Sunday, March 20, 2011

Music in Harlan County: Reedys & WHLN History

During the first few days of our Family Research Fellowship at the Kentucky Historical Society last fall, I stumbled upon an obscure online reference to John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Hillbillies in a Summer 1979 issue of a folk music journal published by the John Edwards Memorial Foundation called the JEMF Quarterly (Vol. XV, No. 54).  

This was an exciting discovery until I realized that the GoogleBooks version of the publication only displays a sliver of an excerpt, much less an entire page of text.

Luckily I found hard copies of the JEMF Quarterly in the Berea College Special Collections (784.4 J65q) and was able to get photocopies of the complete article that referenced Frances and John!  

According to the front inside cover of the JEMF Quarterly, "The purpose of the JEMF is to further the serious study and public recognition of those forms of American folk music disseminated by commercial media such as print, sound recordings, films, radio and television. These forms include the music referred to as cowboy, western, country & western, old time, hillbilly, bluegrass, mountain, country, cajun, sacred, gospel, race, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and folk rock."  So it is not surprising that Frances and John and their particular contribution to an era of Appalachian music was included in an article called "Music in Harlan County: Reminiscences of a Long Time Resident Part II" by Edward Ward with Robert Coltman (pp. 72-79).

Table of Contents (Back Cover), JEMF Quarterly, Summer 1979, Vol. XV, No. 54

What was especially wonderful about this article is that there were several sections devoted to different artists and music scenes in Harlan County.  While Frances and John were not included in a separate section of their own, they are featured as a main group the "WHLN Harlan" section about the history of the community's first radio station.

p. 75, JEMF Quarterly, Summer 1979, Vol. XV, No. 54

After the brief summary of WHLN's origins, the authors go on to talk about its first manager and the early live-music opportunities and efforts that resulted from the new radio station.

"Having a radio station so near at hand of course drew would-be musicians like molasses draws flies, and for several weeks after WHLN opened there were many country star hopefuls doing their thing with fiddle, guitar or banjo, or some other instrument. Soon the worst of these were weeded out, and then there were some very good entertainers performing on WHLN. Only a few of these went on to make any records" (p. 75).  

These comments are both humorous and hopeful in light of the WHLN newspaper ads for amateur music nights that we found at the Kentucky Historical Society.  Frances and John Reedy clearly made the cut and went well beyond amateur status in their 17½-year run as a regular WHLN  program, and the authors acknowledge them for their talent and level of local fame.
p. 76, JEMF Quarterly, Summer 1979, Vol. XV, No. 54
"Perhaps the most prominent and best-liked group was John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Hillbillies.  The group consisted of John Reedy, his brother Roger, his sister Marie and his wife Frances. They made several personal appearances throughout the area at local school socials, etc. and went on to cut a few 78 rpm records. One of their popular numbers, which they wrote and which has been recorded by other artists, was “Somebody Touched Me”  ...  I’m not sure how many 78s the Hillbillies cut, but they were sold through the music stores" (p. 76).  This article correctly states the familial relationships of the band members, and the author's lack of awareness about the Reedy's numerous commercial recordings is understandable because most of these were produced outside of Kentucky in Cincinnati, Dayton, or Nashville.

Ward and Coltman mention several other artists that were part of WHLN and early Harlan County radio music programming, some of whom Frances mentioned in her oral history interview.  It would also be interesting to find the JEMF Quarterly issue with Part I of their "Music in Harlan County" reminiscences.  Meanwhile, they close the section on WHLN Harlan with an excellent homage to the music of that particular place and time.

"I think the coming of WHLN back in the early forties was one of the better things that have happened to our area. Of course the early music programs were the favorite programs of the people, and since these were all live from the studio broadcasts, this added a certain charm. Now live programs are a thing of the past, and only canned music goes out on the cool mountain air. But I love to let my memory return once more to the early forties, and it seems at times I can hear The Prairie Ranger, or The Stone Mountain Hillbillies, or Marion Brock, or Blind Jim Howard and the Farmer Boy making the wonderful old time music and singing those beautiful old ballads and hymns that only country music lovers can play and sing" (p. 76).

Ed Ward as a co-author of this article is significant because Berea College Special Collections also houses a collection of his folklore and music materials, to which we owe much appreciation for a previous Reedy-related treasure.  During our Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship, we found a couple of cassette recordings of songs that we think were from one of the few records not included in Frances' almost otherwise complete record collection.  So we were able to get digital copies of these versions of "Oh Death" (Collection EW, Archive # 210-53 B 07, BC Sound Archives) and "A Prayer Is Worth More Than Silver or Gold" (Collection EW, Archive # 001-117 B 04, BC Sound Archives).

We have Ed Ward to thank more than once now for providing additional audio and historical context for the Harlan County music scene of which Frances and John Reedy were an important part.  Thanks again to Berea College Special Collections as well for the wealth of archival materials and information that we continue to discover in your welcoming world within Hutchins Library.