Looking for a theme song to accompany the current economic malaise? Slide over to the Internet Archive and give a listen to Blind Alfred Reed's old-timey protest classic "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live."
Born in the hills of Virginia in 1880‚ fiddle player‚ singer‚ and songwriter Reed cut his first acetates at pioneer record producer Ralph Peer's infamous Bristol‚ Tennessee recording sessions of 1927. Reed didn't make as big a splash as some of the others at the sessions‚ which included The Carter Family and "Singin' Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers. But his records sold‚ and he continued to record for two more years.
"How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live‚" Reed's best-known tune‚ was recorded on December 4‚ 1929‚ little more than a month after the start of the Great Depression. It includes a call for populist action that characterizes much of his work:
Oh‚ it's time for every man to be awake‚
We pay fifty cents a pound when we ask for steak.
When we get our package home‚
A little wad of paper with a gristle and bone
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?
Reed didn't limit his critiques to economic conditions. He railed against hypocritical preachers‚ drunkards‚ lawyers‚ women who bobbed their hair‚ and generally anyone who flouted Biblical principles as he interpreted them. But at the core of his best work was an unyielding compassion for the ordinary man's suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful.
Blind Alfred Reed recorded only twenty songs. He lived most of his life in obscurity and died in 1956 at age 75‚ probably of starvation. But he left a legacy of protest songs that paved the way for social activist singers from Woody Guthrie to Michael Franti. To check out Reed's catalogue‚ try Blind Alfred Reed 1927-1929 (Document Records‚ 2005) or Always Lift Him Up-A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed. This 2007 Proper Records compilation includes covers of Reed tunes by Kathy Mattea‚ Connie Smith‚ Tim and Mollie O'Brien‚ and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel.