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.
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