Skip Navigation


Blind Alfred Reed
Blind Alfred Reed, at right, with fiddler Fred Pendleton in about 1927.

The Blind Man’s Song

Recalling Alfred Reed

By John Lilly

Young Violet Reed climbed a tall tree near her family’s home in Summers County and watched the road. She was looking for her father, Blind Alfred Reed, to return from Hinton, where he would go most days with his fiddle to play and sing on a street corner, a tin cup by his side. She could see him coming from a distance, walking down the road, fiddle tucked under one arm. Sometimes, if the day went well, he’d have a pound of bacon in his hand. Or, if the day had gone very well, an entire bag of groceries. Other days, he’d come home literally empty-handed.

These were the years leading up to the Great Depression, and Blind Alfred Reed was fighting valiantly to support his family through his music. A gifted songwriter, fiddler, and singer, Alfred also played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and organ. He taught music lessons, played for meetings and dances, made recordings, and sold printed copies of his song lyrics. On many days, he made the three-mile walk from his rented farm to downtown Hinton, to play and sing on the streets for loose change. He was also an ordained Methodist minister and occasionally preached at local churches.

Violet Reed was the fourth-born of five children in the Reed home – a younger brother named Basil died young. The household also included Alfred and his wife, Nettie, and Alfred’s older sister, Rosetta, known to family as Aunt Rose. Alfred and Rose were both born blind in Floyd County, Virginia: Alfred in 1880 and Rose in 1867, two of six children of Riley and Charlotte Akers Reed. The family moved to a farm in West Virginia when Alfred was young. Although he moved often, living at various times near Hinton, Bellepoint, Princeton, Kegley, Pipestem, Cool Ridge, and elsewhere, Alfred spent virtually his entire life in southern West Virginia. His music, however, traveled around the world.

Today, Violet’s children have fond memories of their grandfather. “Grandpa and Aunt Rose had a sitting room,” recalls Dolores Crawford of Sinks Grove, Monroe County, the eldest of Violet’s five children. “We would always go in there and sit with him and her, and they would sing. He would play, and they would both sing his songs to us. He was always a lot of fun; he was always joking and laughing with us.”

Little is known of Blind Alfred Reed’s early life. His family farmed, and somehow Alfred received an education, including learning to read and write in the New York Point System, a predecessor to Braille, which Alfred preferred. He became a skilled musician, though neither of his parents played music. He also developed a knack for language, a biting sense of humor, and a keen eye for social issues. He also held to a deep religious faith. All of these were evident in the songs he would later write and record.

Alfred married Nettie Sheard in 1903, and their first daughter, Savannah, was born in 1904. Then came sons Arville and Tessie, daughter Violet, and sons Basil and Collins. The family rented farms and raised most everything they needed.

“They had a fireplace and burned wood,” Dolores says. “[Nettie] had a wood stove that she cooked on. It was comfortable, always clean and neat – Grandma was a good housekeeper and a good cook. They had the big garden, and they had the cow, and they had the chickens and the turkeys and the honey. A lot of fruit trees grew around there, so they could make jams and jellies.”

Granddaughter Janet Hunter of Ronceverte, Greenbrier County, says that life was a struggle for the Reed family. “My mother [Violet] didn’t like to talk about it,” Janet says. “We’ve got the impression it was a very difficult upbringing, because of the lack of money. I know that she and her sister would at times go live with families and work for them, you know, help them with their housework. I guess that was a way to help with the family income. She never would tell me many stories, though. We never did know why our mother wouldn’t tell us these stories.”

Music, religion, and a positive attitude helped Alfred and his family through the hard times. In his later years, Alfred joked and played music around the house nearly everyday, and his grandchildren feel confident that these habits existed during his earlier years, as well.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.