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Alan Jabbour on Henry Reed and the Grand Old Virginia Repertory
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Alan Jabbour on Henry Reed and the Grand Old Virginia Repertory
Gus Garelick

I first heard some of Henry Reed’s tunes in a recording by the Hollow Rock String Band in the early ’70s. I did not know this band, nor had I ever heard of Henry Reed. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t familiar with any tune on that album. I thought Hollow Rock might have been a local string band from the 1920s, until I realized they were actually my contemporaries. They were students and folk musicians from the Durham, North Carolina, area, and their fiddler was a young graduate student, Alan Jabbour. Their repertoire came from many of the older local fiddlers and banjo players in the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont, including a remarkable Virginia fiddler named Henry Reed.

Alan Jabbour met Henry Reed through other fiddlers in West Virginia, and quickly discovered that this unique octogenarian, in Glen Lyn, Virginia, was a living link to a vast repertoire of Virginia fiddling. He formed a friendship with Reed and his family which led to his recording and transcribing over one hundred-eighty tunes in six or seven recording sessions. Eventually, that collection would become a part of the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, and, through bands like Hollow Rock, the tunes would enter the repertories of old time bands all over the country.

Alan worked at the Library of Congress for many years, first as head of the Archive of Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) and then as Director of the American Folklife Center. Now retired from that position, he continues to play fiddle and teach workshops in Appalachian fiddling at fiddle camps, folk festivals, colleges, and music schools throughout North America.

This interview was recorded for my radio program, The Fiddling Zone, in May, 2012, prior to a West Coast tour by Alan and banjo master Ken Perlman. It aired on May 14, 2012. Alan is a wonderful storyteller, as well as a great fiddler and folklorist, so a simple question could be an opening to many fascinating anecdotes and philosophical observations. We started out talking about his original meeting with Henry Reed, and ended up discussing the future of fiddling in America. And this was only a half-hour interview!

In addition to his published recordings in the LP era, Alan Jabbour has recorded two CDs of the music of Henry Reed, and others. The first one, A Henry Reed Reunion, featured Alan on fiddle, former Hollow Rock musician Bertram Levy on banjo and concertina, and Henry Reed’s son, James, on guitar. A second album, Southern Summits, features Alan on fiddle and Ken Perlman on banjo. Alan has also completed a book of written transcriptions of the forty-five Henry Reed fiddle tunes on these two CDs, called Fiddle Tunes Illuminated. Both CDs and the book are available through Alan’s website: www.alanjabbour.com.

Meeting Henry Reed

Tell us how you met Henry Reed. I know you were a graduate student back in the mid-’60s at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, and you were already collecting a lot of tunes from local fiddlers and other musicians. How did you hear about Henry Reed?

My wife and I were on a car trip in West Virginia, visiting Oscar Wright and his son Eugene Wright. They were wonderful musicians. Oscar played fiddle and banjo and sang with a high tenor voice. He played old time tunes—in fact, he was playing a lot of tunes I’d never heard before. I asked him where he got these unusual tunes, and he said, “Oh these tunes come from ‘old man Henry Reed’.” Well, I imagined he was talking about someone long since passed away, and I said something to that effect. And he said, “Oh, no! Last I heard, he was still around. He’s ten or fifteen years older than me, but he’s still playing the fiddle, as far as I know.”

So, he gave us directions to Glen Lyn, Virginia, which is right across the border from Princeton, West Virginia, and Karen and I drove there and met Henry Reed. We had a great session. I recorded about forty tunes that evening, and at least half of them were tunes I’d never heard before. Not because he made them up, but because he’d preserved this great old Virginia repertory that virtually everyone else had forgotten. He had it all, he played all those tunes, actually hundreds of them. It was an amazing experience!

How old was Henry Reed at that time?

He must have been about eighty-one. He was born in 1884 and died in 1968. That meant that he learned his repertory from long before radio and records. In fact, he had already learned a lot of music by the turn of the century. He was also one of those musicians who acquired tunes wherever he went. He would play any tune that he liked, and so he added new tunes and didn’t forget the old tunes. He had a magnificent repertory. I recorded six or seven sessions with him, and at the last one, he had twenty more new tunes. We weren’t anywhere near the bottom of his repertory.

The Old Virginia Repertory

This represents a very old tradition. How far back do these tunes go, historically?

A lot of the tunes he played were included in a collection called Virginia Reels, published by a Virginia music master in 1839. This is one of our only windows into what fiddlers were actually playing in early 19th-century America. And Henry Reed was playing about half the tunes in that collection; this was the grand old Virginia repertory, going back to the late 18th and early 19th century. It was brought into the Appalachians by Virginia settlers who moved there in the 1840s. His own mentor, Quince Dillion, was born in 1826 and moved up with his family from the Danville, Virginia, area, up into the mountains in the 1840s. That gives you a sense of how deep that tradition is. Quince Dillion played fiddle, but he also played fife before and during the Civil War. This man was born in the Jacksonian era, and died in 1903, but before he died, he taught a lot of music to Henry Reed. I like to see myself at the end of a long time-line, from today, 2012, going back to 1826; and right there in the middle is this man Henry Reed.

You knew Henry Reed as an old man, but did he play a lot in his younger days, and where did he play?

He played parties and dances, and he was well known in the local region. Everyone knew about him. His house was always thought of as a place where musicians could go, and there would always be music. He would welcome anyone, stayed up all night and played tunes, and then went off to work the next morning. So, that was the way he was. Everybody knew him locally, but he never recorded or played professionally with a band. His fame was only local, and by the time I knew him, people were saying “You should have heard him twenty years ago.” He had developed a tremor that interfered with his playing, and you could hear that on some of my recordings.

Recordings and Transcriptions of Henry Reed’s Tunes

How can people access these tunes?

It’s on the Library of Congress website. It’s entitled Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection (www.memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/reed/). It’s everything I recorded of him, warts and all! If he was shaky that day, that’s the way it is. If he cut it short because he thought one time through was all I needed, that’s what we recorded.

How many tunes did you finally record?

144 different tunes, but there were fragments of other tunes and repeats. Maybe it was over 180 items. If I had three more years, I probably could have doubled that figure. I was a grad student and I loved doing this, but I had other things I had to do, too. And people often ask me if I got [school] credit for this, or if I had a grant. But, no, I did not have a grant and I didn’t get any credit. I just carved out the time to do this. It was exciting and changed my life.

[For the full text of this interview, as well as transcriptions from Alan’s book “Fiddle Tunes Illuminated” of “Henry Reed’s Favorite” and “Billy in the Low Land,” purchase the Spring 2013 issue.]

For more information: www.alanjabbour.com

[Gus Garelick is a fiddler, mandolin player and radio programmer in Santa Rosa, CA. His band, The Hot Frittatas, plays an eclectic variety of music, including Italian and French café music, and more. He is also the Music Director of the Gravenstein Mandolin Ensemble, and the producer of The Fiddling Zone, aired on KRCB FM in Santa Rosa.]

James Reed and Alan Jabbour by Karen Singer Jabbour
Henry Reed by Karen Singer Jabbour