The Blind Man’s Song – Recalling Alfred Reed By John Lilly
Young Violet Reed climbed a tall tree near her family’s home in Summers County and watched the road. She was looking for her father, Blind Alfred Reed, to return from Hinton, where he would go most days with his fiddle to play and sing on a street corner, a tin cup by his side. She could see him coming from a distance, walking down the road, fiddle tucked under one arm. Sometimes, if the day went well, he’d have a pound of bacon in his hand. Or, if the day had gone very well, an entire bag of groceries. Other days, he’d come home literally empty-handed.
These were the years leading up to the Great Depression, and Blind Alfred Reed was fighting valiantly to support his family through his music. A gifted songwriter, fiddler, and singer, Alfred also played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and organ. He taught music lessons, played for meetings and dances, made recordings, and sold printed copies of his song lyrics. On many days, he made the three-mile walk from his rented farm to downtown Hinton, to play and sing on the streets for loose change. He was also an ordained Methodist minister and occasionally preached at local churches.
Violet Reed was the fourth-born of five children in the Reed home – a younger brother named Basil died young. The household also included Alfred and his wife, Nettie, and Alfred’s older sister, Rosetta, known to family as Aunt Rose. Alfred and Rose were both born blind in Floyd County, Virginia: Alfred in 1880 and Rose in 1867, two of six children of Riley and Charlotte Akers Reed. The family moved to a farm in West Virginia when Alfred was young. Although he moved often, living at various times near Hinton, Bellepoint, Princeton, Kegley, Pipestem, Cool Ridge, and elsewhere, Alfred spent virtually his entire life in southern West Virginia. His music, however, traveled around the world.
Today, Violet’s children have fond memories of their grandfather. “Grandpa and Aunt Rose had a sitting room,” recalls Dolores Crawford of Sinks Grove, Monroe County, the eldest of Violet’s five children. “We would always go in there and sit with him and her, and they would sing. He would play, and they would both sing his songs to us. He was always a lot of fun; he was always joking and laughing with us.”
Little is known of Blind Alfred Reed’s early life. His family farmed, and somehow Alfred received an education, including learning to read and write in the New York Point System, a predecessor to Braille, which Alfred preferred. He became a skilled musician, though neither of his parents played music. He also developed a knack for language, a biting sense of humor, and a keen eye for social issues. He also held to a deep religious faith. All of these were evident in the songs he would later write and record.
Alfred married Nettie Sheard in 1903, and their first daughter, Savannah, was born in 1904. Then came sons Arville and Tessie, daughter Violet, and sons Basil and Collins. The family rented farms and raised most everything they needed.
“They had a fireplace and burned wood,” Dolores says. “[Nettie] had a wood stove that she cooked on. It was comfortable, always clean and neat – Grandma was a good housekeeper and a good cook. They had the big garden, and they had the cow, and they had the chickens and the turkeys and the honey. A lot of fruit trees grew around there, so they could make jams and jellies.”
Granddaughter Janet Hunter of Ronceverte, Greenbrier County, says that life was a struggle for the Reed family. “My mother [Violet] didn’t like to talk about it,” Janet says. “We’ve got the impression it was a very difficult upbringing, because of the lack of money. I know that she and her sister would at times go live with families and work for them, you know, help them with their housework. I guess that was a way to help with the family income. She never would tell me many stories, though. We never did know why our mother wouldn’t tell us these stories.”
Music, religion, and a positive attitude helped Alfred and his family through the hard times. In his later years, Alfred joked and played music around the house nearly everyday, and his grandchildren feel confident that these habits existed during his earlier years, as well. Local musicians often stopped by the Reed home to visit and play music. Some of these included fiddler Fred Pendleton, John Duffey, Harry Fulton, Ott Dunbar, and Rich Harold. Sons Arville and Collins played music, as did daughters Savannah and Violet.
Alfred had a talent for writing songs, especially clever, topical songs, and he was frequently called upon to write special compositions for political candidates or local causes. One politician, “Chap” Hubbard, hired Alfred to write a song protesting the proposed moving of the Mercer County courthouse from Princeton to Bluefield. Although he kept up on current events and voted regularly, Alfred wasn’t especially involved in politics, according to sons Arville and Collins in a 1971 interview. Alfred was a Republican, they said, but admired Franklin D. Roosevelt. [See “The Life of Blind Alfred Reed,” by the Rounder Collective; January-March 1976.]
It was Blind Alfred Reed’s songwriting that eventually afforded him the opportunity to make recordings. The wreck of the Virginian No. 3 at Ingleside, Mercer County, on May 24, 1927, made local headlines, killing the engineer and fireman. Alfred Reed told the story of this railroad tragedy in chilling detail, and his song, called “The Wreck of the Virginian,” attracted a good deal of attention. It apparently caught the ear of well-known Virginia singer and performer Ernest “Pop” Stoneman. As luck would have it, New York recording executive Ralph Peer was planning a talent-scouting expedition into the Appalachian Mountains that summer and was on the lookout for rural musicians. Pop Stoneman and his family were among the first to be invited to participate in these recordings, scheduled for late July and early August in Bristol, Tennessee. [See “The West Virginia Coon Hunters: On the Trail of a Lost String Band,” by John Lilly; Spring 2003.]
Ralph Peer was especially interested in finding mountain musicians and singers who represented authentic rural traditions, but who composed and performed their own songs. An astute businessman and music publisher, Peer hoped to obtain copyrights to these original songs, in addition to making recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Over the course of these two weeks, Peer discovered two of the most important and enduring country music acts of all time: the original Carter Family and the “Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers. The success of this recording expedition, known today as the “Bristol Sessions,” has led many to consider this as the beginning, or birthplace, of today’s country music recording industry.
At Pop Stoneman’s urging, Ralph Peer wrote to Blind Alfred Reed and invited him to come to Bristol to record his song about the train wreck. On July 28, 1927, Alfred made the recording, accompanied by his own fiddle playing. His clear baritone voice, stark fiddling, and poignant lyrics told the story of this unfortunate accident in a heartfelt and memorable way – no doubt exactly what Ralph Peer was hoping to hear. Mr. Peer must have been encouraged, because he also recorded Blind Alfred Reed performing three other original songs that day, accompanied by guitarist and neighbor Arthur Wyrick: “I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking In the Way With Jesus.”
Alfred was paid travel expenses plus $50 per song – a significant payday for Reed at the time.
Soon, Alfred was invited to travel to Camden, New Jersey, to make another series of recordings. That December, along with son Arville and fiddler Fred Pendleton, Alfred made what at the time was the longest trip of his life, by train. He again was paid $50 per song plus expenses, this time recording six numbers on his own. These recordings featured a broader range of original compositions, including two tragedy songs, two topical numbers, a sentimental piece, and a novelty song, all recorded on December 19, 1927. Most were performed with Alfred singing and playing the fiddle and Arville playing back-up guitar.
“Explosion In the Fairmount Mines” is a reworking of an older mining song, often called “Dream of the Miner’s Child,” adapted by Reed to commemorate the 1907 Monongah mine disaster. [See “No Christmas in Monongah: December 6, 1907,” by Eugene Wolfe, Winter 1993 and Winter 1999.] “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife” tells the true story of an ill-fated couple near Pax Junction, Fayette County, who unwisely drove their wagon on the railroad tracks. “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?” comments on the morality of women’s hair styles of the day, while “Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down” is a timeless plea for patience and understanding during trying times, said to be one of Reed’s most popular numbers. “The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl” voices the plight of a child of an alcoholic father. An unexpected highlight of the session, recorded and sung as a solo number by Arville Reed (incorrectly credited as Orville Reed) is “The Telephone Girl,” a witty and humorous story of a love-struck young man and a bewildering beauty, who spends the day in a distant gaze, saying “Hello, hello.”
While in Camden, Alfred, Arville, and Fred Pendleton also recorded four numbers as a trio, calling themselves the West Virginia Night Owls (or West Virginia Nite Owls). Only two of these were released: “Sweet Bird” and “I’m Goin’ to Walk on the Streets of Glory.” Two unreleased songs from that session bear intriguing titles: “The Fate of Rose Sarlo” and “Give the Flapper a Chaw.”
These commentaries on modern life during the late 1920’s, ranging from women’s issues to industrial disasters, alcoholism, and encroaching technology, reveal much about Alfred Reed’s personal concerns and about life in southern West Virginia at the time. Few other songwriters addressed such matters, and none as effectively or as thoroughly as Blind Alfred Reed. With these Camden sessions, Reed emerged as a fully developed artist with a unique style and repertoire.
Back home in West Virginia, Alfred apparently returned to his normal life, continuing to ply his music in Mercer, Summers, and Raleigh counties. At age 47, with five children, a wife, and a dependant sister, perhaps a life of show business and touring didn’t seem practical to Alfred. His blindness no doubt added layers of complexity to the prospect of traveling and performing extensively. It is also entirely plausible, in fact likely, that Blind Alfred Reed had no desire to embark on the risky pursuit of fame and worldly wealth. By all accounts, he was a contented and cheerful man, well-loved and cared for, and with a consistent local audience for his songs. He kept busy with his musical engagements, sold placards printed with song lyrics, collected occasional royalties from record sales, and wrote songs about whatever caught his interest.
Two years later, in December 1929, Alfred was invited to make another group of recordings for the Victor company, this time in New York City. He and Arville took the train north, arriving in sub-zero temperatures. They went immediately to the stylish Knickerbocker Hotel, where they were instructed by the Victor people to stick close by for fear that they might get lost in the city.
On December 3 and 4, Alfred and Arville recorded 10 more songs. These new numbers featured a familiar mix of topical lyrics, gospel themes, and sentimental songs, but introduced more ambitious vocal arrangements, featuring Arville singing harmony on several songs and taking the lead on two more. These final recordings by Blind Alfred Reed captured him at his peak and preserved some of his most powerful songs.
“There’ll Be No Distinction There” expresses a universal wish for racial and ethnic harmony in a religious setting, with lyrics including, “In the same kind of raiment and the same kind of shoes/We’ll all sit together in the same kind of pews/The whites and the colored folks, the Gentiles and the Jews/We’ll praise the Lord together and there’ll be no drinking booze/There’ll be no distinction there.”
The battle of the sexes was a popular topic for Blind Alfred Reed. These 1929 sessions included five songs – half the total output – discussing matters of gender, with titles including, “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” “We’ve Got to Have Them, That’s All,” and “Black and Blue Blues” decrying the ways of modern women, and “Beware” – an earnest warning to young ladies concerning the wiles of unscrupulous male suitors.
Perhaps most significant were Blind Alfred Reed’s commentaries on social conditions of the day. “Money Cravin’ Folks” condemns greed and materialism, citing selfish lawyers, preachers, merchants, doctors, and landlords as examples.
However, the song that has introduced the name of Blind Alfred Reed to audiences worldwide is “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” This eight-verse song is written from the perspective of a common man coping with rising prices and increasingly hard times. According to one verse, “Most of preachers preach for dough and not the soul/That’s what keeps a poor man always in a hole/We can hardly get our breath, taxed and schooled and preached to death/Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live.”
While the 1929 crash of Wall Street echoed across town, Blind Alfred Reed sat in a New York recording studio and articulated the struggles and concerns of blue-collar workers, farmers, and their worried families. When he was finished, he returned to West Virginia, this time to stay.
The Great Depression knocked the legs out from under the recording industry, leaving Alfred and Arvil’s recordings difficult to sell in large numbers. Victor released the recordings and promoted them vigorously, but the sour economy spelled an end to Alfred’s brief career as a recording artist.
By all indications, Alfred had no regrets and once again returned to familiar patterns back home. He played in Hinton until 1937, when the police began to enforce a long-dormant law, banning blind musicians from playing on the streets. In time, an aging Blind Alfred Reed quit performing in public altogether.
According to family members, however, he never stopped writing songs or playing for friends or family around the house. While many of Alfred’s later compositions have been lost to time, his family does recall a playful ditty he made up to quiet fussy grandchildren, as well as a rather detailed song about future son-in-law, Henderson Booth, who landed in a city jail for a traffic violation while on a date with Alfred’s daughter, Violet. Family members also remember Alfred singing hymns and popular songs, as well as some of the songs he had written and recorded, accompanying himself on fiddle, banjo, or guitar.
When grandson Denny Reed was about eight years old, Alfred gave him his fiddle, which Denny keeps as a cherished memento of his grandfather. Denny is a contemporary country musician living in New Jersey.
“I often wonder why he gave it to me,” Denny says. “But about the time he gave it to me is about the time I started playing guitar. Maybe he figured, ‘This kid’s gonna be musical, so I’m gonna give it to him.’”
Alfred’s wife, Nettie, passed away in 1948. Family members cared for Alfred and Aunt Rose until his death in 1956, of natural causes at the age of 75. Alfred and Nettie are buried at a small cemetery near Elgood, Mercer County. Rose died in 1957.
The songs and recordings of Blind Alfred Reed continued to circulate among collectors and fans of early country music. In 1959, the New Lost City Ramblers recorded three Blind Alfred Reed songs for Folkways Records. In 1970, roots musician Ry Cooder released a popular version of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” on his self-titled Reprise LP.
In 1971, a Massachusetts group known as the Rounder Collective called on Arville and Collins Reed. The Collective – Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin, and Marion Leighton – conducted detailed interviews with members of the Reed family and obtained permission to reissue Blind Alfred Reed’s 78-r.p.m. recordings on a modern LP record. The LP, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? The Songs of Blind Alfred Reed (Rounder Records 1001) was released in 1971.
Within a few years, young artists from across the country were performing and recording Alfred Reed’s songs, including the Red Clay Ramblers, David Lindley, the Blues Band, and others. In 2006, rock music superstar Bruce Springsteen released his version of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”
In 2007, Blind Alfred Reed was among the first group of inductees into the new West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. In conjunction with this honor, the Hall of Fame produced a CD recording, titled Always Lift Him Up: A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed (Proper American PRPACD006), featuring performances by country music stars Little Jimmy Dickens, Connie Smith, Kathy Mattea, Tim & Mollie O’Brien, and others.
Fifty-two years after his death, Alfred Reed is recalled fondly by a large and far-flung family of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other relatives. His music seems to be gaining in popularity, as more and more people become aware of his songs.
According to granddaughter Dolores Crawford, “I think it’s just amazing that he’s still remembered and that his music is still being played, because I know that he didn’t even dream that anything like this would happen. I think it’s because [his music] is so down-to-earth, and a lot of it holds true today. We’re going through a lot of the same stuff [now] – it hits home for a lot of people.”
Even younger family members, who might not have otherwise understood or related to Blind Alfred’s music, are taking notice. According to great-granddaughter Tina Wilson, “I am so impressed and honored to know that he was such an influential man in the music world. Who knew?!?”
Goldenseal magazine Winter, 2008 www.wvculture.org/goldenseal