Perfect Sound Forever

What Blind Alfred Reed Could See


by Bill Bamberger
(October 2012)


CELEBRITY NEUROLOGIST Oliver Sacks once mentioned Blind Willie Johnson. The context was an article on music and blindness. "The image of the blind musician or the blind poet has an almost mythic resonance, as if the gods have given the gifts of music or poetry in compensation for the sense they have taken away... Many such artists, indeed, have ‘Blind' added to their names almost as an honorific: Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson."1

Sacks' point is a commonplace: that blind people are more attuned to music because they have no visual distraction and so make better musicians. After writing that blindness can cause extensive reorganization of the brain, Sacks tells us that research is ongoing but there are as yet no definitive answers as to how this process works. When we finish the article we know very little more about neurology than when we started, and that is a dead end. What is more valuable is something Sacks treats as an aside: "The channeling of blind people into musical performance is partly a social phenomenon, since the blind were perceived as being cut off from many other occupations. But social forces here are matched by strong internal forces."2 It seems to me that Sacks understands his own words within too limited a compass.

It is highly unlikely that the singers Sacks mentions adopted the "honorific" as part of their identities. Unlikely, that is, that 1920's gospel singer Mamie Forehand for example would have introduced herself by saying, "Hello, I'm Blind Mamie Forehand," expect perhaps in a few strictly professional settings. Such designations were impositions by the record companies, or, as in the case of "Cryin' Sam Collins" whose name appeared in this form only in ads although never on his records, by under-imaginative copy writers. The addition of "Blind" likely arose from two main impulses: to add some novelty appeal, and--again in line with both hoary folk wisdom and (however inconclusively) with modern neurology--to suggest their musicianship would be of superior quality. The "social element" that Sacks mentions--not just the channeling of the blind into music, but the wider strata of privilege and permission and freedom to direct one's own life--would not have figured in on the record label, but it certainly did in the singers' lives. But, aside from evangelical songs, only a few even tried to influence the social world they moved through. A possibly apocryphal story has it that Blind Willie Johnson was once arrested for singing "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down," near a government building, but the song itself only retells the story of Samson and Delilah. Charlie Patton and others sang about troubles with "the revenue man" hunting them down for operating liquor stills, and a number of singers complained about the cruelty of the law, but records in the 1920s had little to say about America's social structure.

One blind singer who did try to point out inequities in America's economic and social strata--and who is, by some, said to have been the first "protest singer"--was Alfred Reed. Reed was born blind in Floyd, Virginia in 1880. He had a good voice for country music, nasal and twangy yet easy to understand, and he learned to play the fiddle to accompany himself and this is how he made his living. Photographs show a face as haggard as any in Dorothea Lange's famous Depression era photographs, a jowly middle-aged man with a no-sideburns haircut that highlights his long, LBJ-style ears. Reed and his wife had six children, whom he supported by giving fiddle lessons, playing and singing at dances and on the sidewalks of Floyd. Reed also was an early adopter of the self-publishing movement: he had the lyrics to some of his songs printed up on cards by the local newspaper printer and offered them for sale for a dime to those who gathered around to hear him sing.

Reed was already forty-seven when he first recorded his first 78's, at a session where Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family also made their first recordings. When a Victor record scouts came south to search for "hillbilly" talent he was directed to Reed. Reed had written "The Wreck of the Virginian," a song about a train wreck that had become popular in the local area. He recorded it for producer Ralph Peer on July 28, 1927 in Bristol, which straddles the Virginia and Tennessee border, followed by three religious songs, with the expected personal lyrics and conservative messages of humility and modesty. But Reed's songs approached conventional subjects from unusual angles and even then had a stirring of a social protest agenda: "Oh you money loving Christians, you refuse to pay your share/You must unload, you must unload/You want to get to heaven on the cheapest kind of fare/You must, you must unload." Reed recorded again in New York City and in New Jersey, but the Great Depression soon ended his recording career. He continued writing songs and singing them locally, and shrewdly renewed his copyrights when they were set to expire. When Reed died in 1956, his music had been almost completely forgotten. The New Lost City Ramblers, a "folk revival" group, released a cover of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" (from Reed's last session in December of 1929, six weeks after "the Crash") in 1959. But it was Ry Cooder's 1970 recording of the same song and, not long after this, Rounder Records' reissue album of fourteen of Reed's original recordings that prompted a mini-revival of sorts.3

Several songs Reed recorded criticized the way the monied professions treated the working family. On "Money Cravin' Folks," he sang of the duplicity of lawyers, doctors, landlords, preachers and merchants. "There'll Be No Distinction There" insists that rich and poor, black and white, Christians and Jews will all sit together in heaven. The Carter Family recorded this song a few years later. But Reed's most enduring song has proven to be "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" which is overtly critical of America's inequitable economic system. Verses include:

There once was a time when everything was cheap,
But now prices nearly puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill,
We just feel like making our will...
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Most all preachers preach for gold and not for souls,
That's what keeps a poor man always in a hole.
We can hardly get our breath,
Taxed and schooled and preached to death...
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Oh, the schools we have today ain't worth a cent,
But they see to it that every child is sent.
If we don't send every day,
We have a heavy fine to pay...
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Well, the doctor comes around with a face all bright,
And he says in a little while you'll be all right.
All he gives is a humbug pill,
A dose of dope and a great big bill...
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

We can't help noticing that the lyrics are still relevant today--dysfunctional schools, high medical bills, rising prices, scandals in Mega-Churches and, more generally, the widening gap between the rich and poor...

Like all of Reed's songs, this one has a simple melody, a very basic chord progression and a compelling tag line. Cooder changed the boxy accompaniment of Reed and his guitar-playing son Arville to one based on his fingerpicked electric slide guitar, with Cooder and his band all playing in a more rhythmically exciting, syncopated style.4 Reed's song has become one of the template songs that musicians take up when they feel the need to speak their minds about injustices. When Cooder recorded the song, he used verses from Reed's original, though not all of them. Others have taken Reed's tagline, (often times uniting it with a nod to Cooder's airstream version of the accompaniment) and written their own lyrics. I believe this would have pleased Reed very much.

What Blind Alfred Reed could see was that if you give the unempowered and their allies a powerful tool, they will use it, sharpen it as time passes, and keep using it as long as there is work still to be done. His songs are such tools.

Bruce Springsteen recorded a version which uses only one of Reed's verses, and is fleshed out with three new verses detailing the disasters, natural and political, visited upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.5 Springsteen refers to "criminal ineptitude" and dedicates the song to "President Bystander" during one New Orleans performance:

He took a look around, gave a little pep talk
Said "I'm with you" then he took a little walk
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
In 1984, the Del Lords recorded a punk-a-billy version of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" on their first album, Frontier Days. This jettisons most of Reed's lyrics but expands the tagline to a full length chorus. Perhaps unique among all available versions of this song, the Del Lords' last verse offers an upbeat answer to the title question:
This old boy's got some plans of his own
I'm going to call up a couple of friends on the telephone
Tell 'em bring some records and bring some beer
And we can just hang out over here
How can a poor man stand such times and live?
Sitting in a church pew in Pinckney, Michigan on a hot Saturday evening in June, waiting my turn at the open mic, I was thinking about the politics of the verses in Reed's song. My daughter Aja was sitting next to me and I remembered a discussion we had had earlier that day. She said, "Emerson asks 'Do these poor belong to me?' So, Dad, do you think if Emerson were alive today, he'd be a Romney Republican?" As the act before me went into his last song, I decided to add a verse addressing her question, thinking Reed's shade wouldn't mind. I was still sorting out rhymes as I walked to the front of the church. I sang Reed's song firs---before I could forget the words I'd just made up.
Emerson asked, "Do these poor belong to me?"
He thought every man should stand on his own two feet.
But I know standing up for myself
Doesn't mean stepping on everyone else
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?
Reed's own answer to his enduring question is that sometimes he can't: in 2007, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. It was 51 years after he, so it's said, starved to death in Virginia--where his hometown had long since outlawed blind singers on its streets.



FOOTNOTES

1. Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (N. Y.: Vintage, 2008), 172–173.

2. Ibid., 173.

3. Reissues of Reed's recording, both on vinyl and CD, have long been unavailable except by way of rare record dealers. A tribute CD, Always Lift Him Up, (Proper American Recordings PRPACD006) with 19 cover versions is still available. Reed's original recordings can be heard on YouTube.

4. Cooder's music on this album was very influential, so much so that the Carpenter Ants version of "Money Cravin' Folks" on Always Lift Him Up sounds like a lost track from Cooder's recording session.

5. Springsteen's new lyrics also reference Woody Guthrie with the line: "I ain't got no home in this world no more." Numerous videos of Springsteen performing this song are to be found online.



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