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On Ola Belle Reed

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On September 9 and 10, the American Folklife Center will feature a concert and symposium celebrating the accomplishments of Ola Belle Reed. The following is a guest post by Douglas Dowling Peach, which will fill you in on who Reed was and why we’re featuring these events. Peach is a graduate student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, Bloomington. Most recently, he worked as the South Carolina Folklife and Traditional Arts Program Director at the McKissick Museum (University of South Carolina) and the South Carolina Arts Commission. He is the producer, along with Henry Glassie and Clifford Murphy, of the two CD/book, Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line (Dust-to-Digital Records).  He has conducted fieldwork throughout the Southeast United States — with a particular focus on the coastal region of South Carolina — as well as in Ukraine and Argentina. He has lectured on public folklore, applied ethnomusicology, American vernacular music, and the African Diaspora to audiences in the United States and China.

Born within listening distance of the New River in 1916, Ola Wave Campbell–later known as Ola Belle Reed–began her musical life among family in the mountains of Ashe County, North Carolina. Her grandfathers were fiddlers, her maternal grandmother a singer, and her uncle, father, and aunt all members of the New River Boys and Girls–a regional performance group. Music was central to Ola Belle’s young life, found in church, social dances, and just for the fun of playing with others.

Photo 1 - New River Boys and Girls
The New River Boys and Girls. Pictured left to right are Oliver Dockery (Ola Belle’s uncle), Arthur Campbell (Ola Belle’s father), Ellen Campbell (Ola Belle’s aunt), and Rebecca Jones. This photo was taken in 1916, the year Ola Belle Reed was born. Photo courtesy of Douglas Dowling Peach.

The Campbell family moved from the mountains of North Carolina in 1932, in search of work and to evade the Great Depression. Like many others who left the poverty of Ashe County, their destination was the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. It was here that Ola Belle’s experience with music turned from a community practice into a profession.

She made her first recordings with the North Carolina Ridge Runners at the end of the 1930s and, along with her brother, Alex Campbell, founded the New River Gang in 1948. Ola Belle and Alex were regional celebrities through their radio appearances on WASA and WCOJ radio, while playing as the “back-up band” for the stars of country and bluegrass music at two country music parks: New River Ranch from 1951 to 1958 and Sunset Park from 1958 to 1979.

It was during this latter period that Ola Belle Reed began to take seriously the prospect of a solo career. She assembled a band with banjo player Burl Kilby and fiddler John Miller, occasionally joined by Alex Campbell. Her repertoire moved from the country and bluegrass songs she performed at Sunset Park to the mountain music of her youth, learned alongside family in Ashe County.

This period in Ola Belle Reed’s artistic development is documented in the first half of Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line, a new two-CD/book published by Dust-to-Digital. Over the course of ten sessions from January 1966 to June 1967, folklorist Henry Glassie–now College Professor Emeritus of Folklore at Indiana University–sat with Ola Belle to document her story during the day and to record her band at night. The collection features the first recordings of Reed’s classic, “I’ve Endured,” several of her original compositions (“You Led Me to the Wrong” and “Undone in Sorrow”), and a host of ballads, gospel songs, and mountain tunes. Glassie’s five chapters in Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line paint an early biography of Reed, contextualize her within the history of American country music, and help us understand Ola Belle’s musical mission: to express the values of loyalty, acceptance, and love.  [Ed. note: Glassie donated copies of his recordings of Ola Belle Reed to the Library of Congress in 1976; they have been available for research in the Folklife Research Center ever since.  The Dust-to-Digital release makes them much more widely available.]

Photo 2 - Alex and Ola Belle on WCOJ radio
Ola Belle Reed and Alex Campbell on WCOJ radio. They broadcasted from Campbells’ Corner, a store they owned that catered to transplanted Southerners in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Douglas Dowling Peach.

Today, the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland is where the generation of musicians that followed Ola Belle Reed still find themselves. Her son, David Reed, and nephews, Hugh and Zane Campbell, are some of the artists featured in part two of Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line. Clifford R. Murphy, a folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and Director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts, demonstrates through contemporary recordings and his accompanying book chapters how these family members, and other families who left the Southern Appalachians for the promise of better work, continue the musical traditions of the Southern Mountains in the tri-state area. The work also highlights how this community uses music to connect with, understand, and interpret their families’ home of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Photo 3 - D2D cover
Cover of Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line, released by Dust-to-Digital on August 21, 2015.

Ola Belle Reed’s influence permeates both traditional and, increasingly, popular music in the United States. Her songs have appeared on albums by Marty Stuart, Tim O’Brien, and Del McCoury, and have inspired contemporary performers such as the Avett Brothers and Abigail Washburn. Her contributions were recognized in 1986, when she was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship–the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists–by the National Endowment for the Arts. A stroke fell upon Ola Belle in 1987, silencing her until August 16, 2002: the day of her passing.

On September 9 and 10, 2015, the life, music, and legacy of Ola Belle Reed will be celebrated at the Library of Congress. Wednesday, September 9, at noon, friends and family will perform in her honor. These include David Reed, Hugh Campbell, and Danny Paisley, along with Paisley’s band, the Southern Grass. Henry Glassie, Cliff Murphy, and I will interview these musicians following the noon performance.

Thursday’s events will feature two panel discussions. The first, “I’ve Endured: The Musical Legacy of the Appalachian Migration” will include musicians from the Mason-Dixon region whose musical heritage is connected to the Appalachian migration that brought Ola Belle Reed’s family to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Moderated by Dr. Jessica Turner, Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the panel discussion will feature Frances Mann Riale, Danny Paisley, David Reed, Del McCoury, and Ronnie McCoury. The second panel, “Boxes Full of Memories: The Making of Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line” will focus on the production of the recent two-CD/book. The discussion will feature co-authors Henry Glassie, Clifford R. Murphy, and me, along with Lance Ledbetter, Director of Dust-to-Digital. The panel is to be moderated by Betsy Peterson, Director of the American Folklife Center.

More information on the concert can be found at this link.

More about the symposium can be found here.

Addendum: Recordings of Ola Belle Reed at AFC

By Stephen Winick

The AFC archive has recordings of Ola Belle Reed going back to the late 1960s. You can get more information on these collections by contacting our reference staff at (202) 707-5510 or [email protected]

Collections including Ola Belle Reed include the following:

AFC 1970/020. The Ola Belle Reed duplication project consists of two reels of tape containing sound recordings including Ola Belle Reed, Alex Campbell, and the New River Boys, recorded in 1968. The tapes also include recordings of the North Carolina Ridge Runners made circa the late 1940s, possibly at WDEL, Wilmington, Delaware, or recorded during a radio broadcast. The tapes were loaned to the Library for duplication by Ola Belle Reed. Some recordings were originally copied from discs and are poor quality. This collection includes lists of the song titles recorded and correspondence between Ola Belle Reed and Library of Congress librarian Joseph C. Hickerson, 1969-1970. [Catalog Record]

AFC 1971/049. The Jason T. Pate Recording of Alex Campbell and Ola Belle Reed is a single reel of tape duplicated from a 78 rpm disc recording of Ola Belle Reed and Alex Campbell performing as a brother-sister team in 1950, originally recorded by Jason Thomas Pate. The collection includes correspondence from Jason Thomas Pate’s son, Jason David Pate, about the recording, 1971-1975. [Catalog Record]

AFC 1976/043. The Henry Glassie collection of Ola Belle Reed and family recordings consists eight reels of recordings made of Ola Belle Reed and her family by Henry Glassie between 1966 and 1971, with supporting manuscripts. [Catalog Record]

AFC 1977/003. The 1977 Neptune Plaza Concert Series collection consists of manuscript materials, sound recordings, and photographs of performers recorded live outdoors on Neptune Plaza in front of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, sponsored by the American Folklife Center and the National Council for the Traditional Arts. Ola Belle Reed performed on October 19. [Catalog Record]

AFC 1979/085. The Henry Glassie duplication project consists of recordings of various traditional musicians in concert and interview settings, made by folklorist Henry Glassie. Ola Belle Reed was one of the musicians documented. [Catalog Record]

AFC 1980/039. The 1977 Inaugural folk dance and concert collection consists of audio recordings of events sponsored by the 1977 Inaugural Committee, Cultural Events Office, Folk Arts Programs, headed by Ralph Rinzler of the Office of Folklife Programs, Smithsonian Institution, in celebration of the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in January 1977. Ola Belle Reed performed on the concert stage on January 21. [Catalog Record]

AFC 1995/004. The Mike Seeger collection consists of field recordings and live concert recordings of bluegrass, country, and folk music, with supporting manuscripts, photographs, and computer disks, made by folk musician Mike Seeger. Tapes include interviews with country music artists of the 1920s and 1930s, making this collection a source of important historical information on early country music. The collection includes recordings and photographs of Ola Belle Reed. [Catalog Record]

Comments (2)

  1. I visited the Reed family on more than one occasion. I believe they donated some photos and recordings to the Folk Archive. I am greatly pleased that you are honoring this wonderful lady with these events. Ola Belle has indeed endured. Please say hello to David for me.

  2. where can I see a video of Alex and Ola Belle performing at New River Ranch

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