- Blind Alfred Reed: Appalachian Visionary produced by Ted Olson
In 2006, during his Seeger Session Tour, Bruce Springsteen added an old song from the early days of the recording industry to his live sets. He kept only one original verse, adding his own to comment on the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and to critique President Bush (or "president bystander" as he calls him at one show) for his subsequent inaction. In 2013, British reggae band UB40 released a regrettable version of the same song on their new album, also taking lyrical liberties, in this instance to reflect concerns over the global financial crisis. That song, "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," was composed in the Jazz Age by Southern West Virginia farmer and musician Blind Alfred Reed (1880–1956). It's impossible to know how Reed—a deeply religious, lifelong Republican whose songs were heavily critical of capitalism—would feel about these subsequent versions, but he would undoubtedly be surprised by the song's longevity. He recorded "How Can a Poor Man?" in New York on December 4, 1929, one week after the stock market crash. He would never record again.
The 2015 CD and liner notes, Blind Alfred Reed: Appalachian Visionary, produced by East Tennessee State University professor Ted Olson and released by record label Dust-to-Digital, offers a newly remastered volume of Reed's entire recorded output, beginning with the 1927 "Big Bang of Country Music," The Bristol Sessions, and culminating with the recordings from Reed's final 1929 session. The CD also includes three songs recorded by Alfred's son Arville Reed (mistakenly published as "Orville Reed" on the original 78s), two of which feature his band the West Virginia Night Owls. The art book format also compiles complete lyrics, a bibliography, discography, rare photos and ephemera, and an essay by Olson.
Within West Virginia, Reed is adequately celebrated—as an inductee in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame's first class, through an entry in The West Virginia Encyclopedia and a 2008 article by John Lilly in Goldenseal: The Magazine of West Virginia Traditional Life (34:54–61; many of the photos within the Dust-to-Digital collection are sourced from Golden-seal), and as a somewhat baffling caricature on a mural in Princeton, the seat of Mercer County, home to Reed's farm. Outside of the Mountain State, however, access to information about and recordings of the blind multi-instrumentalist are limited mainly to various scholarly histories of the Bristol Sessions and Archie Green's Only a Miner (University of Illinois Press, 1972) and a handful of hard-to-find albums. In 1972, Rounder Records released the compilation, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? . . . The Songs of Blind Alfred Reed, now out of print (though copies circulate occasionally at used record stores and on record collecting sites like Discogs). In 1998, Scotland's Document Records released a complete Reed discography on CD, though the sound quality is less than ideal. Dust-to-Digital's release is the first widely accessible comprehensive Blind Alfred Reed collection, establishing Reed's work within the label's reputable catalog of archival recordings, and restoring Reed's importance within the history of country music, alongside Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Reed, Rodgers, and the Carters are in fact the only Bristol Recording Session artists who would go on to record for Victor outside of Bristol after Ralph Peer's 1928 sessions. [End Page 252]
In his liner note essay, Ted Olson situates Reed's brief recording career and biographical narrative within the broader framework of the country music recording industry as well as the sociopolitical climate in the United States at the time, arguing that the alignment of the end of Reed's recording career and the beginning of the Great Depression was no coincidence. While this may seem an obvious point, other texts on Reed lack this crucial framework, leaving his halted career and disappearance from the recording industry unattributed. Olson...