Ola Belle Reed selected by Library of Congress for special preservation

Ola Belle Reed, the first album on Rounder Records by this iconic North Carolina singer and banjo player, has been chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry.

Each year the National Recording Preservation Board selects as many as several dozen recordings to be preserved in perpetuity. The list, now reaching 500 items, includes commercial music in every American style, plus spoken word, field recordings, comedy, and broadcast transcriptions. Anyone is eligible to nominate either individual songs or albums for conservation, which the board describes thusly: “Recordings selected for the National Recording Registry are those that are culturally, historically or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”

This self-titled record was released in 1973 shortly after Rounder launched in 1970, long before it had acquired the industry status it enjoys today. Its three founders were still selling LPs from the back of their van, but Ola Belle Reed struck a chord right away among lovers of authentic, traditional mountain music. Reed’s voice was the real deal, as true to the Appalachian old time style as could be imagined, and the album deeply influenced the generation of acoustic musicians growing up at the time.

Ken Irwin of Rounder recalls how one of her songs became a stock number in the Del McCoury repertoire.

“After seeing Ola Belle perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I approached Del McCoury who was just about to record his first album with us about a song we heard Ola Belle perform, which I thought would be a great song for him. When I told him about High on a Mountain and Ola Belle, he said he knew her and would get in touch with her about the song. He did, and when he came in for the recording session he had the song on his list, as well as a song written by Ola Belle’s brother Alec called Fear Not. Both were recorded and made the album with High on a Mountain becoming the album title. The song remains one of Del’s most popular songs to this day.’’

The sound on this classic album was raw and unpolished, though Ola Belle had been performing professionally since the early 1950s. But she never gave up the Appalachian culture, even after moving to southern Pennsylvania with her family. She and her brother worked together in several bands in Maryland and Pennsylvania, before making her first recordings for Starday in the early ’60s.

Marian Leighton-Levy, another of the Rounder founders, remembers Reed as a giant.

“Ola Belle Reed was one of those larger-than-life characters, from whose largesse everyone who came in contact with her benefited. Not only uniquely important and widely recognized for her soulful songwriting, singing, and banjo-playing, she was a powerful community spokesperson for displaced southerners like herself. She had a large voice, and she was proud to use it in speaking speaking up for those forgotten and left behind, only adding to the beauty of her songs.”

Irwin remembers how much he enjoyed getting to spend time with Reed over the year.

“Ola Belle became a friend and we often stopped off to visit with her on our way south as did many other people. The Reeds always made everyone feel welcome, well fed and comfortable.

I would frequently take our Revox reel to reel tape recorder on my visits, and spent many hours recording her, sometimes on her own, but mostly with her son David playing guitar. On one such visit, we tried to record every song she knew. This took several days and I’m sure we only scratched the surface.”

Reed suffered a severe stroke in 1987 that ended her performing career, and died in 2002.

Ola Belle Reed is still available as a digital download.

Congratulations to Reed and Rounder for being recognized in this way.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.