Monday, June 13, 2011

Reedy Collection Finding Aid & Historical Narrative

Overview of the Collection *

The Reedy collection consists of correspondence, news clippings, photographs, liner notes, miscellaneous memorabilia, sound recordings, and videos documenting the musical career of early Bluegrass musicians Frances and John Reedy of Harlan and Corbin, Kentucky and Dayton, Ohio.  This collection was donated to the Berea College Special Collections and Archives by Timi Reedy, Frances and John Reedy's granddaughter, as part of an Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship in Fall 2009

John Reedy is perhaps best known as the composer of the gospel song “Somebody Touched Me,” which he wrote in 1939.  A response to a reader’s letter in the August 2004 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, notes that “John Reedy is an artist whose name appears on a number of song credits, but about whom little has been written. We know he and his wife Frances were from Harlan County, Ky.  …We have  virtually no information on Frances Reedy, but her vocal work on ‘Oh Death’ reveals her to be an excellent old-time singer, with a delivery reminiscent of the singing of Julia Mainer.”  The few published items sometimes contain incorrect and conflicting information, such as in the “Early Days of Bluegrass” liner notes that erroneously refer to the Reedys as “Starting out as a sister/brother group.” 

John William Reedy was born in Tennessee on December 9, 1918.

His parents were Elizabeth Honeycutt and Harrison Reedy, who was a law-man in Harlan County where he grew up.

Frances Williebob Ridner was born in Bell County, Kentucky on December, 31, 1922.

Her parents were Maude Miller and Bob Ridner...

...but she was raised by her paternal grandparents Nancy Ann Mullins and Andrew Jackson Ridner in Harlan as well.

According to an oral history with Frances, she learned to play guitar around the age five or six by watching her uncle play and practicing what she learned afterward when her grandmother took his guitar off the wall and let her play.  She recalled learning songs and playing along with Bradley Kincaid on the radio. Because she didn't have her own guitar, she said she didn't really start playing again until around the age of 12 or 13 when she traded her hand-crank Victrola and all her records to a boy for a Regal guitar. 

John and Frances married on November 22, 1936 when Frances was 13 and John was 17 but they apparently lied about their ages on the marriage license.  Frances gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Joyce Ann in 1938 when she was 15, but the child died from leukemia at the age of fourteen months.  Frances and John’s older son (and Timi’s father) Harold William Reedy was born on August 25, 1940, and their younger son Charles Timothy (Tim) Reedy was born on January 17, 1945.  Sadly, a set of male twins were stillborn between the birth of their surviving sons.

In Frances’ musical oral history interview, she recalled the beginning of her and John’s musical career when they first got married.  John played harmonica, and Frances taught John's sister Marie and his brother Roger how to play guitar.  They formed a family band known as John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Hillbillies and first played at twice-monthly "songfests" in Harlan County organized by Uncle Joe Shoemaker, where they also played with Julian and Glen Rainey who played the banjo and mandolin respectively.

During the 1940’s and 50’s, the Reedys had a daily radio program sponsored by Fuller Furniture on WHLN in Harlan on and off for 17½ years.  According to Frances, Jay Barlow was the DJ, and sometimes the studio was so crowded with audience members from the community that they had to record the show outside in the parking lot.

The Reedys played on several other radio stations in the region, including WBVL (Barbourville), the short-lived WCPM (Cumberland), WCTW (Whitesburg), WJHL (Johnson City, TN), and WNOX (Knoxville, TN).  Frances also recounted playing at a number of other diverse outlets throughout the region, including schoolhouses (sometimes traveling in a wagon), churches, the Wise County Fair (Wise, VA), and local theatres. 

According to family documents, the Reedys would most likely have first played at Renfro Valley between the early 1940's and early 1950's (prior to their temporary migration to Dayton, Ohio). In her oral history, and Frances' recalled playing there on the weekends when the original Coon Creek Girls, Red Foley, Slim Miller and Molly O’Day and her husband Lynn Davis performed there in the early 1940’s.  While Special Collections holds extensive relevant business correspondence, publicity, and radio program transcripts from Renfro Valley, there are only a couple clues and no direct documentation of their presence there, even in the occasional references to guest musicians or “extras” in addition to the regular cast of Renfro Valley stars. 

John Lair's business correspondence does allude 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 because her memorabilia includes 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.

Throughout their regional travels and gigs, the Reedys met and/or played with many well-known country, gospel, and Bluegrass musicians.  Frances recalled opening for Earnest Tubb at the Harlan Theatre as well as playing various times with Coon Hunter, Bill Monroe, Lost John and the Allied Kentuckians, Kitty Wells, and Johnny Wright.  They played also played with Carl Story and the Ramblin’ Mountaineers somewhat regularly at the Wise County Fair.  Frances also remembered getting to meet Chet Atkins, Don Gibson, and Dolly Parton while they were doing programming on WNOX. During World War II, John was briefly stationed at Camp Atterbury in Indiana as an Army cook in 1944.  Frances recalled that they played music in some of the theatres in Indianapolis while John was in service.

John wrote “Somebody Touched Me” in 1939, but it was first recorded in 1947 (or 1949) as a 78 rpm record on the Twin City label in Bristol, Tennessee.

"Somebody Touched Me" (John Reedy - Twin City Records, Bristol TN)

As John’s most famous song, it is often erroneously credited as a traditional or to other composers.  The song has been re-released on compilations or re-recorded and covered by other artists more than 40 times since it was first recorded.  Commercial recordings include cover artists Roy Acuff, Boxcar Willie, Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Carl Story, and even Solomon Burke and Bob Dylan.  While it remains John Reedy’s most famous song, both he and Frances were both talented songwriters, and they recorded mostly their original music throughout their musical careers.

Frances and John probably first moved to Dayton to work in the General Motors factory around 1953. The Reedy manuscript collection includes a weather-worn recommendation letter, dated April 2, 1953, from R.B. Helms, then President of Blanfox Radio Co., Inc.  The letterhead references membership stations of the “Good Coal Network” as WHLN (Harlan), WCPM (Cumberland), and WNVA (Norton, VA).  The letter is addressed simply “To Whom It May Concern,” so it most likely intended to help them secure music gigs when they moved north. 

Between the early 1950's and mid-1960's, the Reedys lived in Dayton during the workweek and commuted home to Kentucky every weekend; however; their migration during that period was also broken into alternating 5—6-month residencies in Ohio and Kentucky.  Thus, the Reedys never completely migrated away from their native home even while they worked in Dayton for more than a decade.  In the mid-1960’s, they permanently returned Kentucky to live in Corbin. 

When John and Frances Reedy moved to Dayton, they became part of both a much larger migrant Appalachian population in Ohio as well as a substantial transplanted group of Appalachian musicians who recorded on several independent record labels in Dayton and elsewhere.  During their temporary migration to Dayton, the Reedys recorded a prolific amount of material not only on commercial record labels but also on extensive homemade reel-to-reel recordings. In the early 1960's, they recorded one 45 on the Ark label (Cincinnati), three 45’s on the Jalyn label (Dayton), six multiple-track EP-45’s on the Starday label (Nashville), and custom-recorded four 45’s in Dayton. In 1962, Starday released a compilation LP entitled Tragic Songs of Death and Sorrow featuring Frances' vocals on “Oh Death.”

The Reedys self-recorded at least fifteen reels of material including musical performances, radio programs, sermons, and family gatherings.  Most of these are home recordings of jam sessions or what are probably multiple takes of songs that they were rehearsing prior to commercial recordings; however, some are dubs of their 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.”

Another reel is a 1961 recording of a family Christmas gathering in 1961, on which John interviews his family members who are visiting them in Dayton.  The reel-to-reel recordings also include at least one original song that was not commercially recorded (i.e., “Parking Meter Blues”) as well as a John singing an unusual medley combining song titles from their repertoire.  Later home recordings include a couple of cassette tapes of live material, but most cassettes in the collection are back-up dubs of previous reel-to-reel recordings.

Frances and John briefly divorced and remarried in 1963-64.

During their estrangement, she lived temporarily with her daughter-in-law in Dayton.  Years later, a newspaper article in the Corbin Times-Tribune was published about Frances and John when their song "Somebody Touched Me" was included on the Rounder Records compilation LP The Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 1 in 1975.

When they discuss the songwriting process and other songs they had written, such as Frances' song "Tiny Bitty Pieces."  She attributes the origin of this catchy country tune of lost love and trust to the demise of "a couple of friends," but it was in fact written to and for John.  Similarly, John wrote "Knocking on Your Door" to Frances as a result of their brief separation.

Shortly after reuniting, the Reedy family returned to Kentucky to live in Corbin, where their older son also settled with his children.  Timi Reedy grew up in Harlan and Corbin, and as a child, she spent a great amount of time with her grandparents.  She remembers traveling with them during mid-1960's and mid- to late-1970's as they toured the region and performed at regional churches and community gatherings as well as Renfro Valley and the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1973, Frances and John recorded a 45 of the traditional tune “Little Sparrow” and Frances’ song, “Tiny Bitty Pieces” on the Jewel label Cincinnati, Ohio.  A year later, John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Hillbillies were documented as founding Bluegrass musicians on the album “The Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 1” produced by Rounder Records in 1974.  The album included the original recording of “Somebody Touched Me” and was later cataloged in the Library of Congress.


Frances and John recorded three 45’s on the Viola label at the Lundy Recording Studio in Barbourville, Kentucky: Summer's Gone / That’s the Man I’m Looking For (1976), Moonlight and Music / Grandad’s Fiddle (1977), and Cherokee Lady / Tennessee Duals (1978).  They also recorded the LP Hymns from the Hills of Harlan County Kentucky on the Lundy label on July 15, 1977, and sometime in the late 1970's or early 80's, they released an 8-track called On My Way to Heaven in collaboration with Barbourville-based Bluegrass band the Brush Creek Grass. 

Throughout the Reedys’ musical career, they both also worked various jobs to support their family and save money for their own place.  In Harlan during the late '30's and early '40's, John worked briefly as a cab driver, coal-miner, and truck driver.  Frances was a retail saleswoman in a department store.  While living in Dayton, they both worked at the Inland division of GM.  When they finally settled in Corbin, Frances served as the primary cook and manager for Reedy’s Pizza, which was owned by her sons Harold and Tim, and she later worked as a grocery clerk at a local market.  John volunteered for various community projects in Corbin, including lobbying for paving the gravel road in their neighborhood and helping start the first ambulance service in the area. 

On Christmas in 1980, Frances and John's older son Harold captured their last recorded musical performance together with a VHS camcorder.  John had several health problems, and a few short years later, he passed away at his home in Corbin on January 30, 1983.

Frances played the guitar less and less after her husband died, but she would still occasionally sing a traditional ballad or other songs in her repertoire upon request by family members.

In 1996, Timi helped interview her grandmother at her home in Corbin for two oral history videos collected and preserved by Appalachia—Science in the Public Interest (ASPI): one was on the condition of the forest in Eastern Kentucky while she was growing up, and the other focused on her musical background and career.  Frances' music history narrative is truncated and ends before the Reedys even migrated to Dayton; however, the interview includes Frances performing a couple of traditional tunes that Timi loved from her childhood, which was a rare occurrence during the latter part of her life as well as her last recorded performance.

After struggling for several years with multiple health problems, Frances Reedy passed away in Corbin on April 6, 2006 at the age of 83.

The Sound Archives collection includes the original commercial recordings by the Reedys, including their first 78 rpm recording of “Somebody Touched Me,” fourteen of eighteen known 45 rpm records, the Tragic Songs of Death and Sorrow LP, Hymns from the Hills of Harlan County LP, Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 1 LP, and On My Way to Heaven 8-track. Homemade recordings include 15 reel-to-reel tapes, more than 20 cassette tapes, a DVD copy of the original VHS Christmas home video, and VHS and audio cassettes from both 1996 oral history interviews with Frances.  All of these original materials have also been digitized. 

The Reedy collection includes almost 100 original family photos, about 40 original musician photos (of the Reedys as well as other musicians, including an autographed photo of Bill Monroe), as well as other important archival material such as newspaper clippings, liner notes, and a radio station brochure, correspondence, post-marked envelopes, school records, and obituaries.  There are also more than 400 digital images, including over 200 family photos and more than 40 labels from commercial vinyl recordings. 

The Reedy manuscript collection and sound recordings reveal a sense of collaborative musicianship, a culture of family and camaraderie, and an astounding intentionality regarding the documentation and preservation of their own history and experience.
* This historical narrative is a biographical summary of Frances and John Reedy's lives and music as well as a "finding aid" description of the Reedy manuscript and sound archives collections that we donated to Berea College Special Collections as part of our Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship.