Again and again the story of old-time music features collisions between the unschooled, working-class originators and their educated, middle-class fans. It could be Joe Thompson meeting Flemons, Jay Ungar meeting Mike Merenda, Doc Watson meeting Ketch Secor, Woody Guthrie meeting Pete Seeger, Hazel Dickens meeting Mike Seeger, Bukka White meeting John Fahey, Bill Monroe meeting Peter Rowan or the Reverend Gary Davis meeting Bob Weir.
In most cases, both parties were changed forever. For the older musician, the encounter opened a door to new audiences and a new way of thinking about music as something more than a diversion from hard work. For the younger acolyte, it opened a door to a vast treasury of songs and performance styles that had escaped time by outliving their inventors.
Such a collision is recounted once more in the just-published book, Ola Belle Reed And Southern Mountain Music On The Mason-Dixon Line. The authors Henry Glassie, Clifford R. Murphy and Douglas Dowling Peach are academic folklorists (and write like such), but they tell a fascinating story of how Reed’s relatives and neighbors moved more or less en masse from the northwestern corner of North Carolina to the northeastern corner of Maryland in search of work during the Great Depression. These transplants tried to recreate their old community in a new setting, creating post-war country music parks where they could gather on Sundays for picnics and live music.
But there was a divide in the audience. Some wanted to hear the new-fangled bluegrass, whose speed and flash reflected the faster pace and technological jangle of a new era and a new home. Others wanted to hear the old-time music, the songs and instrumentals that defied time and geography to remind them of a way of life left behind. Reed, who lent her name to the new-wave string band Ollabelle, played both kinds, but when she was discovered by folklorists such as the authors and by well-traveled musicians such as Marty Stuart, they encouraged her to emphasize her own songwriting more — and those songs came out in the form of old-time ballads.
“In the late ’60s, the hippies were going out looking for a simpler way of life, looking for where all this music came from,” recalls Reed’s nephew, student and sometime collaborator Hugh Campbell. “Henry was one of those, and he heard Ola Belle and her brother Alex on the radio and came down to Oxford, Pennsylvania, where she lived. He asked questions, took pictures and made recordings. All that attention made her put more value on her own songs, songs that she didn’t want a band on, that she just wanted to sing in her big mountain voice. People like David Bromberg and Mary Travers started saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hear this mountain woman; she’s the real deal.’ I loved the fact that she was bringing those old songs back and just raging them out there.”
You can hear those songs on the two CDs recorded by the authors and included inside the hardcover, lavishly illustrated book. When you hear Reed sing in her female baritone and accompany herself on clawhammer banjo, so much slower and open-spaced than the locomotive-powered, Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo, you hear something essential about human nature, a conflict that was as true a hundred years ago as it will be a hundred years from now. That’s a rare quality in music, and that’s why it strikes each new generation with undiminished force.
“Worked for the rich, and I’ve lived with the poor,” Reed sings on her signature song, “I’ve Endured,” also recorded by Del McCoury and Tim O’Brien, “Shared many pleasures, had burdens by the score, lived, loved and sorrowed, been to success’ door, I’ve endured. I’ve endured.” She doesn’t claim that she has triumphed; she merely says that she’s endured, with every pleasure and burden buried inside her. You could say the same about old-time music itself.