Fiddler (he also played banjo and harmonica) James Henry Neel Reed was born April 28, 1884, in a typically rural Appalachian setting in the Monroe County region of southeastern West Virginia. His background combined roots from Ireland on his father's side to the native American background of his grandmother. As is the case with many old-time musicians, picking an instrument was a common practice among various members of his family, including fiddle-playing uncle Josh Reed. But musical influence also came from the community at large, and one can only imagine what sort of fascinating musical influences might have been hanging around in the late part of the 19th century. In later interviews with fiddler and researcher Alan Jabbour, Reed pointed out one such player, a fife player named Quince Dillon who had played alongside troops in both the Mexican and Civil Wars.
As a young adult, Reed worked for a time in coal mines, eventually settling in Glen Lyn, VA, and had a long career working in various capacities for the Appalachian Power Plant. Unlike many of the legendary old-time players from this period, Reed did not make records for the various talent scouts that were combing the hills looking for old-time fiddlers and such. He was certainly active in the community as a musician, but never on any kind of a professional basis. All his performances were limited to various social gatherings, the real home ground for this type of music. Political developments based around the organization of labor unions in this region led to his dismissal from the power plant, as he apparently refused to keep his mouth shut when told to. He finished out his working life in the hire of a manufacturing concern called the Celanese Corporation.
His time in the limelight actually began after his retirement, when Jabbour sought him out at his home in Virginia in 1966 after hearing that Reed was still alive and playing from fellow old-time player Oscar Wright. Then a graduate student at Duke University in Chapel Hill, Jabbour felt the meeting with Reed was a life-changing experience and devoted much of his professional career to carrying on the traditions of Reed's fiddle style. Upon his own retirement from the American Folk Life Center in 1999, Jabbour founded the Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists. Reed was apparently the source of a number of fiddle arrangements of tunes such as "Kitchen Girl," "Shady Grove," and "Ducks in the Pond" that older fiddlers had been performing. Several of the new generation string bands, the Hollow Rock String Band and the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, worked up many versions of Reed's tunes and his reputation thus began to spread through the old-time music audience. Tapes of Reed himself that were done by Jabbour or part of the Library of Congress collection were eventually released. Several of Reed's children are musicians, including the regional country & western artist Dean Reed. There is another Dean Reed, a mysterious country singer who defected to East Germany during the late '50s, but this is no relation to the Appalachian fiddler.