Indiana University Bloomington

Home Outreach Podcasts Henry Glassie's field research with Ola Belle Reed

Henry Glassie's field research with Ola Belle Reed

In the mid 1960's Henry Glassie became friends with Ola Belle Reed and made field recordings of her performances in Oxford, Pennsylvania, where Reed and the New River Boys and Girls performed at Campbell's Corner and on radio station WCOJ. Glassie discusses this history at length and the podcast includes samples from his field recordings which have recently been deposited at the Archives of Traditional Music. Photographs by Henry Glassie. The podcast runs for 15:39 and you can follow along with the script below.


Ola Belle Reed performing at Campbell's Corner in 1966.  Photo by Henry Glassie.Song: “I’ve Endured” – Ola Belle Reed

Narrator: In January of 1966, folklore graduate student Henry Glassie made the first professional solo recordings of Ola Belle Reed. Glassie would go on to become one of the most celebrated folklorists in the United States, a distinguished professor, and a renowned scholar throughout the world. Reed would go on to become one of the leading lights of the Folk Music Revival and winner of the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. Glassie’s landmark collection of early Ola Belle Reed recordings were recently deposited in the Archives of Traditional Music, an ethnographic sound archive located at Indiana University in Bloomington. Current graduate student Nathan D. Gibson recently sat down with Professor Glassie to discuss his historic recordings.

Henry Glassie: From the time I was really a tiny child, I would search around the radio dial for country music stations. And what I enjoyed was the contemporary music that I could get on that, but it was always the kind of bluegrass hour that I was mostly looking for. So, when I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I would continue to do the same thing. One time by sheer accident, and it seems to me that it was very late on a Saturday night, I happened to get a broadcast which was from WCOJ, ‘The Voice of Chester County,’ and it was the New River Boys and Girls.

Recording: “Radio Introduction” - Alex Campbell

At that time I honestly didn’t know anything about that particular band, but nonetheless it was good kind of old-timey bluegrass. And I think I caught it maybe a couple times before I decided that I was gonna go and find this studio, find where the recording was happening because this recording was live. And the first time that I was in the studio, it was in the audience. Let’s say they’d have 30 or 40 people there. And it was in the back of a big country store, real kind of Southern in inflection, it had all Southern food available. And I can’t honestly remember whether it was the very first time I was there I fell into a conversation with Ola Belle, but I kinda think it was. And I think it was because she was a very extraverted person who greatly enjoyed talking to people and had developed for herself a kind of rural philosophy of endurance that she built into songs. She had those kind of songs that talked about a kinda tough life of endurance

Song: “I’ve Endured (alt. take)” – Ola Belle Reed

Born in the mountains 50 years ago.
From the hills and valleys, through the rain and snow

Seen the lightning flashing, heard the thunder roll

I’ve endured, I’ve endured. How long must a man endure?

She had no trouble whatsoever talking to someone she didn’t know and immediately got to philosophical issues that had political ramifications. You would call her a kind of native socialist. And I was maybe not a native socialist, but a learned socialist, and whenever the two of us started talking we got along immediately.

Song: “I’ve Endured (alt. take)” – Ola Belle Reed

Barefoot in the summer, on into the fall
Too many mouths to feed, they couldn’t clothe us all

Went to church on Sunday to learn the golden rule.

I’ve endured, I’ve endured. How long must a man endure?

During the performance, the normal performances, of the New River Boys, she played the 2nd guitar. What they performed were the kind of the standard bluegrass tunes that they would have put on Starday Records. And they played very well. It was good solid bluegrass. Musicianship was very high quality and I enjoyed it greatly. At the same time, when Ola Belle and I talked, certainly because of my interest, but also because of hers, a lot of the conversation went back to older musical forms.

Instrumental Song: “Shortenin’ Bread” – Ola Belle Reed

It didn’t take very long for us in our conversation to bring up old-time music. She then, uh, played the banjo in claw hammer style, but that wasn’t part of the performance on stage. It wasn’t part of the broadcast that they did. It’s just, she knew how to do that. We found ourselves agreeing that we loved the old-time music, which she did, and she had it right at the tip of her mind.

Instrumental Song: “Shortenin’ Bread” – Ola Belle Reed

I did record just a few broadcast sessions live and in the Campbell’s Corners store. But the more that Ola Belle and I talked about the old-time music, the more she was interested in recording that too. And sometimes, when we did that, I would often show up kind of late on an afternoon at Campbell’s Corner, she was working in the store, I mean that was part of her job, she was a manager at this big grocery store. And, uh, we would just go into the back room and there she would be remembering older ballads and songs and a few songs of her own composition were a part of that as well. And so that to some extent what we did when we were, the two of us together, is she was remembering what she thought of as the best of the old songs that she remembered.

Song: “You Led Me to the Wrong” – Ola Belle Reed

Well some people born with silver and gold
Others have husbands and wifes
I never had a thing in this whole wide wicked world
Now I'm losing my life
Now I'm losing my life

Then we would set up whole recording sessions that were very formal and she would invite generally members, Burl Kilby played with her on a number of these I know, played bluegrass banjo with her. And Alex was on some of them. Sonny Miller was on some of them. But they were not… it was never the entire band. It was instead a group that Ola Belle had assembled that she thought would make good accompaniment for her voice. In other words, she was no longer one of the performers in the band, now she was really a solo act.

Song: “You Led Me to the Wrong” – Ola Belle Reed

….You caused me to shoot him down
You caused me to shoot him down

MacEdward Leach retirement announcement. March 1966. When MacEdward Leach, the great ballad scholar, retired as the chairman of the department at the University of Pennsylvania, it just sort of overlapped with my arrival. I took one class with him and that was all because then he retired. But in order to provide himself with something to do in his retirement, he’d actually lobbied through the state legislature of Pennsylvania the position of State Folklorist to Pennsylvania. Then, Leach learned that the job would require him to live in Harrisburg. Harrisburg was not an exciting city when compared to Philadelphia and he decided that he didn’t want that job at all. And I remember that I was in class and he just met me after class and he said, ‘I’ve got a great job for you. You’d be perfect for it. It’s gonna involve fieldwork,’ which is what I love. So, Leach gave me the job to be the State Folklorist of Pennsylvania. My vision of being State Folklorist would be to have been a full time folklore collector, like the Irish Folklore Commission. That was my dream. Instantaneously, I learned that that was hopeless. No government agency was going to pay me to wander around the hills of Pennsylvania and record. For the most part what they wanted was product, and the product was very often in the form of, uh, festivals. So I was tasked very quickly to put on performances. And, so, here I am with the obligation to put on folk festivals. I’ve got to do that. Ola Belle is my friend. Nothing could have been more logical than she would then become a performer in these festivals. That she had always had the, let’s say this, the ability to be a solo performer, performer even if that hadn’t been her normal mode of performance. But very quickly, I was thinking about my friend Ralph Rinzler who had discovered Doc Watson and launched Doc and I just said, ‘Ola Belle, you could be [a solo performer], let’s do this.’

Olla Belle Reed performing with the New River boys and Girls at Campbells Corner in Oxford, Pennsylvania. February 6, 1966. Photo by Henry Glassie

Song: “St. James Infirmary” – Ola Belle Reed

Way down at Big Kidd’s barroom, on a corner beyond the square.
Everybody drinkin liquor, the regular crowd was there.

I passed by the big infirmary, I heard my sweetheart moan,
Gee, it hurts me to see you here, when I know you used to be my own.

I had a small number of people that I had met in Pennsylvania. These obviously had to be Pennsylvania people. Ola Belle at that time was a Pennsylvania person, Campbell’s Corner was in Pennsylvania. And I had met, there was a Pennsylvania Dutch fiddler called Pop Hafler and a great Pennsylvania Dutch story teller called Johnny Brendel. And so I put together a, kind of a little folklore troupe as the State Folklorist of Pennsylvania and I would say without question Ola Belle was the star of it.

Song: “St. James Infirmary” 2nd verse – Ola Belle Reed

She’s gone, she’s gone, God bless her, she’s mine wherever she may be.
She may ramble this wide world over, but she’ll never find a friend like me.

Song: “St. James Infirmary” 2nd verse – Ola Belle Reed

She’s gone, she’s gone, God bless her, she’s mine wherever she may be.
She may ramble this wide world over, but she’ll never find a friend like me.

And so that’s really the moment in which she, that was the environment in which she really took off as a solo performer and then developed a career that expanded from that time onward. She was, I was there in Washington, I mean I went to be with her when she got the National Heritage Fellowship. And that was a wonderful moment for her, for her husband. I mean, I said one time when, I remember it was on the radio and somebody said, ‘You know, are you proud of Ola Belle getting this? It’s a big honor.’ I said, ‘It’s not a big honor. It’s the biggest conceivable honor that she could get. This is the Nobel Prize for banjo pickers.’ I mean, you can’t go higher than that award as a traditional musician.

Song: “I’ve Endured” – Ola Belle Reed

Barefoot in the summer, on into the fall
Too many mouths to feed, they couldn’t clothe us all

Went to church on Sunday, were taught the golden rule.

I’ve endured, I’ve endured. How long must a man endure?

The little story that’s, that’s implicit in these recordings is about Ola Belle Reed. The big story that’s implicit in it is what do you do when those different musical forms come into a kind of fusion of what today is called old-time music, and country music, and the folk song revivial? And I think that story is in Ola Belle.

Song: “I’ve Endured” – Ola Belle Reed

Worked for the rich, and I’ve lived with the poor
Shared many pleasures, had burdens by the score

Lived loved and sorrowed, been to success’s door,

I’ve endured, I’ve endured. How long must a man endure?

Narrator: This segment was produced by Nathan D. Gibson on behalf of the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. More information can be obtained by visiting the archives in Morrison Hall on the Bloomington campus, or by visiting on the web at http://www.indiana.edu/~libarchm


Narrator – Nathan D. Gibson


Tracks Used:

“I’ve Endured” – Tape Two, Track Four

“Radio Introduction” – Tape One, Side B, Track Three

“I’ve Endured” (alt take) – Tape Two, Track Twenty-Two

“St. James Infirmary” – Tape Two, Track Two

“Shortenin’ Bread” – Tape Two, Track Twenty-Four

“You Led Me to the Wrong” – Tape One, Side A, Track Nine