Monday, March 9, 2015

Reedy References

Over the holidays, we spent some time revisiting our research findings and searching for additional online references from the past couple of years. We came across several interesting and inspiring sources and had some unexpected conversations related to Frances and John Reedy's contributions to audio history and culture.

For example, we came across this reference in the September 22, 1945 issue of Billboard Magazine that includes “John Reedy’s troupe from Harlan, Ky” among the grandstand attractions in Pennington Gap, Virginia alongside “Grandpappy Jones and Company from Grand O’l Opry” (p. 52) and other popular artists.

There were also some listings of “John Reedy” as the artist reference for a couple of the Reedys’ commercial recordings in a 1962 issue of a publication called Country Music Promoter. Unfortunately, the entire pages that the references come from are not available. However, there was an intriguing invocation of Frances as the uncredited star in the shadows in a listing for the Starday SEP 166 recording that includes her singing lead vocals on “Oh Death.” “All numbers are not vocalized by John Reedy as number 1 is surly [sic] a female voice. To [sic] bad that the identity of the singer is not listed on the record” (p. 4). 

The last reference is from a full-page Starday ad for the label's LP series of “Country,” Western,” “Bluegrass,” and “Sacred” recordings, which includes the Reedys’ version of “Oh Death” on the Tragic Songs of Death and Sorrow compilation (image source: Gary Reid).

Even more exciting than these popular music publications from when the Reedys were actively cutting and selling records are two recent scholarly publications that mention their influence on the history and icons of bluegrass music. The Starday Story: The House that Country Music Built (2011) by Nathan D. Gibson includes two references to “John Reedy” in the index. In a discussion of the spreading popularity of Bluegrass music by the late 1950s, Gibson notes that “Starday had earned its reputation as the bluegrass label” (p. 83) and mentions several famous artists who recorded with them, including the Stanley Brothers, Carl Story, Charlie Monroe, among others. He goes on to mention “John Reedy” among some of the “less well-known bluegrass acts” (p. 83). Of course, Frances Reedy talked about having played with all of the above-mentioned musicians and more in her oral history and stories she shared with her family and friends, but it is affirming to see at least John included in this history. Later Gibson discusses the Starday label's development of gospel recording series, which lists “John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Trio” among the “plethora of gospel bluegrass EPs” (p. 102).

As we have noted in previous posts, Bill Monroe has often been mis-credited with writing John Reedy’s gospel song “Somebody Touched Me.” Gary B. Reid includes two index references for "John Reedy" that point to a couple of substantial discussions that clarify this and an inverse erroneous credit in his book, The Music of the Stanley Brothers (2014). He also mentions yet another mis-credit by someone named "Ahmet Ertegun" who we also learned had copyrighted the song in 1954 and 1958. 

Reid not only cites John Reedy's authorship of the song, but he repeats anecdotal evidence that suggests the possibility that the Reedys and the Stanley Brothers produced their early historical recordings on the same date (March 1, 1949), which could support Frances' stories about playing with them in Bristol, Tennessee. He writes, "Yet the song was actually written by eastern Kentucky musician John Reedy and was recorded by him and his Stone Mountain Hillbillys for Twin City Records, allegedly on the same day that the Stanley Brothers recorded 'White Dove'" (pp. 124-125).

Reid later corrects a reversal of mis-credit in which John Reedy is incorrectly listed as the author of "Oh Death." He goes on to discuss a detailed history of the song, but what is most interesting is that he credits Frances' mystery vocals on their Starday recording of the song as "the model for the Stanley Brothers' rendition" (p. 178)!

In addition to these discussions of the Reedys in print publications, we found some noteworthy online resources that reference the Reedy documentary blog. For example, our Voice-O-Graph recording post was shortly followed by an updated John Reedy discography by Dick Grant on Praguefrank's Country Music Discographies (Vol. 2). We also found our blog listed on a page of "Inspiration" links for a community history project in Central Austin, Texas as well as the University of Wisconsin-Madison Oral History Program's website among "Oral History Projects and Programs around the U.S., including University programs" in the Southeast. More direct recognition for our project was posted on the Eastern Kentucky Art Project Facebook page on January 18, 2015: "Wonderful project documenting the Bluegrass and Rock-a-billy scene in Dayton, Ohio coming out of the region's outward migration! Check it out! This is a great model for preserving all of those important stories out there related to Eastern Kentucky music."
On the music-listening front, there are some new developments with a couple of Frances' recordings, including one of her own songs. Last year we were contacted by Timothy Kane and Annika Iltis, co-directors of a documentary called "The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young" about the most difficult trail race in the world, which happens to be in Appalachian Tennessee. They were planning to use an old gospel song called "I Feel Jesus" recorded by Jimmy Murphy and his wife Flo on the soundtrack,* and they had come across the same song title on our project blog and asked if might be the same song written by Frances. We confirmed that the lyrics were the same and that they knew each other well, and they expressed interest in listening to and possibly using the original version on the Starday SEP 209 recording. They commented, "It seems that a lot of the information about the music of Appalachia has been lost. Thank you so much for all of your hard work and amazing research."

We were able to share a digitized version of the 45 rpm recording as well as a digitized reel-to-reel home recording of the song with Timi playing washboard in the background. Interestingly, they in turn shared a recent cover of the song, titled as "Oh My My" by Anna and Elizabeth, and we quickly realized that we knew who they were already! I saw Anna perform as part of her public presentation for her Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship in 2008-09, and we saw both of them perform at the Clear Creek Festival a couple of years ago.

Anna and Elizabeth are well-known young musicians who participate in contemporary  sub-cultures that preserve and perform “traditional” music, so it was quite interesting to listen to their old-timey version of the song in contrast to Frances' original recording from the early 1960s, which at the time was a very contemporary country version with a Honky Tonk flavor. The Barkley Marathons documentary that includes the song will premiere at the Nashville Film Festival in mid-April.

Finally, Frances' ghost vocals on "Oh Death" are alive and well as an influential version of the song in the history of Bluegrass music. After discovering the generous treatment of John and Frances in The Music of the Stanley Brothers, we contacted Gary Reid to let him know that we were thrilled to see John Reedy acknowledged in a formal publication about Bluegrass music, especially when he is cited as the author of "Somebody Touched Me." We also shared a link to our blog and let him know that the woman singing on John Reedy's recording of "Oh Death" was his wife Frances and that she was also an accomplished songwriter in her own right. 

We were pleased to receive a response from Reid thanking us for "the clarification on the vocals on the Reedy recording of 'Oh Death'," and he informed us that this version of the song "was included in a single CD collection last year called '18 Best of Starday Gospel.' Catalog number GUS-2345." He also indicated that he is currently "a co-producer on an upcoming 4-CD set of classic bluegrass that was recorded for the King and Starday labels. Among the cuts chosen for inclusion is the Reedy cut of 'Oh Death'." Reid said, "The bluegrass collection is still a work-in-progress," so we look forward to updates about this future release. He also told us that he had "visited and enjoyed the blogspot site a number of times... VERY interesting." Many thanks to Reid for offering numerous insights and clarifications and for sharing the full-page image of one of the pages from the October 1962 issue of the Country Music Promoter.

Months later, we are still reeling with gratitude from this abundant holiday cornucopia of acknowledgement for Frances and John Reedy. We admire the work that so many people have done to tell the story and sing the songs of Appalachian and Bluegrass music traditions. We are exploring a possible opportunity for sharing some of this work and some of our own with a visual anthropology audience. So we will post an update when more information is available on this potential project. Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who contributes to and transmits the greater knowledge about Appalachian music, migration, and memory.
* We learned that the Jimmy Murphy cover of "I Feel Jesus" (with Flo on vocals) was an unreleased Starday recording that was later included on an Ace Records CD compilation of his Starday and REM sessions (CDCDH-714).

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