James Henry Neel Reed, known as Henry Reed, was born on April 28, 1884, in Monroe County, West Virginia, a rural county lying along the Virginia border in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern West Virginia. His parents were John Marion Reed and Sophia Catherine Underwood Reed. Family connections on his father's side lead back to Ireland, from which his grandfather came to Virginia in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing his father as a child. The family name apparently was originally spelled Reid. On his mother's side are connections to Floyd and Franklin Counties, flanking the Blue Ridge in what Henry Reed and others of his generation called East Virginia. His grandmother was at least part Indian, according to his own account and that of his children.
Reed grew up in Monroe County as a member of a large extended family. His father and at least one uncle were musical, and at least two older brothers played music as well. An early photograph reveals him playing banjo with his older brother Josh. But to judge by his stories about his early life and the sources of specific tunes, his early musical influences seem to have come not so much from his immediate family as from the surrounding community. Music was clearly a big part of his early life, and his renditions of tunes learned from elderly musicians like Quince Dillion, who was born around 1826 and served as a fifer in the Civil War, show that he was an attentive musical apprentice as a boy.
He spent virtually his entire life in the general region where he was born, but he moved around a good deal within the region. As a young man he lived for a time in the coal-mining counties of southern West Virginia, but he did not care for work in the mines and eventually came home. For shorter periods he worked as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On December 11, 1907, he married Nettie Ann Virginia Mullins, and they settled in Glen Lyn, Virginia, in Giles County, just across the state line from Monroe County. Glen Lyn is a town built around a coal-fired power plant operated by Appalachian Power Company. The plant lies on the New River just before the river crosses from Virginia into West Virginia, and it is fueled by coal unloaded from trains that run eastward through the New River Valley from coal-producing areas of West Virginia.
Reed's life in Glen Lyn for a generation was devoted to work at the Appalachian Power plant and raising a family that gradually grew to twelve children. (Henry Reed told, and his children still tell, the story that when his wife's last childbirth turned out to be twins, he said to her, "Nettie, when they commence coming by twos, it's time to quit!") He worked at various times for other Appalachian Power installations in southwestern Virginia and West Virginia, including Floyd County, Virginia, where there were family connections on his mother's side. Some tunes in his repertory from Floyd County suggest that he was active in the Blue Ridge music scene during his time there.
Back home in Glen Lyn, he stayed active socially and musically. He seems never to have played professionally, and he never made commercial "hillbilly" records (as they were called in the 1920s and 1930s) in the years when that might have been possible. But he clearly kept up his music, playing from time to time for local dances and more often in home music sessions. He was known not only as a fiddler but as a banjoist who finger-picked the banjo with all his fingers and as a harmonica player who could play all the notes of complicated dance tunes on the harmonica. He had a reputation for always welcoming visitors and providing food and a place to sleep as well as good music and good company, and the Reed home became something of a convening place within the Glen Lyn community.
Portrait of the Reed family in the backyard of the homeplace, Glyn Lyn, Virginia, summer 1965. Left to right: Ruby Reed (John's wife), John Reed with his son Johnny, Henry Anderson (Vella Reed Anderson's husband), Henry Reed, Nettie Mullins Reed, Vella Reed Anderson, Hugh Reed, Michael Reed (Hugh's son), Gene Reed, Roger Reed (John's son), Helen Reed, Watha Reed. Photograph from the collection of Dean Reed, reproduced with permission.