Photo of Nat Reese from the website of West Virginia Culture Fest, held at the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem. As you'll see in the comments the photographer was John Maeder, who took it in Nat's living room in Princeton, WV.
This post was first published on June 9 at 6:45 p.m. and then updated as additional material became available. The current version was published at 4:05 p.m. June 15. H/T to Mike Gangloff and Dana Stoker Cochran for helping me hunt down recordings. And to fellow poet Edison Jennings, whose new-found enthusiasm for Reese spurred me to continue writing on this post. Also to Jon Lohman and John Maeder for their encouragement.
The late West Virginia blues and gospel wonder Nat Reese had Virginia connections
Nathaniel H. ‘‘Nat’’ Reese was born March 4, 1924 up the road from here in Salem, Virginia on Water Street --where his father worked for the coal and ice company in Roanoke and did custodial work at Hollins College. Reese maintained his musical links with our area, playing often in Roanoke (where he was often the highlight of the Blue Ridge Blues Society's Blues and BBQ Festival), Blacksburg (where he played with Doc Herling at the Cellar) and Floyd (at FloydFest and the Pine Tavern.)
Now comes sad news of his death on June 8 from Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program (VFP) (email) of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities.
Seaver Funeral Home in Princeton says the service there will be open to the public, with Reverend Barry Early of Harvest Outreach Center, Princeton, officiating:
11 a.m., Saturday June 16
Seaver Funeral Home
1507 North Walker Street
Goldenseal Magazine,which has posted wonderful photos on fb. One of my favorites shows Reese with his grandson in 1987 taken by Mike Keller, used courtesy of Goldenseal.
Virginia Folklife Program and Reese
Reese's most recent recording, "Save a Seat for Me, " is still available as a CD from VFP. John Maeder (email, fb portrait business page) wrote the bio for the CD and Jon Lohman included Reese's explanation for each song. I've included the explanations with each videos I was able to locate, which you'll find below. I've got the track list at the bottom of this post.
In "A Man and a Half," Lohman writes,
One of his favorite lines to sing was “If you make it into Glory before I do, save a seat for me.”So, in Reese's memory, here's a video from the Virginia Folklife Program of Reese singing the title cut from the VFP CD.
I have no doubt they did.
"Save a seat for me"
On the liner notes for the CD Reese says,
That was from Archie Brownlee with the Five Blind Boys out of Mississippi, not the ones from Alabama. He died in 1955 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Archie’s real name was Wickerson, I mean his blood people. He was raised by the Brownlee family in Shady Side, Michigan. Archie would come up to Detroit every year to sing in that quartet contest downtown. Archie would come over to the house three and four days a week and just set around and play music and sing. He was sitting there singing The Lord’s Prayer and he said, “I got a good song!” He sung it over and over again. One of his buddies was a baritone. So Archie started singing it again and he started singing that baritone part and I started singing tenor and playing the guitar. Then it began to kind of sink in a little bit. I began to like it. Then I fell in love with it. And that’s how I learned it, singing it with Archie in my house. That was on Mullet Street in Mt. Clemens, back in 1955."Too Many Bad Habits"
Lest you think Reese had only heaven on his mind, Reese's repertoire included this bawdy song by Johnny Nicholas, who owns and runs a café outside of Fredericksburg, Texas. Here's a video of Reese performing the number at the 2010 Floydfest:
Reese, on the liner notes explains that he only sings this song in adult company:
I was awful cautious never to use profanity in my songs. I don’t use it. I do a family show, and you can bring your children to my show. Too Many Bad Habits is as far as I ever bend over with a song. And a lot of times I won’t do it until the last part of my concert, and if I see a child in the audience I won’t sing it.I know that might make me too of a high-handed of a guy, but that’s just the way I am. And I won’t change on that.Here's a 9 1/2 minute video of a version I like even better of Reese performing "Too Many Bad Habbits" at the Blues and BBQ Fest on July 21 2007 It come via Hoppy Vaughan (email, website) who is playing with Reese, my friend from New River Free Press Days, Rich Rittenhouse of Chicken Wings and Gravy (website) and Red Ricks. Rich posted an short excerpt at YouTube here.
And video of the same song from 2011, with an introduction from Jon Lohman. Reese is playing solo in a a bit more melancholy style at Floyd Fest. It comes from the Roanoke Times channel at You Tube via the paper's music reporter Tad Jenkins at his cutNscratch blog. I've just been in touch with Tad and he's planning to write something on Reese for the paper.
"Just A Dream"
Here's video of Reese performing at the 2010 Floydfest.
I was about 18 years old and I heard a song almost like “Just a Dream” and I never could get the right tone and the right sound of the verse so I made up the rest of it. It wasn’t that version, it was another song, but it ended up what I call “Just a Dream.”He describes the song as a "blues and a love song combined in another this video of a 1995 performance in Germany in which his long-time partner "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, plays not fiddle, but mandolin and does back-up vocals. Contrast these versions with those of the songwriter, "Big Bill Broonzy" performing it in the film Low Light and Blue Smoke by Belgian filmmaker Jacques Boigelot.
And one last version, a (slightly mistitled) video of a performance at Gary Bowlings House of Art in Bluefield, WV uploaded to YouTube in 2008.
"Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do"
In this video, Reese sings at Culture Fest in Pipestem in 2009. According to Maeder he learned the song off a Billy Holiday recording. (Maybe 1951?) For contrast, here's Bessie Smith's 1923 version and Eric Clapton's re-creation. The reference to "ham and bacon" seems to be from Jimmy Witherspoon, but Reese sings a version that talks about sharing money with his lover, rather than fighting and shooting her, that can be found there and in other versions.
"Exactly like you"
This video is from the same gig of another romantic song, according to Maeder from the 1930 Broadway production “International Revue.” He says that Reese learned it from several 78rpm recordings by different bands.
B.B. King wrote this as “Sneakin’ Around With You.” Jon Lohman noted that Reese always sang the lyrics as "slippin' around," which I find interesting because country star Ernest Tubb used that expression in his own song about infidelity. Here is a video Reese with Chris Sutton of C and S Railroad behind the cultural center at the Vandalia Gathering which Sutton posted to YouTube in 2008.
I got that from one of BB King’s shows I saw on TV. My grandson recorded it for me. It’s one of the songs BB likes to sing.Other songs not on the CD
Here's a video of Reese in Huntington singing, "WV Blues Man" at the 2010 Diamond Teeth Mary Blues and Arts Festival.
I love this video of Reese performing "Since I Fell for You" with Phil Wiggins at the 2010 Richmond Folk Festival, when the theme was "From Maritime to Mountain Time."
My absolute favorite, though, is Reese on mandolin in the video below performing "John Henry" with Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong playing an extraordinary fiddle. (Armstrong is singing and Graham Anderson is on contrabass.)
Reese talks about the move to WV and coal mining
In this interview with Michael Kline of Elkins, WV (email, website), published in Goldenseal Magazine in 1987, Reese recounts his life up until 1981. Reese had been in West Virginia since 1928, when his father moved the family to Itmann in Wyoming County because coal jobs were plentiful there.
You know how rumours go - you can shake money off the trees! So he decided he'd kind of like to shake a couple of these trees. He came out here and worked on the Virginian Railroad for about 58 years, and he still didn't find that money tree.In early 1934, his family moved to Princeton in Mercer County, where he was living at the time of his death.
Once in Princeton, Reese musical ranging from big-name jazz musicians to local black musicians to the country performers on radio shows such as the Grand Ole Opry. He learned to play guitar, as well as piano, organ, bass, and string harp. After classes at Genoa High School, he'd work in the mines. As he told Kline,
Oh, I first went in about 17 or 18, somewhere along in there. I would work a while and then I would go to school, and then I'd work a while and then go to the railroad. I guess I had about eight years in the mines, something like that. I worked in a lot of small mines up this way, you know, these little one- and two-horse mines up here in Matoaka.A few more biographical notes
Back, say, in the early '40's and back in there, boy, you had to do your own shooting. You'd blow your holes, cap up your own powder, and boy, that put out a smoke and a gas that was hard to inhale. And you'd have to get that out and move that rock. Oh, you'd have to go back on that powder. You shoot it and then you take your shovel, a No. 4 shovel, and fan the smoke, to go back in there so you can hurry up and start loading, set your timber and start loading, you see.
And you had to do your own brattice work. Brattice is nothing but burlap, you've seen burlap bags. It was cut in great big sheets and you would nail it on the posts, on your timbers, and that's how you got air to the coal face where you worked. And it didn't work good. Now, I'll just tell you, it didn't work good.
Well, now they got a law, said you must have 10 years, or better, or you wouldn't have black lung. Well, two could be loading in a place, and that dust would be so bad 'till I couldn't see you over there. I know you're over there because I can hear you shoveling, but I can't see you.
And, oh my God! you cough that stuff up. I bet you the last mine I worked in, it was three years afterwards that I was still coughing up black. And I don't know how many years that it was just brown, just like I was chewing tobacco, or something. Two or three years of that is black lung. I've got it now. I passed my test for it.
Reese played jazz and blues on Bill Farmer’s Saturday night show on radio station WHIS Bluefield and attended Bluefield State College for two years. During and after his college years, he was part of a dance band that played jazz, polkas, and blues throughout the southern coalfields.
Reese only left West Virginia to serve in the army during World War II and then in the early 1950's to work construction jobs in Michigan. He returned to West Virginia in 1959 to work for the State Road Commission and then as a photographic silkscreen printer at Rockwell International’s aviation plant in Princeton from 1962 until 1975
According to the online WV Encyclopedia, recordings by Reese include Just a Dream and West Virginia Blues by the West Virginia Blues Man [sic].
Just a Dream
(Elkins, WV: Augusta Heritage Records, 1988)
With with his late partner "Louie Bluie" Armstrong on fiddle and Ralph Gordon
on bass (whom you may know from Trapezoid and Freda and the Acoustic Attitude.)
- Just a dream
- There'll be some changes made
- Since I fell for you
- Ain't nobody's business
- Hello baby
- You left me
- The preacher and the bear
- Darlin' I love you
- Key to the highway
- Shanty town
West Virginia Blues Man
I could only find the mention online of this CD through an archived copy of the website for Fiddletunes out of Logan West Virginia. I'll check with Keller, who has worked on the Encyclopedia to see if he knows what happened to the company. Here's a picture of the album cover and the tracklist:
- Ain't Gonna Throw This Away
- Don't Leave Me
- I Got a Sweet Little Angel
- Tired Of Slippin' Around
- It's Your Time Now (It'll Be My Time After a While)
- Shanty In Old Shanty Town
- Sick and Down
- The Lonesome Laundromat
- Since I Fell For You
- Ain't Nobody's Business
- There'll Be Some Changes Made
- Key To the Highway
Reese played "Black and Blue Blues" on this 2007 album.
Save a Seat for Me
- The Preacher and the Bear--George Fairman (1881-1962) of Front Royal Virginia (audio)
- Just a Dream--William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy (1893-1958)
- Exactly Like You--Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh
- There’ll Be Some Changes Made--Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet
- Take My Hand, Precious Lord--Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993)
- Down And Out Blues--Arthur L. Sizemore
- ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do--Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins
- Juice Headed Woman-- RL Jones of North Carolina a.k.a. “Guitar Gabriel.” (audio)
- Laundromat Blues Sandy Jones Jr.
- I Ain’t Gonna Throw It Away--Howard Armstrong(fiddler and Reese's late performing partner)
- Key To The Highway-- Big Bill Broonzy
- Too Many Bad Habits--Johnny Nicholas of Fredericksburg, Texas.
- Don’t Deceive Me (Please Don’t Go)--Chuck Willis
- On The Sunny Side of the Street-- Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh
- Slippin’ Around--B.B. King
- Save A Seat For Me-- Clifford Driver
Reese received the John Henry Award in 1988 and the Vandalia Award (West Virginia's highest folklife honor) in 1995.
In 2003, Reese was one of the featured performers at the Smithsonian's 37th Annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall, Washington in DC. The Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage had chosen as one of the festival's themes "Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony," in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the "Bristol Sessions."
In 2009, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame inducted him as a member. Here's a video from the Hall of Fame which goes into greater detail than I have and includes some of his music. At the site, there's also an audio recording of "Blues Jumped a Rabbit."
So let's close the video section of this post with a (fuzzy) one of another performance of "Save a Seat for Me." Below, on the occasion of his induction in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in Charleston, Reese performs with harmonica virtuoso--and one of my favorite musicians--Phil Wiggins (email, website). (Warning turn down the audio--the applause will deafen you if you're wearing earphones.)
Reese and Cephas and Wiggins at Augusta
Wiggins, of course, played with guitar player John Cephas, who died in 2009. Both of them knew Reese from the annual Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops at Davis and Elkins College where they all taught.
On the liner notes for the cut of "Down And Out Blues" Reese told Maeder that Cephas once told him at Augusta,
You got one of the most original blues voices that I ever heard in my life. There’s something about your voice that I ain’t got and a lot of these other guys ain’t got either.Reese replied,
Well, I come from old stock and somewhere I learned something from somebody or stole something from somebody. But I got it and I’m using it!If there's a heaven, I'll bet Reese is using that blues voice with Cephas right now...