Dock Reed

by Peter Stone

Born Zebediah Reed in Sumter County, Alabama, in 1898, “Dock” Reed lived there his entire life. He and his cousin Vera Ward Hall were perhaps John Lomax’s favorite performers, comparable, if not superior, in artistry, he believed, to Lead Belly. Dock, a deeply religious Baptist, led the singing in many local churches, and his repertoire, unlike Vera’s, was exclusively devotional. Jo Tartt, Jr., a white friend who made a striking photograph of Reed in 1970, depicted this farmer and basket maker as a “south Alabama preacher, molasses maker, [and] cedar fence-post cutter.” Though Dock loved children, he and his wife Hattie had none of their own but reared two of his late sister’s.

Ruby Pickens Tartt (1880–1874), of Livingston, Alabama, daughter of a prominent white landowner, was a writer, painter, and distinguished local folklorist. She was close to Dock Reed, whom she had “discovered” at a Sunday afternoon church service, where “his rich voice had sounded out from the group like a trumpet call” (Virginia Pounds Brown and Laurella Owens, Toting the Lead Row: Ruby Pickens Tartt, Alabama Folklorist Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981, p. 8.). Along with Vera Ward Hall, Reed had performed frequently at entertainments that Mrs. Tartt arranged for visitors. Tartt brought them to the attention of John A. Lomax, then honorary curator to the Folk Song Division of the Library of Congress. He and his second wife, Ruby Terrill, recorded the cousins on repeated occasions during their 1937–1940 Southern collecting trips.Some these recording have been issued on the CD, Alabama: From Lullaby to Blues, in the Deep River of Song series (Rounder 11661–1829–2), on which Doc can be heard singing, “What is the Soul of Man?,” “Moaning” (“I’ll Soon Be Gone”), and an especially beautiful rendition one of his personal favorites, “Job, Job.” He recorded at least eight versions of this, each time with Vera Hall, “seconding,” or “following after” during the verses (as traditionally practiced by the congregation) and then joining him in the chorus. During a six-day visit to Livingston, John A. (assisted by his wife and his son Alan) also captured a performance (on May 26, 1939) of “Amazing Grace” by Vera, Dock, and Jesse Allison (AFS 2684 A1). See the Library of Congress recording, Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.

In 1942 Reed began having trouble with his foot, owing to a tubercular bone; by 1944 the leg had to be amputated just below the knee. Lomax and Tartt gave him both financial and moral support. Nolan Porterfield, in his biography of John A. Lomax, Last Cavalier (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996),reports that Dock had told Mrs. Tartt that “Mister Lomac” was the best man he ever knew; Dock and Lomax were indeed particularly fond of each other. Dock’s “eyes seemed to look at distant objects . . . as if he might be seeing ‘far-off, half-remembered things’. . . . But his speaking and singing voice — deep, vibrant, resonant, tremulous at times — always tore at my heartstrings,” wrote Lomax in his autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (New York: Macmillan, 1947). “Dock’s soul must have had intimations of immortality not given to ordinary mortals.”

In Virginia Brown and Laurella Owens’s book, Toting the Lead Row, Reed mourns, on learning from Mrs. Tartt of John’s death on January 26, 1948, “What I’m gonner do? He was such a good friend, such a good man. I’m gonner miss him so bad.” A few days later, she showed to the still suffering Dock the reference to him and to the words of a song he had sung so movingly, “Weep like a willow, moan like a dove, / You can’t get to Heaven ’thout you go by love,” with which John Lomax had closed his autobiography. Only then could Dock admit to her, “I’m pacified, Miss Ruby. Glory, glory.” Tartt died on November 29, 1974: Dock sang “Steal Away, Steal Away Home” at her funeral.

He died on January 4, 1979, and was buried in Old Shiloh Cemetery, near Livingston.