Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Legacy of Blind Alfred Reed

Musical genres have a life span just like most everything in the universe from stars to butterflies.  Birth is followed by increasing energy and vitality.  At some point a peak of production and power is reached.  Then comes a decline, sometimes slow, sometimes rapid.  If it is slow enough, irrelevance and loss of function precede death.  It's not an even journey.  Hills and trough of health and lack of productivity afflict many living and natural entities, even movements.

In music, a genre comes to life because it speaks to something that some group somewhere needs to hear.  It springs from what came before.  But it has a new form, or a combinations of old forms, that produces a new style.  If it connects to what people need, if it speaks for them, it becomes popular.  It's usefulness comes from being a catalyst for their sufferings, aspirations, and life experiences.

Invariably, if the genre gets popular, it grows into a sellable commodity.  The rough edges get ground down.  The words may remain the same or fade into echoes of their former vitality.  But the mainstreaming of the genre enriches the broader population.  They would have never listened to the authentic original, but they will try the sanitized version.

Purists hate this for understandable reasons.  Meaning gets lost.  Pioneers get forgotten.  Yesterday's call to action sells vacuum cleaners or financial services tomorrow.  You can tell when a genre of music loses touch with the roots that nurtured it.  Singers can ape the accents, performers can play the instruments, but it lost some of its original soul.

Bluegrass music seems to be the purview of elite intellectuals, far from the farm and oil refinery worker roots of Bill Monroe.  Monroe came to prominence playing traditional songs from Kentucky in a new style.  "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Muleskinner Blues" were authentic coming from him.  Later musicians sound fine when they sing these songs, but it lacks authenticity.  And newer compositions with current themes just don't make sense.

Country music earns performers and record companies money hand over fist.  Musicians make pretty good money singing about small towns, good or bad.  Problem is that many of them don't really come from small towns and a lot of them have always lived in relative comfort.  Very few people even living in what today is called poverty could fathom the early years of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton.  Country music might not be quick to embrace addicts with personal pain like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams Sr.  Would they today accept a convicted felon like Merle Haggard?

He may not have been 21 in prison serving life without parole, but he knew these guys personally during his stint.

The struggles they endured in life made their music real for their listeners battling the same demons and authentic for everyone else.  Is the struggle for goodness and salvation, or the penalty for turning your back on decency and morality as emphasized in today's music.

Rap and hip hop is following the same track, definitely having reached the mainstreaming stage at this point.  Its urban black roots share a common cultural source with what country music used to be.  The Southern culture that gave birth to both had themes of violence, retribution, poverty, fatalism, and aspiration to material betterment.  The element in old country missing from most rap and hip hop is the divine retribution for violating morality.  Murderers and killers ( male ones, anyway), adulterers, and other malefactors end up punished somehow in country music, not in urban.

Thievery can be excused in country, as in Johnny Cash's "One Piece At a Time."  Marijuana use also is tolerable, at least in the old music of Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., Steve Earle, and the general public perception of Willie Nelson.

Which brings me to a long forgotten, once popular, pioneer of radio music.  Blind Alfred Reed (in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame) emerged from obscurity around World War I, playing county fairs, political rallies, almost any venue.  He was an early radio performer who earned some fame in the early years of the Depression.

Some remember his "How Can a Poor Man Stand These Times and Live" as a damning bit of social commentary, but most of his music reflected populism and Christian morality as it was seen at the time.

Reed's most mocked music (again, among those who remember!) was "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls?" and "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls 2."  The two songs are at heart a tale of violating God's law, risking his disfavor, then the path to redemption.  In the 1920s, short hair on women was subversive.  It was contrary to standards of beauty, expectations of men, and symbolized sexual independence.  Reed attacked the symbol instead of the behavior, which realistically might have required a longer song.  The minister, however, does lay out an explanation of how sin and redemption work more clearly than most sermons.  Unfortunately, his choice of sin makes the song painfully archaic.

As behind the times as "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls" sounds, "There'll Be No Distinctions There" is a crowning achievement of courage.  Within the song comes the assertion that God does not segregate by race, nor does He discriminate against the Jewish in heaven.  This is a shot across the bow of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan just after the peak of its national influence in the mid 1920s, right before J. Edgar Hoover's personal crusade to grind them into irrelevancy.  In the mountain counties where Klansmen held considerable political power, these sentiments could be hazardous for one's health.

He also sang of the suffering caused by train wrecks and mine explosions.  The Fairmount Mine Explosion has an interesting convergence of themes in it.  The industrial and family themes dominate.  A father is about to go to work in the mine.  Before he leaves, his daughter awakes and begs him not to go to work.  He must choose between the peace of mind of his daughter and his work ethic and need to be paid for the day.  The father chooses to soothe his daughter's fears; then the mine explodes.

It also includes a touch of mountain mysticism.  David Hackett Fischer in Albion's Seed describes the North British border country ways that came to Appalachia.  Charms, sorcery, and divination were some of the forms that it took.  In "Fairmount Mine Explosion", the daughter has the power of seeing the future through her dreams, expressed by the simple "sometimes you know my dreams come true."  This comes from an older and hidden system of values percolating up in this 20th century song.

Reed's career had a short trajectory.  By the mid 1930s he had returned to performing on street corners until his home county of Mercer in West Virginia prohibited street performances by blind people in 1937.  this comes remarkably close to an unconstitutional bill of attainder.

Horrifically, his most famous song became his prophecy.  The man who asked if a poor man could stand such times and live, serving on the side as a Methodist preacher, died of starvation in the 1950s.

Blind Alfred Reed was part of the birth of country and folk music genres while also being part of the first generation of radio performers.  Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and others owe Reed and performers like him a huge debt for building the foundation that helped them become both famous and influential.

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