When it comes to topical songwriters and performers we often think of early pioneers like Woody Guthrie or, even earlier, Goebel Reeves (the Texas Drifter). Often the topical songs written were by record company house songwriters who wrote songs recorded by many artists. Unique among those who wrote and recorded their own material was the Victor artist from West Virginia, Blind Alfred Reed, who recorded an outstanding series of recordings in 1927 and 1929.
Alfred Reed was born blind in Virginia, in 1880, but despite this handicap he earned a living on West Virginia farms. He and his wife, Nettie Sheard, enjoyed a 45-year marriage during which time they had six children. To raise such a large family in West Virginia the Reeds needed every penny they could earn: a few children did chores for other families, and father Alfred developed a small musical career on the side. He played his fiddle at dances and socials, busked for small change in Hinton and other nearby towns, and later printed and sold sheets with his own lyrics. He also served as a lay minister in the Methodist Church. He became a recording artist for Victor in 1927 by way of a referral by early country recording artist Ernest Stoneman to Victor’s Ralph Peer. Reed enjoyed three sets of recording sessions for Victor; two in 1927 and one in 1929. He continued busking in Hinton until a 1937 ordinance forbade street performance by musicians; by then he was 57 years old and his children were grown. He lived the rest of his life in comfort under his famiy’s care and died at home, in 1956, in Cool Ridge, West Virginia.
The exact circumstances of Ernest Stoneman’s discovering Reed are not known, but it’s assumed that they met in Hinton sometime around 1926 or 1927. The timing was just right for Ralph Peer who was planning a Victor commercial recording visit to Bristol, Tennessee for which he sought musicians with original songs that could be copyrighted. On the basis of Stoneman’s referral, Peer invited Reed to come to Bristol, where the musician travelled during the last week of July 1927. The circumstances for recording and performing were unpromising; the studio was makeshift in a hat factory. Reed had to make the trip with a neighbor, Arthur Wyrick, instead of his usual guitarist, his son Arville Reed. Nonetheless, Alfred Reed cut two clean takes of “The Wreck of the Virginian,” which he had composed two months earlier to cronicle a nearby train crash. Accompanying his singing with only his fiddle, these takes allow us the best recording of his baritone voice. Wyrick joins in on guitar for the other three songs recorded that day (“I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking in the Way with Jesus”), none of which stands up to the “Virginian.” However, the two resulting releases sold well enough that summer and fall for Peer to invite Reed to a second session that December.
The follow-up session in December, held at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey, is better as Arville Reed and a local fiddler named Fred Pendleton made the trip with Alfred. The studio was professional and the musicians were encouraged to record as many songs as they could. The performances are peppier and more polished due to Arville Reed’s being a better guitarist than Wyrick. The significant hit from this session may have been “Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls” (if the fact that a “Bob Hair #2” was recorded in 1929). That third and final recording session took place in New York City in the wake of the stock market crash. Among his last sides was “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live.” Other sides recorded include “There’ll Be No Distinction There,” “Money Cravin’ Folk,” “Black and Blue Blues,” “Beware, Oh Take Care,” “Chris Lively and Wife,” “Women’s Been After Man Ever Since,” and “You’ll Miss Me.” With the Victor label becoming part of RCA in 1929, many of the Victor artists weren’t invited back to record and among those was Blind Alfred Reed, although “Bob Hair Number Two” sold 7,000 copies in 1929 (a more than respectable sales number for that year). However, the oncoming Depression made sure he wasn’t invited back.
So, what can be made of Reed’s recording legacy? His ideas and attitudes and even his style of songwriting reflect songs written in the 1910s with little or none of the stride or emerging swing styles. He comes off as a middle-age fogey but one with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. There have been reissues of Reed’s material on the Rounder and the Document labels, but none are as complete as the new issue of his work on the Dust-to-Digital label #48 (great notes, complete set of lyrics, and the best sound yet on any issue of his material. The title of this CD, Appalachian Visionary, may be a pun on Reed’s blindness, but the vision he conveys is more ethical than apocalyptic.