We have mentioned the Reedys' recording of "Oh Death" in several previous posts, and thanks to the important work of historian Gary B. Reid, we have discovered more documentation of their background role for the Stanley Brothers' recording of the song. He recently shared an amazing archival recording that he agreed we could post. "I thought you might like the attached audio track. It's Ralph Stanley as a guest on 'The Sound of Bluegrass' radio show that was hosted by Frank Godbey in Columbus, Ohio. The date of the program is September 9, 1967. In any event, Frank asked Ralph where he learned the song 'Oh Death.'"
"We learned this song from a feller called John Reedy. He was a, him and his wife, they sang all gospel songs. They were from Harlan, Kentucky, but I think now they're probably around Dayton, Ohio." Frank responds by dedicating the song to the Reedys, saying that they might be within the broadcast reach of the station, WMNI FM. "Let's play this one for the Reedys in case they're listenin'." Timi said that her Mamaw and Papaw were already living back in Kentucky by 1967, so they likely did not hear this dedication.
Frank Godbey is well-known as a Bluegrass musician and expert aficionado, and he and his late wife Marty wrote a number of articles for Bluegrass Unlimited and other publications. He also published a cumulative index of Bluegrass Unlimited, and he is renown as the moderator of BGRASS-L, an internet bluegrass music discussion list founded in 1992. In an archived post from the list-serve, Godbey notes, "In the Summer of 1967 I had a radio show on WMNI-FM, Columbus Ohio", which is the station he identifies in the recording. Apparently he lives in Lexington and is still active as a musician in his current band, Southland Drive.
On the recording, Godbey invites the Reedys to come to Chatauqua Park the next day. According to the Cincinnati-Dayton Bluegrass Heritage list of organizations* compiled by Russell “Mac” McDivitt with help from Fred Barenstein, "The first annual Chatauqua Bluegrass Festival on September 10, 1967 headlined Ralph Stanley with Larry Sparks singing lead, Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, Don Reno and Bill Harrell, Jim McCall and Earl Taylor, Moon Mullins and the Valley Ramblers, the Moore Brothers, and the Cornhuskers." An online track list of Bill Monroe's set at the concert shows that he played John Reedy's gospel song, "Somebody Touched Me." The Reedys are also included on the Cincinnati-Dayton Bluegrass Heritage list of individuals who were influential in the development of the Bluegrass music scene in Dayton and Cincinnati. While the listing is indexed under his name, Frances is included in the reference: "From Harlan County, Kentucky, John Reedy and his wife Frances appeared on radio in Harlan, Kentucky, for many years and became well-known for their bluegrass gospel recordings."
We also found a new reference to Frances and John's version of "Oh Death" in a book chapter entitled, "'Won't You Spare Me Over till Another Year?': Ralph Stanley's Late Voice" in The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music (2015) by Richard Elliott. The chapter includes an entire section dedicated to the song, which references John but not Frances who actually sang the iconic vocals on their 1961 Starday recording (SEP 166). "When the Stanley Brothers recorded 'Oh Death' in 1964 for the Starday label, they also provided a surprisingly uptempo rendition. But their version, which seems to have been sourced from fellow Starday artist John Reedy, is a changed song, with fewer of the 'Chandler' verses and the addition of the new refrain: 'won't you spare me over till another year, which they or Reedy may have learned from black gospel or spiritual versions." (Elliot 2015:77)
As Gary Reid helped confirm, the 1964 recording referenced in Elliott's book was actually recorded on the King label (LP-918) instead of Starday (although the Stanley Brothers did make numerous recordings on the Nashville label).
It is always good to see the Reedys' influence as founding Bluegrass musicians acknowledged in archival documentation and contemporary scholarship. We are ever grateful to Gary Reid for sharing an important piece of radio history that connects John Reedy (and Frances as his wife) to the Stanley Brothers' famous recording of "Oh Death." Because John Reedy is still emphasized in most references, even when Frances is responsible for the vocal work under discussion, we continue the work of naming her and her contributions within a male-dominated musical tradition. We are also interested in further exploration of the direct connections that Frances and John may have had with African American churches and musicians. It is increasingly clear that their music and that of their contemporaries drew upon (and likely collaborated with) African American spiritual and gospel traditions in ways that were not always publicly acknowledged.
* The Cincinnati-Dayton Bluegrass Heritage website used to be known as the Bgrass, Inc. Heritage List and was hosted by the Miami University of Ohio.