Fiddle Archives - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Instrument Interview: Blind Alfred Reed’s Fiddle

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Several questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk to Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle:

First, can you tell us about Blind Alfred Reed?

Sure, I love to talk about him! Blind Alfred Reed was born in Floyd, Virginia, on June 15, 1880, though he spent most of his life in West Virginia, especially around the Princeton area. He was born blind, possibly using a slate and stylus to help him with writing, and he learned how to play the fiddle at a young age.

He was well-known in his area as a talented fiddler and songwriter, and his family remembers him as a multi-instrumentalist who might have also played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and even the organ! Alfred played music anywhere he could – churches, parties, night clubs, political rallies, and dances, and he recorded twice with Victor Talking Machine Company. He gave music lessons and wrote his own compositions, often selling broadsides of his songs.

As with many people during the 1920s and 1930s, Alfred relied on his garden and subsistence farming to help support his family. He also worked as a Methodist lay preacher – he didn’t have his own church, and often preached on street corners instead. Alfred passed away on January 17, 1956.

Black and white photograph of two musicians standing in front of a handwritten performance advertiseman placard. Both are white mean and wearing suits and holding fiddles. Blind Alfred Reed is to the right -- he is tall with dark hair. The man to the right is shorter with lighter colored hair.
Blind Alfred Reed standing with another fiddler in front of a handmade advertising placard for a performance. Courtesy of Goldenseal Magazine

How did Blind Alfred Reed’s blindness affect his daily life and his musicianship?

Alfred and his sister were both blind from birth, and because they had grown up blind, they had a whole host of different tricks to help them negotiate daily life – from loudly ticking clocks, a wire leading from the house’s door to the outhouse, and memorizing the number of steps it took from different places in the house. Alfred also learned New York Point and American Braille, both tactile reading and writing systems for the blind.

As for music, Alfred’s blindness didn’t hamper his playing and performing. In fact, playing me brought him a lot of pleasure each and every day! He often busked on the streets of Princeton, walking three miles between our home and the city. However, a 1937 statute in the area where he lived banned blind street musicians, and this took away some of our musical money-making opportunities.

Where did Blind Alfred Reed get you?

I have a label inside of me that notes the name Giovanni Maggini and the date 1695, and for a while, Alfred’s family though that I was made by an Italian luthier way back in the past. However, Giovanni Maggini actually died in 1630 so that turned out to not be correct!

A New York violin dealer and restorer took a look at me and determined that I am a commercial instrument, possible advertised and sold through a mail-order company like Sears Roebuck or even from a local music store. Commercial instruments were often made “in the style” of famous instrument makers and so will bear a label inside to reflect that. Alfred owned me by around 1905—1910 so I am probably not much older than that.

Left: A photograph of Blind Alfred Reed's fiddle in its case with the bow beside it. Right: A close-up of the F-hole of the fiddle showing the label with the name Giovanni Maggini on it.
Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle, including a close-up of the F-hole with the Giovanni Maggini label inside. © Birthplace of Country Music

 Were you part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions?

I certainly was! Ralph Peer personally invited Alfred and me to record at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and Alfred’s son Arville brought us down from West Virginia to do so. Apparently Ernest “Pop” Stoneman told Mr. Peer about us and the regional popularity of “The Wreck of the Virginian,” a song Alfred wrote about a train wreck that occurred in May 1927. This song was one of the biggest sellers from the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

Besides his train wreck song, Alfred recorded three others at the 1927 Bristol Sessions – “I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking in the Way with Jesus.” Soon after, he recorded several more songs for Peer and Victor in 1928 and 1929 for a total of 21 sides

In 2016, I traveled to Bristol for the first time since the 1927 Bristol Sessions to celebrate the publication of Blind Alfred Reed: Appalachian Visionary, a book and CD set.

An older white woman is sitting on a wooden bench in a museum space. She has short blond/white hair, and she is wearing a white long-sleeved top over a light-colored tee and dark blue pants. She is holding a fiddle in two hands.
Ernest Stoneman’s daughter Roni got the chance to hold Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle at the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions in 2017. Image courtesy of Denny Reed and Jane Thompson

Where else were you played?

As I noted above, a lot of our music-making together was at local events and through street busking. Mr. Peer did invite us – along with Alfred’s son Arville – to record several more songs in 1929 at the official Victor studios up in Camden, New Jersey and New York City. Sadly, after that recording session in December 1929, we didn’t record again, though Alfred kept playing music locally.

Looking back, Alfred probably would’ve been a more popular singer if the Great Depression hadn’t hit – not only did this affect the commercial viability of the music recording industry at this time, but Arville also went off to World War II and so Alfred didn’t really have the opportunity to travel to sing.

However, Alfred has been recognized for his contributions to music since his death. For instance, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Did Blind Alfred Reed have a favorite song he played on you?

Alfred didn’t necessarily have a favorite fiddle tune, but he sure loved to play me and he loved writing his own songs. Everything he wrote about was real, based in life’s trials and tribulations, its moments of happiness and sad times. He’s get his ideas from a lot of different sources – through the newspaper stories his wife read to him, by listening to the radio, family and friends telling him the news and local stories, and by reading his Braille Bible.

Alfred has a lot of songs that are recognized as important or particularly interesting songs, and he certainly used music to say something. For instance, his song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” outlines the challenges of those living in poverty and thus was especially appropriate to the hard times of the Great Depression. This song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2020. Several of Alfred’s songs were aimed at social ills and other issues he saw as problematic in the 1920s – such as “Money Cravin’ Folks,” “The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl,” and “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines,” – and because of this socio-political commentary, Alfred is considered one of the early protest singers of the 20th century. However, he also injected some humor into his musical observations – his song “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?” made a to-do of women’s short hair styles in the 1920s, telling them to ask Jesus for forgiveness!

Despite his recognition as a skilled fiddler and talented songwriter though, Alfred often got his greatest pleasure later in life playing music for his grandkids and hearing them dance around and enjoy his music.

What are you doing now?

Alfred’s family values me and my connection to Alfred and his place in the history of early commercial country music. And so I still live with his grandson, another great musician!

Finally, what’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?

Oh, this is a good one! The difference between a violin and a fiddle is that one of them has strings and the other one has strangs!

* Dr. Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator of the Museum. Special thanks to Denny Reed and Jane Thompson for their time and stories to help make this “Instrument Interview” possible!

The Root of It: George Jackson on Ed Haley

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys.

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with Nashville-based fiddler George Jackson. Born in New Zealand, George discovered bluegrass music at 14 years old and began learning mostly from recordings. He took to string band music quickly and soon after won the Australian National Bluegrass Championship on fiddle three times; he now pursues a professional career here in Tennessee. With two award-winning albums under his belt – 2019’s Time and Place and the recently released Hair and Hide – Jackson has made quite an impact in the bluegrass, old-time, and folk world as a composer, nuanced musician, and band leader. George spoke to us about celebrated West Virginian fiddler Ed Haley.

George Jackson featuring Brad Kolodner performing “Neighbor Mike” off of his latest release Hair and Hide.

George Jackson:

As someone who was born on the other side of the world from where country music comes from – and whose journey through it started as a teen listening only to what I had exposure to around me, mostly just music from Béla Fleck and a few other relatively modern and flash bluegrass pickers – it’s been a continual journey of discovery for me. Throughout, I’ve been diving deeper and further back generation by generation into the history of early American country recording artists, learning where sounds I’m familiar with in modern recordings and players might have originated, or filtered down from, piecing together the lineage though my own experiences playing and learning this music from its practitioners. Ed Haley is a player that brought a lot of threads together for me when I discovered his music and playing, but of course his influence on me had been longer than I knew. Haley is a continual source of inspiration for fiddlers, and though I didn’t know it at the time, his influence on my playing started right back when I started learning American fiddle music, at the age of around 14 in my home land of New Zealand.

I’ve been aware of, and directly impacted by Haley’s music for a good number of years now, but before I knew his playing or even his name, I can trace some early influences that filtered down to me in my teen years. Haley’s virtuosic playing, tune writing, and iconic versions of fiddle tunes are a strong source of influence on subsequent generations of fiddlers in West Virginia and Kentucky where Haley was based, and much further afield spread by the home recordings he made that were later released – these filtered down through the likes of John Hartford into the bluegrass music scene until it reached me in New Zealand many years later. By the time it reached me of course, it had been through many hands and ears, but I can recognize certain Haley-influenced turns of phrase or stylistic details from the way I first learned to play tunes like “Forked Deer.”

This black-and-white image shows Ed Haley sitting in what looks to be a formalized portrait setting for a photographer. There is a painted landscape behind him and a patterned rug at his feet. He is a white man with partly closed eyes; he wears a dark fedora, a white button-down shirt, dark pants, and a lighter overcoat, buttoned-up. He is holding a fiddle and bow in his hands.
Blind from the age of three, fiddler Ed Haley influenced countless musicians including Clark Kessinger, John Hartford, and our guest blogger George Jackson.  Ed Haley seated with fiddle. Photo from West Virginia Music Hall of Fame

By the time I became aware of old-time music specifically, I was closer to my 20s, and as with most people who aren’t brought up in the geographic regions where this music is from or is being played regularly, my first exposure was to modern players and traveling old-time music gateway musicians such as Bruce Molsky. It’s at this point I get that next step closer to Haley’s music, because if his influence is now written into bluegrass fiddling DNA, its inescapable through the playing of almost all modern players of old-time fiddle. There are so many tunes I knew through jam sessions, concerts, and CDs that are Ed Haley specials – I knew this music and its spirit before I knew who to attribute them to specifically.

At a certain point, as happens with most of the music I’m exposed to, I wanted to hear it from the source, so I remember a day when the curiosity got the best of me and I’d heard the name Ed Haley one too many times. And so I finally got around to looking up Haley’s fiddling and listening through the static of some of his home recordings to the wonderfully virtuosic and melodic playing, along with its multiple variations that are his signature. All these threads of my musical journey started to come together, I’d recognize tunes from bluegrass jams amd recordings of modern old-time or bluegrass fiddlers, and I started to hear the root of many influences on my own playing looking back at me. It’s an amazing thing to be able to listen to music made almost a hundred years ago and, in a moment, see how far that sound has traveled, changed, and also stayed the same.

I’ve recorded a few tunes I learned directly from Haley’s playing recently, and when I learn these tunes they feel natural – I recognize the patterns under my fingers. Though playing an Ed Haley tune is never easy, there are always some finger buster moments that make you stop and think, “Boy, this guy was good!” On my new album, there’s a rendition of Haley’s “Ida Red” that’s a total burner of a tune. The first phrase still trips me up if I’m not concentrating, those micro-movements of multiple pinky finger notes on the E string are something else. It doesn’t get much better than Ed Haley, and I’ll be learning things from him for a long time yet, I’m sure.

Ed Haley’s squirrely rendition of “Ida Red.”

To learn more about George Jackson or to purchase his new album Hair and Hide, visit Released in November 2021, Hair and Hide is an exploration of fiddle and banjo through 14 songs featuring some of the finest players of their generation, including appearances from Jake Blount, Frank Evans, BB Bowness, and more.

The cover image shows George Jackson standing in a pasture with a barn or farmhouse behind him. He is a white man with slightly longer wavy hair and a beard. He is wearing a white patterned button-down shirt with a brown or ochre-colored cardigan and jeans. He holds a small black and white goat in one hand and a fiddle in the other.
George Jackson’s critically acclaimed release Hair and Hide debuted on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts in mid-November.

Kris Truelsen is the Radio Bristol Program Director. He also performs in the band Bill and the Belles.