Today in History

Today in History: April 28

Henry Reed

Henry Reed
Henry Reed was the narrow neck in the hourglass of tradition,
through which tunes were guided
back out into the wider currents of circulation.

Alan Jabbour

Josh and Henry Reed
Josh and Henry Reed, circa 1903.

Henry Reed, age 19, plays banjo; his older brother Josh plays fiddle.
From the collection of James Reed, with permission.
Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection

James Henry Neel Reed, known as Henry Reed, was born on April 28, 1884, in the Appalachian Mountains of Monroe County, West Virginia. Reed was a master fiddler, banjoist, and harmonica player whose amazing repertoire consisted of hundreds of tunes, as well as multiple performance styles. His music conveyed tradition while setting new directions, and became a touchstone for academic research into the history of U.S. fiddle music.

Henry Reed learned the overwhelming majority of his tunes by ear and retained them by memory. He learned from elderly musicians such as Quince Dillion, who was born around 1810 and served as a fifer in the Mexican War and the Civil War. As a youngster, Reed learned to read music, played alto horn in a local band, and picked up a few additional tunes from sheet music. Though he never played professionally, he played occa sionally for local dances and in countless home music sessions. Musical talent ran in his family; several of Reed’s children accompanied him.

Henry Reed playing the fiddle
Henry Reed Playing the Fiddle, Accompanied by Bobbie Thompson on Guitar,
Kit Olson, photographer, Narrows, Virginia, Summer 1967.
From the collection of Jessica Thompson Eustice, with permission.
Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection

Reed's musical influence broadened significantly after 1966 when Karen and Alan Jabbour, graduate students at Duke University, began to audio tape his fiddling. Although he originally recorded Henry Reed for academic purposes, Alan Jabbour, an accomplished fiddler himself, also introduced members of the Hollow Rock String Band to the tapes. Tunes such as "Over the Waterfall," "Kitchen Girl," and "George Booker" soon became core elements of the band's repertoire, and Reed's name was credited. Since the band was at the epicenter of an old-time instrumental music revival that emerged in the Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina area in the late 1960s, Reed's music was passed from musician to musician at fiddlers' conventions, festivals, and jam sessions, and through the Jabbours’ audiotapes. At the age of eighty-three, Reed began to enjoy wider recognition for a lifetime's labor of love.

The titles of Henry Reed's fiddle tunes are redolent of the old Appalachian frontier. Tunes such as "Cabin Creek" and "Shooting Creek" commemorate the arterial network of Appalachian rivers and creeks. "Forked Deer," "Ducks in the Pond," and "Hell Among the Yearlings" evoke the woods and countryside. "Santa Ana's Retreat" and "British Field March" conjure up episodes in American military history.

Henry Reed Playing the Fiddle
Henry Reed Playing the Fiddle in His Living Room,
Karen Singer Jabbour, photographer,
Glen Lyn, Virginia, circa 1967.
From the collection of Karen and Alan Jabbour, with permission.
Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection

Henry Reed's recordings and Alan Jabbour's transcriptions reveal a complex syncopated bowing style used by fiddlers from Virginia to Texas in twentieth-century recordings. This style of fiddling represents an important feature of American culture. It appears to have evolved in the Upper South in the early nineteenth century and diffused from this area with westward migration. Its syncopated patterns possess an African-American influence that first appeared during the Early Republic, when perhaps half the fiddlers in the Upper South were African American. These patterns have influenced the shape of American music ever since—from the minstrel stage of the 1840s through ragtime, blues, jazz, country music, and rock-and-roll. "Georgia Camp Meeting," for example, was intended originally for the "cakewalk," a popular dance of the ragtime era.

The melodic style of many of Reed's tunes such as "Shady Grove," "Cluck Old Hen," or "Betty Likens" also suggests the influence of Native American music (from the Eastern Woodlands and Plains). In contrast to the typical European tonal pattern, these tunes begin in a high pitch and cascade to a lower pitch. Henry Reed's music descends directly from the early fiddlers of the Upper South, both black and white, who achieved a dramatic cultural synthesis of European, African and, perhaps, Native American musical forms and concepts. These musicians helped to launch and shape the character of what some claim is America's greatest cultural contribution to the world—American music. Reed, who died on February 8, 1968, embodied that music's varied vitality and ensured its continuance.

Billy Bitzer and the Biograph

frames from Stealing a dinner film
Stealing a Dinner,
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1903.
American Variety Stage, 1870-1920: Motion Pictures

Cameraman G. W. "Billy" Bitzer filmed Professor Leonidas and his troupe of dogs and cats in the film short Stealing a Dinner on April 28, 1899. The film was shot on the rooftop of the Biograph Studio at 841 Broadway in New York City.

Add for the Biograph projector
Advertisement for the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, The New York Clipper,
September 7, 1901, page 601.
Content and Historical Context in Variety Stage Motion Pictures.

Three years earlier, Billy Bitzer assisted as newly formed American Mutoscope Company founder and former Edison associate, W. K. L. Dickson, developed a camera to rival the Edison Company's Kinetograph (and its kinetoscope viewer). One of only a few who understood the camera's operation, Bitzer filmed 1896 presidential candidate William McKinley, whose brother Abner was an investor in Biograph. He also filmed the actor Joseph Jefferson, another investor, doing scenes from Rip Van Winkle in 1896, aspects of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Jeffries-Sharkey championship fight in 1899. Although the company entered the commercial entertainment field with an offering of only six films, by 1902 their catalog listed 2,500 motion pictures, many shot by Bitzer.

Bitzer also photographed dramas enacted by the Biograph's stock company which included Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Henry Walthall, Lionel Barrymore and D. W. Griffith. In the summer of 1908, Griffith moved to directing for Biograph and over the next 16 years one of his closest collaborators was Bitzer.

Together, Bitzer and Griffith forged the grammar and syntax of film. Bitzer pioneered lighting effects and developed camera innovations. Griffith enthusiastically encouraged actors to move from the histrionics of the Victorian stage to more subtle expressions before the camera. They perfected or introduced techniques including the iris effect and mattes, traveling and tracking shots, extreme long distance shots, and close ups. Griffith also edited for continuity, realized cross cutting, and developed multiple story lines.

When Griffith left the Biograph in 1913, he recruited Bitzer to shoot his historically flawed and profoundly controversial epic about Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation.. Although the Bitzer-Griffith collaboration continued for many years, the Biograph lost momentum and by 1917 was a part of the American memory.

Billy the Kid

jail interior
Jail Interior, McDermitt, Nevada,
Carl Fleischhauer, photographer, May 1981.
Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982

Billy the Kid escaped from the Lincoln County, New Mexico jail house on April 28, 1881, killing two deputies on guard. He avoided capture until July 14, when he was ambushed and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the ranch home of Pete Maxwell. Billy the Kid is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Although he has become synonymous with the legendary Wild West, Billy the Kid was probably born on New York City's East Side, in 1859 or 1860. By the time he was a young teenager, he had moved with his family to New Mexico, by way of Kansas and Colorado.

While still a boy, Billy the Kid became involved in petty thievery, and later horse theft.  In an August 1877 altercation at a saloon in Camp Grant, Arizona, he shot and killed a man for the  first time. Reputed to have been responsible for the murder of 21 men by the time he was 21 years old (the actual total was between four and ten men), he had been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang when he made his dramatic escape from the Lincoln County jail.

Jose Garcia y Trujillo recounts his memories of Billy the Kid and expresses his belief in the myth of Billy the Kid's survival in a 1936 interview taken in New Mexico:

You think Billy The Keed let himself be shot in the dark like that? No Senora — Billy The Keed — never. I see Billy The Keed with these eyes. Many times, with these eyes. That Billy, tenia un' agilesa en su mente — en su menta aqui…" I understood that he meant that Billy The Keed had an extraordinary quickness of mind. Again he pointed to his forehead and then with a quick motion to the sky. "Una funcion electrica", he said. Something that worked like lightning… "I don't want to dispute against you Senora, but in my mind which is the picture of my soul, I know it is not true… Everybody like Billy The Keed — su vista penetraba el corazon de toda la gente… his face went to everybody's heart.. Muy generoso hombre, Billy The Keed — a very generous man. All the Mexican people, they like him. He give money, horses, drinks — what he have. To whom was good to Billy The Keed, he was good to them. Siempre muy caballero, muy senor — always very polite, very much of a gentleman.

"Interview with Jose Garcia y Trujillo," August 26, 1936.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

There are many more stories about this legendary outlaw in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Most, however, do not portray him in such a positive light. To find them, search the collection on Billy the Kid.

Billy the Kid's true identity is still a matter of speculation. Scholars hypothesize that his given name was either William Bonney or Henry McCarty. There are those who believe that after he escaped, he became a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade under the name of "Brushy Bill" Roberts.

Questa, Taos County, New Mexico
Questa, Taos County, New Mexico,
photographer, John Collier, Spring 1943.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945 (Color Photographs)