For most of her 70 years, Ola Belle Reedmusician, prophet, storyteller and poet -- has sung and strummed her five-string banjo at everything from church raisings to corn shuckings to college commencements. Ola Belle Reed has endured. She has endured as public artist, playing hillbilly music when "hillbilly" was a pejorative. And she has endured as a private self, a mountain girl singing alone in the hills of North Carolina where she grew up.
Now, for keeping her traditional art alive, she is the winner of a National Heritage Fellowship, one of 13 Americans so honored by the National Endowment for the Arts this year.
A cross rests on her bosom. Her face is smooth; her eyes, set deep, the steel blue of sky after a storm sunset. Her jaw, once strong, has receded slightly with age. Her voice, rich and deep as plowed earth, resonates with gunpowder directness when she speaks.
"I have fought a pathway ever since I was born," she says. "I said I played hillbilly music before I knew it was derogatory. I've lived my heritage and I haven't been ashamed of it. I know how to put a diaper on a baby. I've been to the top. I've taught at the Peabody academy of music and I can't read a note. I was a free-spirited woman. I'm a good cook. I'm a good housekeeper, and I know how to keep things going."
In the world's mighty gallery of pictures hangs the scenes that are painted of life. Picture of pride and of passion, a picture of peace and of strife. Pictures of youth and of beauty, of old age and blushing young bride. All hang on the wall, but the saddest of all, is a picture from life's other side.
-- "Picture From Life's Other Side," author unknown, adapted and arranged by Ola Belle Reed Scene 1: Inside Looking Out
Ola Belle Reed spends her declining years in Rising Sun, a town in northeastern Maryland, in a white house with black shutters. She's sitting now on a brown naugahyde chair near a couple of Bibles, a kerosene lamp, a ship jailed inside a bottle and stacks of Coca-Cola and fruit boxes filled with dated albums, laundry lists of songs and memories waiting to be catalogued. There is a red plastic rose on the table beside her. There are few grays in Ola Belle's life.
In one framed black-and-white photograph, she stands under a cherry tree in dark silhouette, playing a banjo, facing what appears to be another image of herself, this one in white. She looks as if she is ascending into Heaven, playing an ethereal banjo. She says the photographer maintains the picture wasn't doctored or double-exposed. She has no explanation for it.
The duality of the public voice and private artist is captured in that photo. The angelic image of Ola Belle ascending reflects Bible-thumping values of brotherhood in a world where people "tear down the fences," in the words of a song she wrote. This is the public Ola Belle, Ola Belle at the pulpit, re-creating the words of her Baptist preacher grandfather, speaking against prejudice, lecturing on campuses, singing of a collective conscience with a current of bitterness she denies.
But another voice emerges from the photo's darkened silhouette. This is Ola Belle the poet, the private voice meandering in the circuitous art of storytelling. Here, in the spoken and sung confluence of her conversation, her Appalachian heritage flows. Like America, hillbilly music is a melting pot, for the voices of our ancestors, and her solitary, deep contralto fathoms the depths of their experiences.
"You can tell a dog's history with dignity. You don't have to make fun," she says.
"I tell 'em, no matter where I'm at or how high-class they are or what their life style is, I say, 'I'm not prejudiced' -- thank God I was born that way -- the only thing I'm prejudiced against is being prejudiced. Prejudiced against prejudice!"
She was born in the New River Valley of western North Carolina near Galax, Va., into a family of 13 children. Both sides of the family were musical. Her father, Arthur Campbell, a teacher and storekeeper, played the fiddle, banjo, guitar and organ. Her grandfather, Alexander Campbell, the aforementioned Baptist preacher, played the fiddle. Some of the family played in a string band. Uncle Bob Ingraham conducted singing schools in the mountains, and Uncle Herb Osborne sang mining songs from the coal fields of West Virginia. Her grandmother, Mary Campbell, and mother, Ella Mae Campbell, sang traditional Appalachian ballads and songs.
"We learned music from one another, sounds from one another, and don't ask me, because nearly all of them could pick a little. Just, I guess, inherited somehow.
"At my granddad's, I'd go in the back room and whoever's instrument it was that I'd borrowed, I'd go back there and get up in front of a mirror and sing my songs, you know, look at myself to see how I was gonna be when I got to be an actress," she says, and chuckles. She even used to sing into her grandfather's crank wall telephone, one of the first in the area.
She recalls a time when she was a little girl, and a piano teacher sat her down to give her music lessons.
"When she left, I started hittin' the ragtime on that piano myself, see, and I'll never forget what she told me, she came back and she said, 'Not a bit of needing . . . to teach you to play the piano.' She said, 'You already know how. I might just as well leave you.' She said, 'Go ahead, and play it your own way.'
"You see, she must have seen that I would cut loose on that thing and walk from one end of that piano to the other, ragtime, gospel, anything."
Then we could tear down the fences that fence us all in. Fences created by such evil men. Then we could tear down the fences that fence us all in. And we could walk together again.
* -- "Tear Down the Fences," by Ola Belle Reed Scene 2: Outside Looking Yonder
Ola Belle Reed sits in a straight-back chair under a pine tree, talking, plucking her banjo and singing gospel songs to visitors, cornfields and sad-eyed Red Bone, her dog. When she pauses, it's church quiet except for a mockingbird and a summer breeze lulling the boughs. There is a sense of eavesdropping on a never-ending monologue.
She warms up with a few chords, then stops and says, "People kind of have made fun down through the years -- people thinking the banjo was an evil instrument. And do you know what Dr. Henry Glassie graduate chairman of the Folklore and Folklife Department at the University of Pennsylvania told me? He did a lot of research on this, these type of strings. He said they came into being under the Elizabethan age. They had strings years ago. Like Dr. Henry Glassie said, our hillbilly music is like a portion of time in history preserved in song."
A car passes, and Ola Belle stops to wave. "Yeah, they're waving -- look at that," she says, then resumes her singing as she tunes her banjo.
Lonesome road, lonesome road . . .
"I used to sing it in front of a looking glass. It was supposed to be my theme song. Now where I ever learned that or anybody ever told me, I'd never heard nobody sing it."
Look up look down that lonesome road before you travel on -- she sings a cappella, thumping the banjo in rhythm -- Look up look up and seek your maker before Gabriel blows his horn.
"Dave!" she hollers to her son, who has been watching across the lawn. "You ought to put you on a shirt and you keep your shorts and play one tune with me. Hurry. Hurry, hurry boy. Hurry up right quick. Hurry up, Dave, get ya guitar."
Dave disappears into the house.
"Come here, come on," she coos to Red Bone. "I won't bang it, put your head up here. He say, 'Noise bothers my ears slightly.' "
And finally she's ready.
"Now let's play," she says, and slides into a few bars of "Pretty Polly": I courted pretty Polly the whole live long night . . .
"She presents her art with dignity and pride, which I think is consistent with all these Heritage Fellowship artists," says Bess Lomax Hawes, director of the NEA's Folk Arts Program. "All of these traditions are of great dignity and beauty and we would be far the poorer without them."
The fellows, announced last month, represent a broad range of cultures -- among them John Jackson, a black songster and guitarist from Fairfax, and Peou Khatna, a Cambodian court dancer and choreographer from Silver Spring, as well as a blanket weaver from Alaska, a rawhide worker from California, a bobbin lace maker from Kansas and a whittler from Indiana. During ceremonies this fall, they'll receive $5,000 stipends to help them continue with their art.sk,2
"Hillbilly" -- what Ola Belle calls her Appalachian music -- was once used to describe all country music, but since the 1960s has come to mean a style of music performed in rural areas prior to World War II. Backwood themes reflect universal concerns -- troubles, joys, beliefs and griefs -- through simple lyrics that resonate with biblical eloquence.
* "Hillbilly music is people's music. The music of the hills is a culmination of everybody learning everybody else," Ola Belle says. "It merged together every nationality -- dance, jigs, Scottish, Irish, old gospel."
Ola Belle's family moved to northeastern Maryland during the Depression. Among the first performances she recalls is one with her brother Alex on a wagon at a flea market in the late '30s or early '40s. Her first real gig was playing clawhammer banjo and singing with the North Carolina Ridge Runners, a hillbilly band that performed on radio and for $5 a night at carnivals and dances and parks. She married Bud Reed in 1949, and had two children, Ralph, now 36 and a Pentecostal minister near Cody, Wyo., and Dave, 33, a musician who still tours with her. In the '50s the Reeds and Alex opened a couple of musical parks that drew performers like Hank Williams, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Gabby Hayes and others.
During the war, she says, Roy Acuff asked her to tour with him and his band. She declined, saying she wanted to start a band of her own with Alex after he got out of the Army. She, Alex and Sonny Miller were the original members of the New River Boys and Girls, playing carnivals, barn and church raisings, musical parks and dances.
In 1949 Ola Belle and Alex also hosted a radio program called Campbell's Corner, a half-hour musical program held in back of the family's general store in Oxford, Pa., and picked up on WASA, a station in Havre de Grace. The show, which was soon expanded into a three-hour afternoon program, was first heard nationally in the mid-'60s on Wheeling's WWVA, and continued until about three years ago.
*"Campbell's Corner . . . was a place where people of every walk -- Philadelphia, everywhere -- would hear the program. They would come to talk or to listen to music or to buy records or just come in to tell you their ups and downs," Ola Belle explains.
With the folk revival of the '60s, Ola Belle was rediscovered, and she and Bud and Dave began touring campuses and folklife festivals. She has often performed at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife as well as at Maryland and North Carolina state folklife festivals. She performed at the Kennedy Center in 1976 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Maryland in 1978. She has recorded four albums and taught graduate students who've come to study at her home.
A motorcycle passes, and Ola Belle stops again to wave. "Yep, I see you, man," she says.
"Everybody goes by here knows us," she adds, then remembers her son. "Hurry, Dave!," she hollers. "Get the guitar quick. We don't care how you look, get the guitar.
"I told 'em, I said, 'When you get somebody that's really interested in what you're doing, you don't have to go run and put your makeup on and everything," she says in her mocking, la-de-dah voice about a speech she made to graduating seniors recently at Pennyslvania's Lincoln University. "It was supposed to be a lecture on wisdom, but I told a few jokes."
The reluctant son returns with a fresh shirt and joins in at last, playing the guitar and harmonizing as Ola Belle sings lead.
I believe in the power that can move a mountain. I believe in the old-time way. I believe in the old-time singing, shouting. I believe in the old-time way.
She slows the tempo and sings with closed eyes.
I'm in a world of my own, I'm in a world of my own, just my mem'ries and me, there's no room for nobody no one else but me.
-- "A World of My Own," by Ola Belle Reed Scene 3: Inside Looking In
There is cornbread, fried fish and apple marmalade in Ola Belle's kitchen. Periodically she gets a bowl of one or the other to ward off fatigue as evening comes. There are health problems now; she has only one kidney. And although she still can sing from bass to soprano, she says, "I sing a little bit lower on account for safety sake."
But when she's indignant she can still fire like a Gatling gun:
*"About music today, I'm not saying any music I accept, but it's just like art. I accept art. But I don't just like to walk up and have to look at someone's rear end! I say the same way with music. I don't like music that has got dirty words to it -- put your hands where they ain't never been before."
Time passes, but the dual images of Ola Belle Reed are everlasting. The public image illuminates, but the private one, only glimpsed in her reveries, lures.
*"I wrote a poem before I left the mountains. I must have been 10 or 11 years old, and back there, you see, we lived down next to the New River and the mountain would go this way" -- she gestures -- "and cross that way, see, and the moon, big old moon, would come up over here, and a way back over here, you'd see the sun still going down, the sky was different.
"So. I wrote this poem. I don't know how come I wrote it. I said, 'I love to be out in the twilight/ alone, where I can think/ to watch the moon climb the heavens/ and the evening sun slowly sinks/ 'Tis wonderful/how that nature has things so arranged/ and has the sky so beautiful/ from blue to golden change' -- Change, you know, before the sun would go down -- 'The crickets will chirp in their houses/ The owls in the trees sing their song/ Then darkness will creep o'er the mountains/ Then twilight -- in a moment -- is gone.' "
Ola Belle Reed has her secrets.
"This person, I remember saying about me , 'I don't understand that girl.' My mother said, 'Don't try.' She said, 'I raised her and I don't understand her.' She said, 'When she's so low, a worm couldn't crawl under her belly, and when she's high, she's so high you couldn't reach her.' "
Ola Belle Reed endures.
"I want to be remembered as an honest everyday real person that has tried awfully hard to do my part. Do what I should have done and what was necessary . . . It's because I care and I would rather care and be dead than not care at all."