Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fellowship Goals & Accomplishments Update

We have just reached the mid-point of our research fellowship in the Berea College Special Collections and Sound Archives, and so Harry Rice asked for a brief update on our original fellowship goals and the progress we've made thus far. The details of our research plan were articulated and outlined in the residency timeframe of our fellowship proposal. Therefore, this reflection on our activities thus far follows the same general categories of project implementation as our proposed research timeline. 

1. New Research and Documentation:
A primary component of our fellowship, of course, was conducting new research on Frances and John Reedy (primarily) and their contemporaries (secondarily) in the Berea College Special Collections manuscript and audio archives. We originally identified several promising collections that we thought would likely include some reference to the Reedys. For example, one of the main collections for review was the John Lair papers and corresponding audio to look for any documentation of the Reedys at Renfro Valley. 

According to the family timeline we've compiled based on family documents, excerpts of a video oral history with Frances, and Timi's own recollections, the Reedys would most likely have played at Renfro Valley between the early 1940's and early 1950's (prior to their temporary migration to Dayton, Ohio) and between the mid-1960's and mid- to late-1970's. At this point, we have examined all of John Lair's relevant business correspondence and publicity as well as about a quarter of the relevant radio program transcripts; however, so far there are only a couple clues and no direct documentation of their presence there.

John Lair's business correspondence alluded to some of the Renfro Valley “units” of performers who traveled to various venues such as schools, civic clubs, and communities in the region. This could possibly correlate to Frances' recollections of the different places they played. For example, we found among her memorabilia an old ticket stub of a “Hill-Billy Show,” and a Renfro Valley booking agent uses this same phrase in a 1943 letter to responding to an inquiry about bringing performers to their community. “I could not give you a Renfro Valley Name Show for $550 Per week. However, I could give you a good hill-billy show to play these camps, for that amount.”

A review of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance transcripts from 1938—April 1950 has not surfaced even a minute lead such as this one, although there are occasional references to guest musicians or “extras” in addition to the regular cast of Renfro Valley stars. It seems doubtful that they will be included in subsequent transcripts of that program, but we plan to continue browsing them nonetheless. Since the Reedys were mostly recognized as a gospel bluegrass band, we are more hopeful that they might be referenced in the transcripts for the Sunday morning Gatherin' program.

Another area we planned to explore was the Reuben Powell collection. So far, we have only looked through one box of material focusing on some Renfro Valley festivals, etc. While there was no direct mention of the Reedys, there are several “track lists” of bluegrass festival performances that Reuben Powell recorded, one of which included an interesting lead worth pursuing. The track list for the first annual Bluegrass Festival indicates that Shenandoah Valley Quartet performed “Somebody Touched Me” at the end of their set on Sunday, July 10, 1971. This recording will at least provide another audio version of the song for our collection and may also include a reference to John Reedy as the song's composer and/or how the group came to learn the song. We plan to explore additional manuscripts and recordings in the Reuben Powell collection before our fellowship ends.

A preliminary search of the sound archives database resulted in several recordings by John and/or Frances Reedy on cassette. Two of these, “Oh Death” and “Prayer is Worth More than Silver or Gold,” were in the Ed Ward collection; however, after listening to them, we determined that were dubs of a 45 record, most likely Starday SEP 166 as both songs were included on Side A of that recording. (While these are not live recordings, they are fortuitous because this 45 is one of the few we do not currently have in the collection.) The other three recordings are obviously of another man named John Reedy as they were made in the early 1990's, nearly a decade after Timi's papaw's death. Otherwise, there are several versions of “Somebody Touched Me” by various artists in the Sound Archives that we would like to digitize for comparison at some point. 

2. Processing and Digitizing New Materials:
The other significant set of tasks we set out to accomplish was organizing, digitizing, and processing the donation of Frances' music and manuscript collection for incorporation into Special Collections and Sound Archives for use by other researchers. Because of the volume of material and the urgency to get it into appropriate climate conditions, we ended up spending most of the first month of our fellowship on this task (as opposed to new archival research, which we began in more recent weeks).

Of particular importance was the digitization of several reel-to-reel recordings for which we previously had no way to playback. John converted these tapes to CD so that we could listen and identify titles of songs, participating musicians, and approximate recording dates. We have completed preliminary track-lists for all 15 CD's worth of reel-to-reel material. Most of these are home recordings of jam sessions or what we believe to be multiple takes of songs that they were rehearsing prior to commercial recordings. There is also a tape of performances at an unknown church with additional unknown singers and musicians. Some recordings are of family gatherings, and others are dubs of 45 recordings. One tape included a recording of a radio “infomercial” advertising the release of the Starday Hall of Fame records and playing selected tracks, including “Oh, Death.”

These recordings are important because they reveal a process of collaborative musicianship that is sometimes contentious and comical but always fun-loving and focused. They're also valuable because they include a couple of original songs written that were not commercially recorded (i.e., “Parking Meter Blues”) as well as a John singing an unusual medley combining song titles from their repertoire.

We had some difficulty playing cassette tapes ourselves, so John was also able to convert these to CD for us.

We are still in the process of listening and identifying track lists for these 10 CD's, but it's already clear that some of them are dubs of 45's and the reel-to-reel recordings. Fortunately, one of them apparently includes a dub of the single commercial 8-track recording.

In addition to digitizing and identifying audio tracks, we've also scanned a substantial number of images. For example, we've scanned more than 40 labels from 45's and LP's, about 20 musician photos (of the Reedys and others), and over 50 family photos.

We have also scanned other important archival material such as newspaper clippings, liner notes, and a radio station brochure that Frances had kept. This process was sometimes tedious but still illuminating as we discovered material that we hadn't seen before. The newspaper articles and other archival documents have also provided valuable facts, points of reference, and leads that have been useful as we have drafted a timeline of their career and begun researching in the archives.

For the most part, we have completed this phase of our fellowship with the exception of digitizing vinyl recordings that will remain in the Sound Archives. We recently purchased a turntable with a USB connection so we can have digital copies of recordings of not only the Reedys' commercial recordings but other musicians that they collected as well.

Digitizing the Reedy recordings will also enable us to more closely compare different versions of the same song at different times in their lives. 

3. Comprehensive Inventory and Finding Aid:
The final phase of the fellowship is compiling a comprehensive inventory and finding aid of Reedy materials in Special Collections. We have completed a substantial portion of this part of the project already as we created a master discography spreadsheet at the very beginning on and have updated throughout all of the aforementioned activities. For example, while sorting through 45's and scanning labels, we compiled track lists, record labels, approximate recording dates, etc. The spreadsheet now includes additional pages of track-lists for the reel-to-reel tapes and now cassette tapes. We have shared this information with Harry as we have added more detail to the discographies, but this process will likely comprise our primary activity, along with photo logs for all of the photographs that we have scanned and are donating to Special Collections, as our fellowship draws to a close.


With just over a month remaining, we feel very productive so far, but we also realize that there is still a lot to accomplish, especially in the archival research. This part of the project has been very time-consuming with relatively little reward, which can sometimes be frustrating. However, there is still a lot of valuable information to garner from reading about the Reedys contemporaries and musical industries like Renfro Valley.

In the next couple of weeks, we will be completing the requirements for our Community Scholar program and preparing for a short presentation on our project for our last class session. We anticipate that this will be an excellent opportunity to share our findings with others in an abbreviated format and will help us prepare for our final fellowship presentation on campus at the end of the semester.