[9 March 2008]
“Accept Blind Alfred Reed into your life! You must unload!”
In July 1927, Ralph Peer, music publisher and A&R man for the Victor Talking Machine Company, set up a temporary recording studio in a former furniture store at 408 East State Street, Bristol, on the Tennessee and Virginia border, and proceeded to capture country music history in the making. Within a two-week period, the innovator of field recording had laid down tunes by both “the Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers and “the first family of country music”, the Carter Family. The famed Bristol Sessions put “hillbilly” music on the map. But it wasn’t only AP, Sarah, and Maybelle Carter who came careening down the hillside in a old jalopy searching for wealth and fame.
Blind from birth, Alfred Reed was a traditional fiddle player with a gravelly baritone voice who scratched a living for his wife, Nettie, and their six children by playing church socials, dances, and busking in the streets and parks of Princeton, Pipestem, and Hinton, West Virginia. His repertoire resembled that of many musicians of that period, including the Carter Family, who recorded the Reed composition “There’ll Be No Distinction There” in the mid-‘30s, and consisted mainly of popular religious songs, nineteenth-century parlour ballads and traditional tunes.
What set Reed apart from most performers of the time, and brought him to Ralph Peer’s attention, were his self-penned numbers brimming with topical and social commentary. He was a strict, God-fearing man, perhaps, whose views about the perils of damnation awaiting young ladies who bobbed their hair (“Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls”, sang here by Ann Magnuson with tongue firmly in cheek) might seem a tad harsh to modern ears. But also one with a social conscience who also sang about racial inequality in “There’ll Be No Distinction There” (a beautiful a cappella rendition by Bare Bones appears here) and the inequities suffered by the poverty-stricken during the Great Depression on songs like “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” (as fate would have it, Reed himself is said to have died of starvation in 1956). The latter was revived in the ‘60s by the new Lost City Ramblers, in the ‘70s by Ry Cooder, and, most recently, by Bruce Springsteen at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The 19 songs on Always Lift Him Up: A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed comprise renditions of all but three of the hillbilly balladeer’s complete works originally released by Victor and were recorded in honor of his induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame last November. The subject matter ranges from the fervently chauvinistic opener “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since” and “We’ve Got to Have ‘Em” to the deeply held religious beliefs espoused on “Walking in the Way With Jesus” (of which two versions appear) and “I Mean to Live for Jesus” through to the tragic “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines”, when 362 men and boys lost their lives on the 6th of December, 1907, in West Virginia. But even when Charlie McCoy’s country drawl relates the “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife” when “They were killed / Engine crushed horse and wagon” by an Eastbound train, the mood is always kept light and the songs bounce along, aided by a slew of excellent Virginia singers and musicians, including Little Jimmy Dickens, Kathy Mattea, Tim and Mollie O’Brien, and Pentecostal harmony singers the Nichols Family.
All too often, tribute albums tend to be hit-and-miss affairs, with self-conscious performers providing stilted renditions of music they find difficult to command, let alone inhabit. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Every song on Always Lift Him Up is sung with convinction—even when the artist may not agree wholly with the sentiments the lyrics express—but more importantly with a warmth that shines through and provides a fine testament to one of the founders of country music.