sayre Institute, Lexington, and took a literature course at the University of Cincinnati. Early in life she began writing fiction. Soon after publishing ‘Stories of A Sanctified Town,’ in 1897, she became a worker in Hindman Settlement School, in the Kentucky Mountains.

There she wrote ‘Mothering on Perilous,’ ‘The Quare Women,’ ‘The Lonesome Road’ and other novels. These established her as an interpreter of mountain life. She became interested in conservation of wildlife when in contact with mountain trappers.

In 1928, she wrote an article, published by ‘The Atlantic Monthly,’ on cruelty of trapping. The late Commander Edward Breck, who had founded the Anti-Steel-Trap League three years before, read the article and made its author Vice-president of the League.

In 1933 Vernon Bailey, chief naturalist of the United States Biological Survey, invented the humane leg-hold animal trap, not for profit, but in behalf of animals caught—at the rate of many millions every year—in traps that caused many of them to gnaw off the leg between the vice-like jaws of the steel trap and brought slow death in the trap to others. Foxes caught in steel traps sometimes die of burst ventricles of the heart, so great is their fear and suffering.

steel trap 1881Steel trap, 1881, from Camp Life in the Woods and the Tricks of Trapping and Trap Making.

The less nervous animals manage to chew the flesh of the trapped leg, sometimes tearing the flesh from the bone and breaking the bone, leaving a paw in the trap when they hobble off, to die of starvation because they no longer have the physical equipment they must have to find their food. Not until the leg-hold trap was invented, and made available to manufactures by the inventor, was there hope of outlawing the steel trap.

There seemed to be little ground for hope that it would be outlawed in Kentucky when Miss Furman came to Frankfort and set up headquarters there. In 1934 her bill was beaten. She then began the work of an evangelist. By 1936 the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs and many other organizations were her supporters.

She had only to call upon daily newspapers for editorial support and news column space, because all of them knew and valued her.

Foxhunters were her champions because steel traps catch and mutilate many fox hounds that have considerable money value and the deep affections of owners.

The bill failed in 1936.

In 1938 the Animal Trap Company of America, which had been the world’s largest maker of steel traps, began making leg-hold traps as a result of the intervention of R.E. Hinman, of the Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company, of Louisville. Mr. Hinman was a Nature lover and Miss Furman took her story of the new trap and the tortured animals to him, after 1936.
In 1938 Miss Furman, who had been known at two earlier sessions as ‘the trap woman,’ got her bill passed, to take effect in 1940.

Lucy S. FurmanOther traps designed to take furbearers without torture are now in the market. Several of them, for the smaller animals, have won annual prizes offered by the American Humane Association. An argument in behalf of such traps is that pelts are not injured by animals gnawing off legs, and that annual production of furbearers is not diminished by starvation of injured animals that escape, three-legged, from steel traps.

But trappers are ruralists. Ruralists do not like change under statutory compulsion. So, Miss Furman is on guard at Frankfort to prevent, if possible, repeal of the anti-steel-trap law.

If this stalwart crusader is able to keep the Kentucky Legislature under her influence until the trappers become used to the new-style traps nothing, presumably, would ever repeal her law.

Miss Furman accomplished, between 1934 and 1938, a task that seemed at first impossible of accomplishment.

Moneyless people as lobbyists for moneyless enterprises—people who have nothing to barter in the trades of politicians—are at a disadvantage at sessions of legislatures, and Lucy Furman pleads only a cause.

When, single-handed, she began asking law-makers to consider the situation of wild furbearers—“varmints” to ninety-nine of one hundred Kentucky legislators—her project seemed, to most observers, a more hopeless one than the education of Huckleberry Finn.

Will she now be able to persuade the legislature not to repeal her law when steel trap users, fearing its better enforcement, and utterly unconcerned about humaneness to wild animals, exert pressure?

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I had never been in a community that was so remote

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 24, 2017


I think we’re talking about when you were in Pulaski County [KY], and you were talking about how it was the year that you learned the most in your life. Did you take notes at the time, some notes?


No, I took no notes. I did, to practice writing, write some descriptions of scenes and things. You see, this was a remote place, a log house, and many of the things they used were much like those of the pioneers. For example, I had never seen a watering trough made of the hollowed-out trunk of a poplar tree.


Oh, wow.


And other things around. I was especially intrigued by their language. They were as definite as Shakespeare. For example, the children never said “tree”; they named the tree: white oak, black oak, post oak, poplar, they knew them all.


Now this was in fact a place only fifteen miles from Burnside.


That is right.


Was it for you the first close contact you’d had with hill people?


Well, yes and no. My people were hill people, after a fashion, but I had never been in a community that was so remote. Though Burnside was only fifteen miles away, it was on the railway-this place was not-Burnside had also been served by steamboats since 1833. It was more or less in the world. Like at home, we had a daily newspaper and magazines and books and other things we could buy.

Harriette ArnowMC:

Right. And also you had doctors and dentists, isn’t that right?


In Burnside, yes, but not these people. Most of them had never been to a physician or a dentist.


Now when you went to teach in the school in Pulaski County, what was the name of the town or the actual place?


Well, they called it Possum Trot School. I’ve forgotten if it had a better name; I don’t know.


Was that also the name of the place, Possum Trot?


Was it Hargis? No. Perhaps it was Hargis; I’ve forgotten. I should know, because there was a post office there, where the mail came three times each week in saddlebags on a mule. And rarely did one see a wagon, and my schoolchildren, most of them, had never at that time seen an automobile, the road was so rough. Most of the men, however, had. They’d go to Somerset. And they did most of what they called the “trading”: they didn’t use the word “shopping”. They traded. This, I think, arose from the fact that they usually had something to sell. It was too far away for milk and butter, but they could, as I say, trade eggs at a small store across the river. Others dug ginseng-it was about all gone-dried it and sold it to a company in Burnside. Some dug yellow root and May apple root. There were few furbearing animals left, but several of the boys sold raccoon and opossum hides.


How did these people feel about you coming in? Do you know how they reacted to you? Were you as unusual in your education and in coming from Burnside as if you had come from four or five hundred miles, from outside the whole culture?


I think they thought I was peculiar. On the other hand, I tried very hard. I stayed over many weekends. When they went to church, I went to church with them. We had a bit of trouble with speech sometimes. Most of the younger children used the word “ungen” for “onion” and other words which I had never heard and didn’t have sense enough to know. I just thought, “Queer!” Like they’d say, “So-and-so carried his wagon to town to the railway,” and it seemed queer to me, and then later I found the word “carry”, meaning to go with or to take, in Shakespeare. Had I had an Oxford English Dictionary, unabridged, with me, I would have understood a great deal more and appreciated a great deal more.


Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006.
Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection,
Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One Response

  • Genevieve says:

    In our area of Christian County, KY, which was quite isolated and insular in earlier times, I have often heard people speak of “carrying” something or someone, in the sense of “taking” or “delivering.” This was an interesting interview. Glad I read it.

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