Susan Reed was one of the lost stars of the post-World War II music world. At one point, in the second half of the 1940s, the barely 20-year-old singer/harpist/zitherist was playing some of the most prominent nightspots in New York to enthusiastic audiences and appearing regularly on radio as well as the newly established television medium, and was courted by the biggest record companies in the world, Columbia Masterworks and RCA Victor. Reed was part of a new breed of entertainer in that genre, along with Burl Ives, Pick Temple, and other folk-based performers who had begun coming to prominence late in the Second World War and immediately after.
Although she never achieved a level of popularity anything like Ives, she left behind a group of highly prized recordings that range from traditional Irish and American songs to adaptations of classical repertoire. The daughter of Daniel Reed, an entertainer, actor, theatrical director, and playwright, she was born in 1927 in Columbia, SC, and, thanks to her father's career, was practically raised to live the life of a performer. Reed traveled extensively with him, and the Reed home was often visited by musicians, singers, and dancers. Among those she came to know were Carl Sandburg, the poet, author, and singer, and Leadbelly, both of whom provided her with an introduction to American folk music. Her introduction to Irish folk music, in turn, came through her father's friendship with members of Dublin's Abbey Theater Company, who were guests in their home during their visits to the United States.
Reed also attended folk song festivals with her father, and went to services at African-American churches, where the gospel music (some of it strongly folk-based) appealed to her as well. She was drawn to the sounds and traditions of the songs that she learned, and also took up the Irish harp. By her teens, she had mastered the instrument and also learned the autoharp and the zither. By that time, the Reed family had moved to New York City, where, during the Second World War, she performed for wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals. It was through those appearances that, with help from a local music critic, the proprietor of the club Cafe Society chose to seek Reed out. She was immediately booked into the club, and given her considerable appeal, Reed was an immediate hit with audiences. This, in turn, led to appearances on radio and then the brand-new medium of television, as well as her formal concert debut at Town Hall in 1946, when she was all of 19. A national concert tour followed in short order -- the latter also featured Reed's musician brother Jerry, who passed away soon after.
Her first recordings soon followed, for RCA Victor, on a set of 78-rpm discs. In 1948, at age 21, Reed also made her first and only feature film appearance, a co-starring role in Glamour Girl, a low-budget Sam Katzman production for Columbia Pictures that also starred Gene Krupa & His Orchestra -- in it, she played Jennie Higgins, a backwoods girl who sings folk songs and is brought to the big city to perform. And in 1949, she was engaged by Columbia Masterworks to record a somewhat wider repertoire, including an adaptation of Joseph Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, which was released as a 10" LP in 1950, and which she also performed at Town Hall. By the start of the 1950s, she had a thriving career, including a second 10" album of traditional American songs on Columbia, and had appeared on-stage with the likes of Lena Horne and Josh White. Claudia Cassidy, writing in The Chicago Tribune, said of Reed, "She creates a pool of enchantment and...is the heroine of every song she sings."
She became known not only for her singing and harp, but for her work on the zither as well -- along with Ruth Welcome, Reed was a beneficiary of the craze for the latter instrument caused by the movie The Third Man when it opened in America in 1950. Reed later recorded albums for Jac Holzman's Elektra Records, and was working steadily across the early '50s. She was never able to achieve mass appeal, however, and her acceptance among serious folk enthusiasts was also limited. In a sense, she was a victim of her own eclecticism -- she had sung some pop material in her early career, and her approach to her folk material was far more sophisticated than hardcore folk listeners wanted. She was neither fish nor fowl, too pop for the most serious folk audiences and too folky for mainstream audiences. How she would have fared amid the late-'50s folk boom, with its various camps and wings -- juxtaposing pop influences, topicality, and authenticity -- is anyone's guess, but Reed never had a chance to find out.
Like various other folk artists who had the temerity to go against the grain and actually stand for something, Reed found herself blacklisted in the second half of the 1950s. She thus joined the ranks of Pete Seeger and the other members of the Weavers, and singers like Jo Mapes, who suddenly found themselves persona non grata in most major venues. As a result, her broadcast and recording career came to a halt and her performing eventually followed. Reed's work was mostly forgotten over the ensuing decades, except by dedicated record collectors and people with long memories. In 2006, however, her Elektra recordings were reissued on CD, spurring renewed interest in Reed and her work; one can only hope that her RCA Victor albums will someday reappear in some form as well. In her latter years Reed lived in Nyack, NY, where she owned a handicraft shop. Having left professional music long ago, she still performed occasionally for fundraising events into the late 2000s. Susan Reed died at a nursing home in Greenport, NY, on April 25, 2010. She was 84 years old.